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Avoiding politics, religion

Times Staff Writer

“THE Passion of the Christ” and “Fahrenheit 9/11" might have been the year’s most talked about movies, cultural watersheds that produced hefty lines at movie houses and a mother lode of pundits yapping about the inevitable divide between red America and blue America. Yet one group that seemed curiously uninterested in the religion, politics and controversy the two pictures embraced were the 5,808 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which opted to leave both off the short list for best picture.

“The Passion of the Christ,” which Mel Gibson financed out of his own pocket, earned a staggering $370 million at the domestic box office, while Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11" took in $119 million, the most ever for a documentary, making the omissions a particularly striking illustration of the notion that popularity does not necessarily correlate with Oscar success. The combined total domestic gross of the five best picture nominees was just under $205 million.

Yet as with almost everything to do with both of these pictures, few can agree about why they were left out. While arcane academy rules and the vagaries of Oscar campaigns seem to have worked against Moore and Gibson, some insiders argue that Oscar balloting is a relatively straightforward meritocracy -- the community simply liked other pictures better. Others point to a lingering distaste among some voters for Mel Gibson’s public pronouncements during the film’s release publicity campaign.

“There were pictures that people liked more than those. The voters were looking at the list of all the eligible nominees and there was some decent competition. I would not read into it a political message,” said Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the USC Annenberg Center for Communication.

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“I’ve not heard of any cabal, any underground whispering, no sense of membership conspiracy. I’ve been involved with the academy for decades and this membership is so disparate, they can’t even agree what to disagree about,” said producer and former studio chief Peter Guber. “It’s more likely that ‘Ray,’ somebody who is a legend, will win because of sympathy, than it will be because of some political maelstrom that’s concocted around a film when it came out.”

Yet others are not so sure, such as Bob Berney, president of Newmarket Films, which handled the domestic release of “The Passion of the Christ,” a depiction of the last hours of Jesus’ life. “It has always been a populist, anti-Hollywood movie. It was a long shot with the academy for obvious political reasons,” Berney said. “The film didn’t get reviewed or appreciated as much as it should have because they were reviewing Mel’s personal politics.”

“Hollywood spent more time in the last year in trying to beat George Bush than trying to make a good movie. They lost and they’re angry and they’re going to take it out on one of the few good movies of the year,” said Patrick Hynes, a Washington, D.C., advertising copywriter who started a website devoted to getting Oscar nominations for “The Passion,” a feat that has landed him on the conservative talk-show circuit.

“The fairly obvious response in what is now known as the ‘red states’ is that Hollywood doesn’t share the values of mainstream and middle America.”

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While the academy left Gibson’s film out of the running for the top prizes, it did honor other aspects of the movie’s craft, bestowing upon it nominations for cinematography, makeup and original score. “We’re honored by the academy’s acknowledgment of their achievements,” the actor-director said in a statement.

Gibson chose not to campaign for the award, eschewing pricey Oscar ads and parties, although he did send out 7,000 to 8,000 DVDs, and sponsor screenings. Some have wondered if this was a different kind of ploy. “Their little noncampaign is indeed a campaign in itself,” said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Film Releasing.

A number of Oscar strategists, rival studio executives and academy members cited factors that dampened chances for “The Passion,” such as strongly negative reviews, subtitles and a weak central performance. Several suggested that many academy members haven’t seen the film, turned off by its violence. A few, who declined to be identified, said they were dismayed by what they perceived as Gibson’s refusal to disavow his father’s public statements denying the magnitude of the Holocaust. “There are enough people in the academy who actually believe the Holocaust happened and the whole thing with his father, that’s beyond beyond,” one said.

By contrast, “Fahrenheit 9/11" might have attracted political travelers in Hollywood, but Moore scorched its Oscar chances by taking it out of the competition for its natural award: best documentary feature.

“It was Michael’s decision, and we supported him 100%,” said Ortenberg, whose company released the film domestically.

“Fahrenheit 9/11" casts a harsh light on the Bush administration’s response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Academy rules bar documentaries from running on TV for nine months after release, so Moore, who wanted to have a big pay-TV release of the film before the 2004 election, chose not to submit his film in the documentary category, said one person involved with the film, adding that the Oscar winner for “Bowling for Columbine” wanted to allow the limelight to shine on other less-known documentarians.

For a variety of political and business reasons, the TV event never materialized. Moore had to settle for much smaller exposure on TV, as well as vying for an Oscar in the more competitive best-picture arena, where no documentary has ever been nominated.

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Unlike Gibson, the firebrand filmmaker campaigned vigorously, schmoozing with Hollywood players. “We’ve run a very aggressive award season campaign,” Ortenberg said.

Neither Moore nor Gibson has been much of a presence at recent awards ceremonies, with the exception of the People’s Choice Awards, where “Fahrenheit” won favorite movie, and “The Passion” won favorite movie, drama.

The People’s Choice Awards were determined by 21 million online voters, and Moore, for one, used his website to tell fans that a vote for his film was a vote against President Bush.

In his acceptance speech, Gibson, who received a standing ovation, welcomed the popular acclaim. “I depended on you and you were there,” Gibson said. “If it wasn’t for you guys, we’d be dead in the water.”


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