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Split Decision Over ‘Hurricane,’ ‘Insider’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Controversy about the veracity of Universal Pictures’ “The Hurricane” appeared to take a toll Tuesday, when the film, once seen as a formidable Academy Award contender, garnered only one nomination--best actor for Denzel Washington.

The film, which tells the story of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s imprisonment on a false murder charge, has been accused of distorting history and falsifying Carter’s legal battles. But another movie that was similarly accused of fiddling with the truth--Disney’s tobacco whistle-blower saga “The Insider"--got a whopping seven Oscar nominations, raising questions about the importance of timing and the power of spin.

Disney’s “The Insider” was released in early November, nearly two months before “The Hurricane.” Did that give the furor more time to fade from academy voter’s minds? Could Universal have adopted a better strategy for dealing with the almost inevitable controversy that surrounds films that are pulled from the headlines?

“We’re not second-guessing our feelings toward the movie, our release of the movie or our publicity campaign at all. There’s no would’ve, should’ve, could’ve on this one,” Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider said. “We are exceedingly proud of the film. We were thunderstruck by it, and we felt its themes should have transcended the personal agendas that seemed to come into play after it was released.”

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The studio was relatively slow to react to criticism of the film from some of those involved in the Carter case. By contrast, “The Insider’s” filmmakers went on the offensive immediately in countering charges.

Snider said she was not sure that the controversy about the film was to blame for the lackluster academy reaction. But she acknowledged that she was having trouble reconciling the well-deserved acclaim for Washington’s performance with the lack of applause for director Norman Jewison and the film in general.

“What’s incredible to me is no one disputes Denzel’s brilliance. And he embodies ‘The Hurricane.’ So in the same way that it’s hard to reconcile when a film gets a best picture nomination but not best director, in this situation, if he’s great, then there’s greatness in this movie that wasn’t suitably acknowledged,” she said.

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Washington, meanwhile, said that when Jewison was passed over by the Golden Globe Awards and the Directors Guild Awards, “I could see this coming. I feel the saddest about Norman.” But Washington was reluctant to speculate about why Jewison was left out.

“If you’re asking me do I blame it on these different articles, I say no, I don’t think that’s totally true. I’d like to think that the voters in Hollywood are more savvy than that,” he said. “We all know how things work. I’ve been in three films about real people--'Cry Freedom,’ ‘Malcolm X’ and this one--and in all the films there was a controversy. Any time you base things on a true story it offends someone.”

Asked how he made sense of the movie’s single Oscar nod, Washington at first joked that he planned to visit the homes of each of the 5,607 voters to interview them about their reasoning. Then he added: “Something could be said for the timing, when ours came out. But I’m not going to say that.”

Director Michael Mann, who himself received three of “The Insider’s” seven nominations (for best picture, best director and best screenplay--co-written with Eric Roth--based on previously published material), said he was grateful that voters seemingly evaluated his film without regard to the flak it prompted in the press.

“When we set out to do the picture, we knew we were making a very controversial film and we knew there were two groups of people who weren’t going to like it a lot--the tobacco industry and CBS News. And they did not disappoint us,” he said. “But I don’t think it mattered, in our case. People knew who had an ax to grind and they kind of discounted it.”

Mann said that in his view, “The Insider” and “The Hurricane” raised “different issues altogether. We were faithful to what occurred, disingenuous hairsplitting aside. This isn’t a public relations document we made. It’s trying to bring an event to other people via the human experience. That’s what drama does.”


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