Times Staff Writer

What happens when pugnacious filmmaker Michael Moore, incendiary documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11" and Oscar gunslinger Harvey Weinstein team up for an Academy Award run? An explosive, and extremely risky, decision to pull “Fahrenheit” out of the documentary race to fight for consideration as best picture.

Moore said he got the idea -- it represents a first in Academy Awards history -- from veteran Oscar campaigner Weinstein, the Miramax co-chairman who is also an executive producer on the documentary.

While Moore’s gambit has definitely raised eyebrows around town, the filmmaker, last seen chuckling at Sen. John McCain’s barbs at the Republican National Convention in New York, insists that should he win he would leave politics alone, unlike two years ago. While accepting the best documentary Oscar for his film “Bowling for Columbine,” Moore drew loud boos -- and some cheers -- when he complained about President Bush as a “fictitious president” waging a war in Iraq for “fictitious reasons.”

“I promised Harvey that if this chance ever happens again, I would behave myself,” Moore insisted Tuesday. “And my having to promise someone like Harvey to behave myself means a lot.”

Bruce Davis, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ executive director, confirmed that no documentary has ever been nominated for best picture.


In the internecine world of Oscar campaigning, the sniping has already started.

An Oscar strategist for another studio who asked not to be identified criticized the move, saying “Fahrenheit 9/11" might be popular with some writers and directors who want to make a political statement, but no actors will vote for it because there are no actors in the film, likewise, the crafts unions.

“It’s silly and egotistical but take the ego out of academy campaigning and what do you have left?” he said.

How Oscar voters will react to a brazen attempt by Moore and Weinstein to barge their way into the hallowed sanctum of best picture remains to be seen, but documentarians are happy to have their profile raised even if it’s by the burly, bearded Moore.

"['Fahrenheit 9/11'] certainly has gotten a lot of acclaim,” said Mitchell Block, a documentary filmmaker and Oscar voter, “but Michael Moore is a controversial figure even within the documentary world. There is criticism that he plays fast and loose with the facts and does not treat subjects as ethically as he could.”

Sandra Ruch, executive director of the International Documentary Assn., praised Moore’s decision to go for the best picture Oscar. “It’s an extremely brave move on his part,” she said.

“I certainly don’t think it will do anything to harm a genre that is now enormously popular with the public ... .”

And, Frieda Lee Mock, one of the three governors of the academy’s documentary branch, said Moore “is highly respected for what he has done.”

“It’s gamesmanship,” the Oscar strategist said.

"[Moore’s] allowing his ego to say he’s got a best picture when it’s not even a well-reviewed picture. It didn’t get Errol Morris kind of reviews or Barbara Kopple type of reviews,” he added, naming two acclaimed documentarians.

Davis downplayed the specter of “Fahrenheit 9/11" embroiling the Academy Awards in a political debate that might turn off many TV viewers.

“The election is going to be long over by the time Oscar night rolls around,” Davis said. “I suspect some of the intensity of feeling [surrounding the film now] will have become a little more subdued.”

That is not to say that the Oscars seek to avoid controversy. “As [veteran Oscar show producer] Gil Cates always says, each show reflects its own time and if there are great political issues being debated, the Oscars tend to get caught up in that debate,” Davis said.

Moore obviously thinks it’s a good idea: “In this great year of nonfiction film, to even receive an Oscar nomination [for best picture] would be historic, unprecedented and good for this genre.”

Although the film is a stinging and often humorous indictment of the Bush administration’s war on terror, Moore said it should be judged on cinematic grounds and not seen through the prism of politics.

“I’ve only asked people to judge it on its merits as a film,” Moore said.

“Did this film move you? Did it affect you in a profound way? Did you laugh? Did you cry? Did you learn something you hadn’t before? Were you talking about the movie a half-hour after leaving the theater? These are the things that you hope your film will do.”

Moore missed the Sept. 1 deadline to submit “Fahrenheit 9/11" in the best documentary category and, instead, is pushing to have the film shown on television before the November elections. That would automatically disqualify the movie from best documentary Oscar contention under the strict rules for nonfiction films established by the academy, which oversees the Oscars.

“I decided it was a good enough risk to take for the possible benefit of the few million more people seeing the film -- especially the 50% that don’t vote,” Moore said.

Showtime, the cable network, has purchased the rights to televise “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and said Tuesday that it plans to air the film next June, but that decision is “subject to change.” Moore said that complicating the issue is the DVD release, which Sony has scheduled for Oct. 5.

Block said it might be shrewder for Moore to go after a best picture nomination than take the documentary route.

“It might be politically smart for Moore to get a best picture nomination because he only needs a few thousand votes,” Block said.

He noted that to make it in the documentary category, he would need to be vetted by a small group of documentary branch members.