Academy Awards 2010

Shameless shenanigans get a boost with Oscar's new Best Picture voting procedure

Shameless shenanigans get a boost with Oscar's new Best Picture voting procedure

Events_Ronald McDonald_Oscar viewing party_March 10
Courtesy of © Corbis

Shamelessness in the pursuit of Oscar is nothing new.

Back in the early ‘60s, veteran character actor and professional good-ol’-boy Chill Wills – arguably best known, then and now, as the voice of Francis the Talking Mule – received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his aggressively colorful performance in John Wayne’s The Alamo. Figuring (rightly) that he might never get another chance to tread the red carpet, Wills filled Hollywood trade papers with a series of ads alphabetically listing the names of every Academy voter alongside a photo of Wills and the comment: “Win, lose or draw. You’re still my cousins and I love you all.” (Prompting Groucho Marx to respond in his own ad: “Dear Mr. Chill Wills: I am delighted to be your cousin, but I voted for [rival nominee] Sal Mineo.”)

Later, just to make sure he wasn’t being too subtle in his hard sell, Wills unleashed an ad featuring a photo of the entire Alamo cast, an image of Wills in his character’s buckskin costume, and this treacly entreaty: “We of The Alamo cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives at the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar."

Such was the egregiousness of this self-promotion that John Wayne himself was enraged. Not surprisingly, Wills lost the award — to Peter Ustinov of Spartacus.

Some 20 years later, Margaret Avery evidenced a similar paucity of self-respect while seeking a Best Supporting Actress nomination for The Color Purple. Taking what likely was the first, and almost certainly the last, Ebonic approach to Oscar campaigning, Avery ran a trade ad that read:

Dear God,
My name is Margaret Avery. I knows dat I been blessed by Alice Walker, Steven Spielberg, and Quincy Jones, who gave me the part of "Shug" Avery in The Color Purple.
Now I is up for one of the nominations fo’ Best Supporting Actress alongst with some fine, talented ladies that I is proud to be in the company of.
Well, God, I guess the time has come fo’ the Academy’s voters to decide whether I is one of the Best Supporting Actresses this year or not! Either way, thank you, LORD, for the opportunity.
Your little daughter,
Margaret Avery

On this occasion, God was merciful: Avery did indeed get a nomination. But there are limits even to The Almighty’s beneficence: She lost the award to Anjelica Huston of Prizzi’s Honor.

Compared to these and several other faux pas by past Oscar hopefuls, the “crime” of Nicolas Chartier seems, at first glance, a very petty thing indeed.

As has been widely reported in trade and mainstream press: Chartier, the French-born co-producer of The Hurt Locker, sent e-mails urging members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to vote for his movie “and not a $500M film.” (That he did not mention Avatar by name may be interpreted as an indication of either prudence or wimpiness. Or both.) Chartier later apologized for his indiscretion, offering the twin excuses of sincere enthusiasm – hey, he was just doing his part to promote a deserving underdog! – and, when it came to knowing beforehand about Academy rules governing Oscar campaigns, inconvenient ignorance.

But the Academy grand kahunas weren’t going to let him off that easily. In fact, while they stopped short of rescinding his nomination, they have gone as far as barring Chartier from physically attending the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday. If Hurt Locker is named Best Picture, he’ll have to pick up his Oscar some other time. And he damn well better have two photo I.D.s with him when he does. (OK, I’m just making up that last part.)

Does the punishment fit the crime? Probably not. (If inappropriate Oscar campaign tactics were consistently punishable offenses, Harvey Weinstein would be somewhere deep in the bowels of Attica.) But, to paraphrase Paul Harvey, there may be a story behind the story.

As Pete Hammond reported in the Los Angeles Times shortly after Chartier issued his mea culpa, the latter’s claim of ignorance regarding Academy rules doesn’t quite jibe with the content of other e-mails he sent Oscar voters, detailed messages that “not only asked for votes but actually gave more specific instructions than even the Academy does on the official ballot."

On the official Academy ballot – redesigned this year after the expansion of the Best Picture category from five to 10 nominees – voters are instructed: “Please place the number ‘1’ in the box opposite the picture you feel most deserves recognition as the Best Picture of the year. Place a ‘2’ beside your second choice, etc., through ‘10.’”

A simple enough process, one that gives every film a fair shot (and, better still, avoids the potential heartbreak of hanging chads). According to Hammond, however, Chartier found a way – or at least thought he found a way – to game the system: "Chartier named Avatar four times, saying Hurt Locker needs to be ranked No. 1 and Avatar No. 10 instead of putting it at No. 2 even if the voter thought it should be.”

Naughty, naughty.

The killer irony, of course, is that the expansion of the Best Picture category was intended to solve old problems, not create new ones. Academy leaders figured that, by opening up the competition to twice as many finalists, it might be easier to include the kind of audience-friendly box-office behemoths — wait, did I hear someone say The Dark Knight? — that didn’t make the final cut in years past. And by nominating more pictures that more people actually bothered to see, you might get more people —younger people, especially — to actually watch the Oscarcast.

It could be argued that, with the inclusion of crowd-pleasers like The Blind Side, Inglourious Basterds and District 9 in the Best Picture race, to say nothing of the front-runner status enjoyed by the phenomenally popular Avatar, this year’s Oscarcast probably will get some sort of Nielsen Ratings bump. Trouble is, the race has gone on two weeks longer than usual — the Academy didn’t want the Oscarcast to air opposite the Olympics — and that has allowed more time for questionable tactics by Oscar campaigners and, perhaps more important, massive media coverage of same.

For example: In recent weeks, there have suspiciously timed reports about past and present military personnel objecting to The Hurt Locker, followed by reports that the earlier reports were, well, timed suspiciously. (Kind of like those notorious-minute attempts to take down A Beautiful Mind by leaking unflattering stories about the real-life John Nash.) And just a few days ago – literally on the eve of the end of Oscar voting – there was all that hubbub about the lawsuit filed by an Iraqi War vet who claims Hurt Locker is based largely on his own experiences with a real-life bomb-disposal unit.

I’ll tell you, cousin: It’s all enough to make you long for the days when a tasteless trade-paper ad with a buckskin-clad Chill Wills was the most unseemly spectacle displayed during an Academy Award season.