And the Oscar for the worst smear goes to
As the Oscars approach, Colin Firth finds himself at the sharp end of a shabby internet campaign. Take heart, says David Gritten: such dirty tricks are a sure sign of success
Published 22/01/2011 | 05:00
Another film awards season, another dirty tricks campaign. With just five weeks remaining until the Oscars ceremony takes place, it seems that The King's Speech, the ecstatically received British film whose star, Colin Firth, is favourite to win an Academy Award for his portrayal of George VI, is the subject of internet smears aimed at damaging its chances of success.
The allegation, which has absolutely nothing to do with the film itself, is that George VI was sympathetic to the Third Reich before World War Two, because he supported plans to prevent Jews from fleeing Nazi Germany and settling in Palestine.
Two American writers with film blogs have been central to the progress of this smear attempt. Claude Brodesser-Akner, an entertainment journalist who blogs on Vulture, the arts page of New York Magazine's website, wrote: "This blogger feels morally compelled to note that the film largely glosses over the Nazi-sympathising past of the tongue-tied monarch."
His posting provided a link to a 2002 report in The Observer newspaper, which stated that two MPs had asked for papers detailing the reaction of George VI to the increasing power of Nazi Germany. The Observer noted that documents confirming the king's support for checking the "unauthorised emigration" of Jews to Palestine were already in the public domain.
All this, you may think, is rather distant from the fortunes, quality and awards-worthiness of a film about George VI's struggle with his stammer which makes no claim to be a documentary or a comprehensive account of all aspects of the king's life. But a few days after Brodesser-Akner's posting, another American blogger, Scott Feinberg, added fuel to the flames by publishing an anonymous email from someone claiming to be a member of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and therefore eligible to cast votes for the Oscars. It read: "Scott, I'm an academy member, and there are a lot of us who won't vote for The King's Speech." It went on to cite Brodesser-Akner's posting and the 2002 Observer report.
One felt a weary sense of inevitability on learning all this. Even Feinberg agonised over posting the anonymous message: "Is the email I received part of some coordinated smear campaign that is being orchestrated by someone with a vested interest in stunting the awards prospects of The King's Speech?"
I say this with the reluctance of someone telling a young child that there's no such thing as the tooth fairy, but the answer is: yes, almost certainly. It's that time of year when the film industry reveals itself to be every bit as ruthless and nasty as the world of politics. Snagging a major Oscar can gross a film several extra million dollars at box offices worldwide, so the rivalry between competing studios can get very ugly indeed.
This is why dirty tricks campaigns are now a regular feature of the run-up to the Oscars. The King's Speech smear is par for the course on at least two counts.
First, it's aimed at a film that is a clear front-runner in a major category, and Firth's chances of triumph carry the shortest of odds: a smear is often used as a last, despairing throw of the dice to dislodge a front-runner.
Second, the smear is linked to Nazism in a film's subject matter, however tangential. It's not just that the Nazis remain the most obvious synonym for pure evil. Hollywood and its studio system was founded and developed by Jewish entrepreneurs, and there is a considerable Jewish presence in the ranks of academy voters; the mere perception of anti-Semitism or sympathy with Nazism in a film would offend sensibilities.
I don't detect any of this in The King's Speech, and it clearly hasn't occurred to anyone I know who has seen it. But that will not stop seeds of doubt being planted on the internet.
This is how it works: studios with a film or actor in contention for Oscars employ outside marketing experts to enhance its chances. This involves making sure every member of the academy has a DVD copy of the film.
But these marketers in turn use others to do their dirty work -- casually chatting to journalists, industry insiders and known Hollywood gossips as a means of spreading negative perceptions of their film's Oscar competitors. It's done in secret so a studio can always plead plausible deniability.
When I worked as the arts editor of a Los Angeles newspaper in the '80s, it happened every January: someone would "confidentially" tell me in passing about a film being secretly financed by Mob money, that a certain actress was a dope fiend, or maybe that a nominated actor frequented prostitutes. None of which, you will note, had anything to do with the quality of a film or an actor's performance.
Oscar-smearing is such an open secret that it's possible to draw up a list of films that have been targeted. In the past two Oscar campaigns, it has been the Best Film front-runner. Last year, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker came under fire from whispers that it inaccurately portrayed the working lives of US Army bomb disposal experts in Iraq.
The previous year, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire was attacked after negative campaigning about the insulting use of the word "slumdog", even though the whole point of the title was to confirm its young hero's humble status in Indian society. Other slurs were bandied about, to the effect that the film makers had paid its two young Indian actors a pittance for their work -- forcing Boyle and producer Christian Colson to state publicly that they had set up trust funds for the actors.
Nine years ago, controversy surrounded the film A Beautiful Mind because of alleged anti-Semitic comments attributed to its real-life hero, the mathematician John Nash -- which he denied. As with The Hurt Locker and Slumdog Millionaire, the slurs failed to derail the film's eventual Oscar triumph -- none of which stops the negative spinners.
Saving Private Ryan? A fanciful account of what really happened, if you believed the gossip mill. It won five Oscars. Kate Winslet in The Reader? Decent performance, but let's remember: she was playing a Nazi! (Anyone who actually saw The Reader could hardly forget.) Winslet won an Oscar, too.
The smearing is hardly likely to go away -- especially in an age when malicious cranks can send anonymous emails without retribution. The academy is by no means the only body afflicted by this modern plague.
Thankfully, this negative campaigning rarely has the intended effect -- and I predict Firth will still win his richly deserved Oscar. It's hardly spoiling the story of The King's Speech to mention that, as George VI, he delivers an impassioned radio address to his countrymen, urging them to steel themselves for a fight against Nazism. And unlike all the malicious smears about the film, this fact is demonstrably true.