After years of increasingly blatant Oscar politicking, this Academy Awards season seemed comparatively gentle until Thursday, when a furor erupted over a "Gangs of New York" advertisement on behalf of Martin Scorsese, the film's director, that incensed some Oscar voters and led to an unusually harsh rebuke from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The flap began when Miramax Film Corp., which co-financed and released "Gangs of New York," enlisted Oscar-winning director and former academy President Robert Wise to write an opinion column strongly recommending Scorsese for the best-director award. The article, which Wise said he did not fully write by himself, was then reprinted in advertisements in the Hollywood trade newspapers, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.
Though Oscar promotions for both nominations and awards typically involve a barrage of hype, publicity and advertising, the latest controversy has brought into the open what academy executives and many in Hollywood privately have bemoaned for several years: that the scorched-earth quest for Oscars is out of control.
Miramax's critics charge that soliciting a testimonial from a legendary -- and influential -- director for the purpose of engineering an Oscar victory went beyond the already loose Oscar rules of engagement. To these detractors, Miramax, which has been at the center of a number of Oscar controversies, is turning Oscar balloting into a sham.
The academy leadership, which rarely comments on disputes, was so incensed by Miramax's conduct that it went public with its complaints.
Academy President Frank Pierson said the Wise column explicitly breaches a decree that all academy presidents issue to the membership: namely, that voters not reveal to anyone how they are casting their ballots. "It's an outright violation of academy rules," Pierson said.
"The reaction among our membership has been real dismay, anger and outrage," Pierson said, noting that the reaction was so strong that an unspecified number of the roughly 5,800 Oscar voters have asked that completed ballots be returned so that academy members can strike Scorsese's name. The academy said mailed ballots would not be returned.
The "Gangs of New York" clash is but the latest Academy Awards spat involving Miramax, a studio that has transformed Oscar campaigning. More often than not, Miramax's aggressive promotions have yielded numerous Oscar wins in top categories.
Bruce Davis, the academy's executive director, said of the Wise column: "I am not aware of another academy president agreeing to sign an opinion piece endorsing a particular nominee."
Lois Smith, Scorsese's publicist, said, "Marty was very touched by what Bob Wise said. But he never knew it was going to become an advertisement. He was not happy." Scorsese has never won an Oscar.
The controversy exploded during the final stretch of the Oscar season; the ballots are due Tuesday and the awards ceremony is March 23. Earlier in the campaign, some suggested that rules were being bent by a spate of private parties and celebrity-studded screenings sponsored by academy members.
Awards arm-twisting is part of Hollywood's everyday currency, but the use of the 88-year-old director's endorsement of Scorsese crossed a line for some.
"There is just something extremely vulgar about the idea of a blatant campaign advertisement like this," said Barry Levinson, the Academy Award-winning director of "Rain Man." "You look at an ad like that and say, 'My God.' Why don't we just give money to people and tell them how to vote?"
Miramax said Thursday that it had pulled the ad, which it said was published six times. "We were completely unaware that this was something academy members found offensive, and since there is nothing that addresses this in the academy marketing guidelines, we certainly did not know this practice was a violation of academy rules," Rick Sands, Miramax's chief operating officer, said in a statement.
Wise said he had not heard that anyone was displeased with his column, which originally was published in the Los Angeles Daily News on March 6. Wise said the piece originally was written by an assistant, Mike Thomas, and that he then revised Thomas' draft.
Miramax subsequently published the column under the headline "Two time Academy Award Winner Robert Wise declares Scorsese deserves the Oscar for 'Gangs of New York.' "
In the column, Wise writes that Scorsese's film, nominated for 10 Oscars, is "both a remarkable movie in its own right, and in many ways a summation of [Scorsese's] entire body of work.... "
Hollywood studios have grown increasingly dependent on people besides movie critics to champion their films. Miramax enlisted Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman to endorse "Chocolat," and last year 20th Century Fox Film Corp. published ads for "Moulin Rouge" with blurbs from both Wise and "Singin' in the Rain" filmmaker Stanley Donen.
It's not unusual for publications such as the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times to receive unsolicited endorsements of movies from noteworthy filmmakers and literary figures. Last December, The Times published an article by director Mike Nichols praising "Adaptation" soon after the release of that film. The Times also has received an opinion piece by novelist Michael Chabon admiring the work of playwright and screenwriter David Hare, who adapted "The Hours" and also is nominated for an Oscar.
Chabon's book "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" is being developed as a motion picture by producer Scott Rudin, who also made best-picture nominee "The Hours." Chabon currently is writing the screenplay for "Kavalier." Rudin joined in criticizing Miramax (which co-financed "The Hours"), and drew a distinction between Chabon's article and Wise's.
"Michael Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who is in the process of adaptation himself and responded, unasked, to another adaptation," Rudin said.
"It's not an advertisement. It's an editorial -- an objective piece of criticism which includes both positive and negative comments about the work at hand."
What distinguished Miramax's "Gangs of New York" advertisement is not only how it was published but also the vitriol of the backlash. Instead of using a line or two from Wise's column in a movie theater ad, Miramax published his lengthy essay. The ad clearly is directed at academy voters and not audience members, since nowhere in the advertisement did Miramax list the theaters or show times for the film.