MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: Media, Publicists, And Trying To Do Harm


It’s the time of the season when journalists who cover this epic battle start discussing how nasty the campaign has been.

This season, the charge has been led by the esteemed Mark Harris, who published The Oscar Season Turns Ugly in Grantland yesterday.

“Right now, more than in any recent year, a kind of sourness has settled over the Academy Awards.”


“The prevailing (and possibly unrepresentative) sentiment among the Academy members I’ve talked to seems to be ‘Let’s get this thing over with.'”

Yes. Exactly. And exactly the same conversation I have had in Phase 2 of pretty much every season I have ever closely covered… and this makes 17, I believe.

And for media, which has had content to feast on for a couple of months straight, we are now in the dregs. There are still events here and there. But it will get even worse on Friday, when final voting actually begins, and campaigning will start to look embarrassing. From there, 10 days or so of near silence, except for daily tweets from The Academy about who is going to walk the red carpet, before we get to the 10-day countdown of serious hype.

(The exception to look out for this year is Nikki Finke trying to resurrect any claim to relevance by using her annual source for the show rundown to help spoil the show. I don’t expect Cheryl Boone Isaacs to be as willing to be blackmailed by Nikki as previous Academy presidents, so this could be interesting. Or Jay Penske could have Nikki so tied up with lawyers, that she just stays in her crypt and sits out the season.)

So when anything remotely interesting happens this time of year, the media wildly overhypes its importance so you, as an audience, might give a damn.

The very long-running Farrow/Allen drama is the first big stink in a pretty quiet season. But is it really a thing? We’ve been here before and there’s been no apparent effect on Woody Allen getting nominations nor any of his actors being penalized in light of the accusations against him.

But the normally very restrained Mr. Harris writes, “Oscar voters are, ludicrously, being asked to serve as jurors in a trial by op-ed.”

Asked by whom? Mia Farrow? Again?

And who is the target? Cate Blanchett is the only frontrunner from the film.

I would argue that there is no request for adjudication. The effort is to create a stench that Academy voters, whatever they see as The Truth of the situation, will stay away from.

This is not meant to offend or in any way to diminish this film, but I would call this The Brokeback Mountain Effect.

Be clear. I am not saying that homophobia—which like subtly-held born-pre-integration racism, is not unusual inside the Academy membership—took down Brokeback Mountain.

My experience of that season was that the argument took hold that voting for Brokeback would be seen as Academy members making an important statement about homosexuality… and that many members I talked to did not wish to make that statement with their vote. They didn’t want to be seen making ANY statement with their vote… especially those not 100% on that film. The vote had become too political. If anything is a “truth” of Academy voters, it is that they push back against being told how “they” think. (And yeah, there was some old school homophobia as well.)

This is a phenomenon that 12 Years A Slave is fighting—or trying not to fight too hard, so as to drown itself in importance—this season.

In the case of Blue Jasmine, those who are pushing against Woody Allen would like voters to get that feeling like they are somehow going to be caught making some sort of endorsement, and thus, to abandon Cate Blanchett’s performance.

That’s a big leap. And it could backfire. Again, Academy members, as a group, historically don’t like being told what to do. They don’t mind going along with the motion of the ocean. But if you call them out, there tends to be a reaction.

And then, Mr. Harris turns on the headline of his story (a true phenomenon of the current wave of SEO-driven headlines) and gets completely sane about the whole thing.

“It would be nice to believe that on March 2, the Academy Awards ceremony will somehow serve as a culmination of this discussion, or at least a scorecard about which side won the current round.

“Let me break the news as gently as I can: It won’t. First of all, “we”—the arguers—aren’t voting. And second, there’s no surer way to tell a lie about what the Oscars mean than to narrativize them. And third, history tells us that while Oscar nominees usually reflect something compelling about the year in movies, Oscar winners usually don’t. So, all of this fury and contention could be the prologue to a longstanding and cherished Academy tradition — the massive, sweeping dodge.”


He reasserts the silly premise—”In a year when we’ve all been squabbling over Martin Scorsese’s take on excess, McQueen’s and Miyazaki’s senses of history, Spike Jonze’s gender politics, and whether the mere act of seeing a Woody Allen movie constitutes a step into moral murk…”

But he already defined the “we” in the previous paragraph. The “we” is media. We do not vote. None of us. We don’t have a branch. We should never have a branch.

Are Academy members talking about any of this stuff? Well, there are people who like and dislike each of the movies… for the reasons noted.. and for reasons not noted. If I had a fun coupon for every over-60 who shocked me by telling me how much they LOVED Wolf of Wall St, I would have a pile of fun coupons. Many of these are people who have complained about language and nudity in other movies. Go fucking figure! But not a single person has brought up whether 12 Years accurately defines slavery or what the subtext of Her is or even mentioned the Miyazaki, a film whose only chance to win is voter pushback against popular animated films, as I would be truly shocked if more than 20% of Academy voters (or their grandchildren) have seen a second of the Miyazaki this season.

My perspective on this season is that the movies have been well-liked and the fighting mostly affirmative. Inside Llewyn Davis asserted itself intensely and with some really beautiful efforts… and didn’t get the votes. Nebraska pushed hard with actors, but not much else, and did get the votes. Go figure.

The New York Times mysteriously went after 12 Years A Slave repeatedly around its release, but now has succumbed to the love of Lupita—like everyone else—as well as the box-office success of the film.

Philomena has defied Harvey Weinstein’s traditional bully-boy angle, leaving the whiners to complain that Harvey has The Pope in his pocket (not Jeff Pope) and the spin to be off the kinder, gentler, anti-violence Harvey.

Captain Phillips fell into the anger of the real-life crew… but that went away faster than it showed up.

American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street—written off too hastily by most of the Oscar talkers—has been the lovefest of Oscar winners and nominees celebrating their latest.

And Spike Jonze is sexist? Are you out of your f-ing minds? Have you watched his films? They are always about a guy. But they are all in awe of female energy and celebrate the emotional power of women over the intellectual power of men. Duh!

And Gravity? The “it’s slight” argument launched weeks before Toronto, has never stopped, and has never become important.

There are many things that make the Oscar season waaaaaay too long and only getting longer next season. But negative campaigning, in my view, will not have a big place in the awards handed out this year. Why? Because they don’t work. They usually backfire. And the people who manage these campaigns are whip smart. Too smart to use tricks that don’t work. It’s all become much more controlled by publicity and much more about giving the illusion of subtlety… the dirtiest trick of all.

Be Sociable, Share!

12 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: Media, Publicists, And Trying To Do Harm”

  1. Daniella Isaacs says:

    Spike Jones films are “in awe of female energy and celebrates the emotional power of women over the intellectual power of men.” Huh? So they say that women only have emotional power while men have the intellectual power. I suppose you think that if you claim emotion is actually better than intellect you’re not being sexist saying men have the latter and women the former, one of the oldest sexist canards in the book, BTW. Guess what? You still are being sexist. It’s a little like that statement in Richard Herrnstein’s “The Bell Curve,” where he says it’s okay that Blacks aren’t as smart as whites because they’re really good at sports n jazz n stuff. By the way, it should be “celebrate” not “celebrates” in terms of the verb agreement in your sentence; I don’t know if my emotions or my intellect tell me to correct that, I think it’s a bit of both.

  2. David Poland says:

    Oh my, Ms Isaacs.

    Spike Jonze makes personal films. They tend to be of the same theme.

    I didn’t really see this piece as the place for a long, drawn-out, accusation-avoidant explanation of the subtext of Spike’s films. So yes, I simplified and now you’re beating me to death with that simplification.

    I do not think that Jonze’s films say that all men are just intellect and all women are just emotion. But they do tend to feature men lost in a place of thinking way too much and find women either confusing or comforting, depending on the women. I can’t recall a female character in a Spike Jonze film that is not smart. And the men all have an emotional side.

    Anyway… my head is already aching, as I try to dig myself out by proving a negative.

    Thank you for the specific correction.

    And darn you for turning a comment like the one I made into some sort of sexist – comparable to an aggressively racist – tract.

    If you have a problem with Spike Jonze, you should probably address that. If you have a problem with me in this regard, it is a misunderstanding.

  3. Daniella Isaacs says:

    I just had a problem with the wording of your sentence, nothing more. That “women are emotional/men intellectual” notion (which you KNOW is out there and is as old as the hills and is, yes, sexist) is one of my pet peeves, really, so maybe I overreacted. I love Jonze’s work too, actually. Thank you for clarifying what you meant, exactly

  4. Spassky says:

    He didn’t say that women didn’t possess intellectual power, but that, in the context of Jonze’s films, they thwarted men’s attempts at asserting intellectual dominance by counteracting that with emotional dominance. He’s explained this, but it was clear that this was the meaning from the context of the sentence (after I admittedly had to read it twice for thinking the same thing you took to the extreme).

    You didn’t “just [have] a problem with the wording of [the] sentence” — you were really disrespectful and, yeah, overly emotional. You must have been really stung by some sexist asshole in the past, and for that I’m truly sorry, but think a little more about the context of a writer’s comments before you hit “Submit Comment” because David shouldn’t have to defend himself against those really ugly comments you made about him.

  5. Bob Burns says:

    yeah, the Grantland bit was dumb. This has been a pretty mild year for negative campaigning, at least in public.

    I also agree with your comment that Academy voters do not like being told what to do, with the caveat that we have no idea what 6,500 minds are thinking.

    Re: Brokeback, my read is that the studio lost control of the campaign narrative. Focus always seems to under-achieve in the crunch of Oscar campaigns, given the quality of its films. Glad its going out with a couple of major wins. Presumably.

    I came to feel that, like BBM, the aggressive online support of FotR damaged its campaign and that the guilt-trip blogging about 12 Years has hurt it somewhat. As is usual with such things the beneficiary of the guilt tripping could be a later film by McQueen.

  6. Daniella Isaacs says:

    Oh, Spassky… David defended himself just fine, and comments like mine go with his job. He knows that. If he thought about it, he’d remember that I’ve complimented his writings here many times, too.

    The only way my comments could seem more eyebrow-raising than most of the trolling that he deals with on a daily basis is if there were a ring of truth to them. This “men are the brains/women the heart” or “men think/women nurture” idea is at the very heart of patriarchal sexism in much the same way that the “whites are brains/Blacks brawn” belief structures white racism about Blacks. It deserves to be called out, even if placed in an article innocently. If I had a dollar for every time someone defended a director against sexism by by saying “He loves women, they’re the emotional heart of his film!” I could retire.

    Finally, you’re assuming I’m a woman because of my screen name? Not the smartest conclusion in the world. 😉 I’m certainly not assuming your real name is Spassky. Peace.

  7. leahnz says:

    ouch, i feel Daniella here – his/her initial assessment of DP’s comment is spot on, it panders to a tired paradigm of deeply entrenched patriarchal sexism, and re-re-re-reading this: “And Spike Jonze is sexist? Are you out of your f-ing minds? Have you watched his films? They are always about a guy. But they are all in awe of female energy and celebrate the emotional power of women over the intellectual power of men. Duh!”, i’m not seeing how there’s another way to interpret what is a short, simplistic observation…DP it’s incumbent upon you to make your meaning clear by writing succinctly in your original article if you don’t want to be ‘misunderstood’; rather than clutching your pearls when called out on what was an undeniably sexist comment and insinuating it’s Daniella who over-reached or -reacted, maybe you could just say in your own way, ‘oh my bad, i can see how you’d interpret it that way but that’s really not what i meant, let me explain/expand further, yada yada yada. being indignant because you didn’t explain your thoughts properly seems unduly defensive, if it’s not what you really meant.

    anyway, having to ‘campaign’ for a subjective award for film artists/technicians is fucking retarded on so many levels, but after that world-class pig rut around Zero Dark Thirty, whatever’s happened this year seems like a zephyr in a cyclone

  8. Oliver says:

    Yeah David, but you’re also the guy who was so sure of himself defending William Friedkin’s wretched (and mercifully superceded) ‘French Connection’ retransfer, aren’t you?

  9. Gray Crowley says:

    “My experience of that season was that the argument took hold that voting for Brokeback would be seen as Academy members making an important statement about homosexuality… and that many members I talked to did not wish to make that statement with their vote. They didn’t want to be seen making ANY statement with their vote… especially those not 100% on that film. The vote had become too political. If anything is a “truth” of Academy voters, it is that they push back against being told how “they” think. (And yeah, there was some old school homophobia as well.)”
    Oh, David–you’re much more intelligent than this–if members based their “no” votes on politics, then it was homophobia, which is defined as fear of or antipathy towards homosexuality. You’re not a wishy-washy kind of guy, and that paragraph is as wishy-washy as they come.

  10. Martin Pal says:

    Agree with the above. Voting itself is making a statement, so if members didn’t want to “be seen making ANY statement with their vote” they should’ve abstained. In fact, we’ve subsequently learned that many voters didn’t even watch Brokeback Mountain and others openly displayed their “fear or anitpathy towards homosexuality” in interviews, in public, in the press…

    All of what David writes can accurately apply to this years awards season and most other awards seasons because there is genuine competition all those years for at least an either/or choice. In 2005 the competition (Crash) was manufactured. There was no competition. Crash was not ever seen as a film that would be a legitimate awards contender from its release in May til academy members began looking for an alternative to Brokeback Mountain’s inevitable win. Even the Golden Globe people roundly ignored Crash in its nominations.

    It all played out in a way that leaves no doubt the major reason it lost was homophobia. If Crash had been seen as a film worthy of Best Picture attention why didn’t it get released in late 2004 after it’s TIFF showing? Why was it released months later? Why was no one talking about it from May to December? Homophobia is written all over this story if one has a mind to look beyond the emperor’s new clothes.

  11. Gray Crowley says:

    Martin Pal, exactly! All this backing away from the facts–that homophobia, that fear, played into the voting in 2005–is cowardice twice over. “Homophobic? Me?” I can just hear the Academy Members’ denials now…

  12. Martin Pal says:

    Thanks, when homophobia is discussed, many people equate that to hate and people rightly don’t like to think they’re hating anyone. Although homophobia can lead to people acting out that way, it can also manifest itself in other ways, like avoidance, which is why you’ll sometimes hear people say “I have no problem with gay people as long as they just keep it to themselves.” One thing I’ve learned from this subject all these years is that homophobia does not always equal hate, although it can manifest itself, obviously. I think that so many think it does, though, that is why they dismiss the notion. “Homophobic? Me?” My short discussion in a paragraph.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon