A year ago, as Oscar night approached, talk in the industry was not so much about which of the best picture nominees was the most deserving, but rather the barrage--OK, the excess--of campaign ads placed by Miramax for “Shakespeare in Love” (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, “Life Is Beautiful”) and DreamWorks on behalf of “Saving Private Ryan.” With charges and countercharges of influence-peddling and hypocrisy, it all took on the aura of a holy war for the soul of Hollywood.
Guesstimates for Miramax’s Oscar budget for “Shakespeare” ran as high as $15 million--a figure the company resolutely denied, swearing that the number was actually in the $2-million range (still not exactly a small piece of change). Perceptions to the contrary, DreamWorks took out even more trade paper ads than Miramax last year. This year’s campaign has been at least as expensive, as the two big players from last year go at it again--DreamWorks for its “American Beauty” and Miramax for “The Cider House Rules.”
Still, from the hue and cry, one could be forgiven for thinking that Oscar campaigning was something that had just then been thought up by media gurus. In reality, campaigning for the Academy Awards is nearly as old as the Academy Awards themselves. Here’s a look back at the history of Oscar wars and some notable campaigns.
Louis B. Mayer had been the driving force behind the creation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, so it’s only fitting that his studio, MGM, should have been responsible for the first Oscar ad in the Hollywood trades. The year was 1935, the movie was Metro’s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness,” and the newspaper was the Hollywood Reporter. The ad featured an Oscar with the title of the movie hung around its neck while, nearby, the studio’s trademark, Leo the Lion, had his arms outstretched. With the self-aggrandizing that characterized MGM, the copy read, “Leo, you’ve given so much . . . get ready to receive.”
It turned out to be an inauspicious beginning for an enduring Oscar tradition--"Ah, Wilderness” received not a single nomination.
That failure may account for why ads didn’t reappear for several more years. In 1940, though, RKO thought it should remind Hollywood that Ginger Rogers was no longer “just” a song-and-dance girl or light comedian. Surely, she (and the studio) deserved to be rewarded for her swell change of pace playing a working girl in love in the film “Kitty Foyle.” And RKO wasn’t just talking through its hat--it listed eight quotes from reviewers and columnists all suggesting that an Academy Award was in order.
Rogers ended up sailing past her former RKO rival Katharine Hepburn (who was reinventing herself at MGM with “The Philadelphia Story”) and Joan Fontaine, another ex-RKO contractee and the year’s biggest new star, in “Rebecca,” to win the best actress Oscar. RKO had, thus, created the first successful Oscar ad.
Within a few years, such plugs became more and more prevalent. Producer David O. Selznick seems to have handed over a considerable portion of his income through the years to the Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety during Oscar season. For an entire week in January 1945, a picture of Selznick contract actor Joseph Cotten graced the back covers of the trade papers, accompanied by raves for his work in the popular sentimental romance “I’ll Be Seeing You.” It was all for naught; neither he nor the picture was nominated.
It appears that the first use of that ubiquitous three-word phrase of Oscar campaigning-- “for your consideration"--occurred in January 1948, when a multi-page advertisement stated, “RKO respectfully submits the following efforts for your consideration for Academy Award nominations.” Of the six movies mentioned--which included “Mourning Becomes Electra,” “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” and even a documentary, “Design for Death"--all received nominations, except for the crummy big-budget John Wayne vehicle, “Tycoon,” which was specifically earmarked for color cinematography and special effects consideration.
That same Oscar season saw a new low in hyperbole. Darryl F. Zanuck’s didn’t want academy voters to think his pet project, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” was simply another admirable movie. No, ad after ad proclaimed the anti-Semitism drama to be “the most highly acclaimed motion picture in the history of screen achievement.”
In Hollywood, where exaggeration is often the highest form of praise, the ad campaign worked: “Gentleman’s Agreement” received three Oscars, including best picture of 1947.
Oscar campaigning grew on a steady, even course until “The Alamo” shook things up for the 1960 awards. Producer-director-star Wayne and his publicist Russell Birdwell started off with a lengthy (183 pages!) press release extolling the movie and likening Wayne to George Washington, only the movie star was “storming the celluloid heights for God and country.”
Then they ran dozens of ads stating, for example, that everyone involved with the historical epic had used cinema as “the greatest force for good” ever known to mankind. And they informed the industry how many American citizens had received paychecks from the production--11,588--at a time of high unemployment.
The implication was clear: If you didn’t support “The Alamo” in the Oscar race and voted for something like “The Apartment,” you weren’t patriotic. (“The Apartment” went on to win best picture.) When Wayne and Birdwell heard complaints about the unseemliness of such aggressive tactics, their next ad argued, “If men seeking the Presidency can be understood and admired for stating frankly and uninhibitedly, ‘I want your vote,’ then there is no reason why men and women devoted to the fine art of film entertainment should be less timid in expressing their hopes and aspirations.”
Whether it was because of or despite the promotional push, “The Alamo” pulled in six nominations, including one for best picture. But Hollywood hadn’t seen anything yet. Chill Wills, a corn pone character actor who had been best known as the voice of Francis the Talking Mule, was “The Alamo’s” sole acting nominee. Apparently feeling that the veteran Birdwell wasn’t hitting hard enough, Wills hired his own publicist, a fellow with the unforgettable name of “Bow-Wow” Wojciehowicz.
The duo placed a series of ads in which they alphabetically listed every member of the academy alongside a picture of Wills and the declaration, “Win, lose or draw, you’re all my cousins and I love you.” It was signed, “Your cousin, Chill Wills.” One member placed a response ad: “Dear Mr. Chill Wills. I am delighted to be your cousin but I voted for Sal Mineo.” It was signed, Groucho Marx.
If Groucho’s broadside wasn’t enough to sink Wills’ chances, the actor’s next stunt certainly was. He ran an ad showing the entire cast of “The Alamo” with a caption, “We of ‘The Alamo’ cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives in the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar as best supporting actor. Cousin Chill’s acting was great.” It was signed, “Your Alamo Cousins.” The ad appeared in the the Hollywood Reporter, but Daily Variety refused to run it.
This was too much even for Wayne, and he placed an ad in Daily Variety decrying the “bad taste” of Wills’ ad and stating that no one at Wayne’s production company had anything to do with it. Wills lost best supporting actor to Peter Ustinov in “Spartacus,” but at the Oscar ceremony, host Bob Hope didn’t let up. He got one of his biggest laughs with “I didn’t know there was any campaigning until I saw my maid wearing a Chill Wills button.”
“The Alamo” won only a single Oscar, best sound, and the reaction to Wills’ campaign proved a cautionary tale for future Oscar hopefuls--at least for a while.
Diana Ross, nominated as best actress for her performance as Billie Holiday in 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues,” is the poster girl for the wages of wretched excess. The singer was locked in a tight battle with “Cabaret’s” Liza Minnelli, so Motown--co-producer of the film--ran nine full-page ads over an intense 2 1/2-week period. There was no copy, simply a picture of Ross, and the ads progressively traced the arc of the movie as Lady Day went from wide-eyed innocent to straitjacketed drug addict.
Then finally, for the piece de resistance, all nine of these black-and-white pictures were reprinted on one page, while opposite a full-color picture showed Diana/Billie triumphantly raising her arms on stage. The ad read: “Diana Ross, an extraordinary actress.” Nowadays, 10 advertisements is no big thing, but in comparison to the efforts of the other nominees back then, the campaign for Ross reeked of pure hard sell.
Voters were turned off, and Minnelli received the Oscar.
But while most Oscar ads have eschewed the tastelessness of a Chill Wills and the naked desire of Motown on behalf of Diana Ross, they haven’t necessarily avoided silliness. For decades, a common-sense approach was used in the placement of trade ads, and only those few movies and performers with a reasonable shot at academy recognition would be promoted. (There were occasional exceptions--Milton Berle sought a supporting actor nomination for appearing as himself for five minutes in 1960’s “Let’s Make Love.”)
From the late 1970s into the early ‘90s though, things got out of hand with “your consideration” being asked for the likes of William Shatner in one or another of the “Star Trek” movies or Steven Segal for one of his action thrillers. It got to the point where Paramount sought best picture votes for 1982’s “Friday the 13th, Part 3--In 3-D.”
These days, though, rationality is generally back in style, and it’s almost impossible to find studio-placed ads that startle you with their absurdity. There still are occasionally, though, those individuals--call them dreamers, or call them delusional--who, despite no signs of encouragement by Oscar prognosticators, will mount a grass-roots campaign in hopes of a miracle. This year, for example, a talent agency appealed to voters to remember Sally Kirkland for her small role as Matthew McConaughey’s mother in the unloved “EDtv.” The ad featured 20 quotes, one of which was Daily Variety’s assessment that “Kirkland has her moments.”
Of course, other methods besides advertisements have been tried. During the late ‘60s, studios attempted to curry favor by accompanying academy screenings with elaborate cocktail parties and banquets, a ploy that is the only explanation for the nine nominations, including best picture, given to Fox’s critically denigrated 1967 “Doctor Dolittle.” Two years later, Universal held so many steak dinners for its historical drama “Anne of the Thousand Days,” that the film became known around town as “Anne of the Thousand Filets.”
This prodigality was criticized by the academy and critics as too blatant an attempt to buy votes and was subsequently abandoned, but slightly more subtle means were later employed. In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, exquisitely bound coffee-table books were a popular campaign tool. It eventually became clear, however, that rather than being appreciative, academy members were getting annoyed at having their living rooms cluttered with such oversized picture books as “The Making of the Prince of Tides.” Objects ranging from CDs to key chains with a movie’s logo on it have been used in the recent past to court voters, but, for the time being at least, studios seem to be hewing to the academy’s calls against such electioneering.
Sending videocassettes of eligible movies to academy members was initially a useful marketing tool, because studios would only give out their two or three most likely Oscar contenders. Now people receive copies of so many movies that the practice has pretty much lost any meaning. (One benefit of having these videos is that they can be taped over, so academy voters never have to buy blank cassettes again.)
And then every once in a while we get the up-close-and-personal campaign, the classic example being “Marty.” The little movie with Ernest Borgnine as a lonely butcher from the Bronx was the first--and, as far as I can tell, the only--film whose Oscar campaign budget was more than the cost of the movie itself ($400,000 versus $343,000).
In addition to an inundation of ads--including one informing the industry that 16-millimeter prints of “Marty” could be delivered to private screening rooms all along the Bel-Air circuit--the film’s production company, Hecht-Lancaster, spent the bucks on a series of attention-grabbing stunts: Here’s Ernest Borgnine appearing as the guest butcher at the opening of a supermarket in Santa Monica; there’s the actor receiving a gold urn from a union local of butchers, given to him for “portraying the meat-cutters of America as friendly, humble, sincere and accredited members of the human race.” (As Borgnine was presented with the award, starlets in bathing suits marched around with signs reading, “I love Marty!”)
All this foolishness paid off: “Marty” was named best picture of 1955, and Borgnine won best actor over a field that included Spencer Tracy, James Cagney and James Dean.
Five years later, when Melina Mercouri was nominated for her performance in the bawdy Greek comedy “Never on Sunday,” she showed she didn’t have a clue about how the game was played: “They say I can’t win unless I go back to Hollywood and make a campaign for the Oscar,” she said at the time to columnist Art Buchwald. “What kind of campaign should I make? I told them I’m not Kennedy. I’m an actress, not a politician. What do they want me to do--ring doorbells in Beverly Hills and say, ‘Good Day. My name is Melina Mercouri, and I would like you to vote for me as the best actress of the year’?” Not surprisingly, she didn’t win. (Elizabeth Taylor did for “Butterfield 8.”)
Personal politicking is much more subtle now than when Borgnine was chopping up porterhouse. You haven’t seen, say, Richard Farnsworth, best actor nominee for “The Straight Story,” at the opening of a lawn mower dealership, or fellow nominee Kevin Spacey of “American Beauty” judging a cheerleading contest.
Still, last year there was Roberto Benigni, who undertook what Mercouri had been loath to do and had the most spectacularly successful personal appearance campaign ever. Not terribly well-known in Hollywood when “Life Is Beautiful” opened and connected to a film that had originally courted controversy, Benigni seemed to show up anywhere a potential Oscar voter might be lurking.
The nice part for Miramax was that it didn’t have to spend much money or make a concerted effort to get Benigni seen. The studio’s good fortune was that people all around town inexplicably found Benigni’s self-indulgent shtick not insufferable, but--presumably because it was in broken English--charming, and his appearance at any function was considered a coup.
All Miramax really had to do was advise him that, yes, it would be smart to accept whatever invitation to whatever party or awards ceremony or TV show asked him. Benigni’s ubiquity kept him fresh in the minds of academy members, who essentially were voting for his off-screen antics rather than his acting, and a performance that won no critics’ awards ended up being named the year’s best.
By contrast, there was Ian McKellen of “Gods and Monsters,” who until about two weeks before the Oscars had seemed like a good bet for best actor. Sir Ian made the mistake of honoring a long-standing commitment and spent Oscar season appearing in repertory in Leeds, England, where academy voters are few and far between. During the previous summer, it was McKellen who, because of his acclaimed performance in “Enemy of the People” on stage at the Ahmanson, had been the toast of Los Angeles. Unfortunately for him, by the time Oscar balloting came along, that was ancient history.