Where controversy is often a star

Oscars have been stage for debates since start

February 23, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Circumstances surrounding the death of one of the major characters in Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby have some columnists, pundits and advocacy groups railing against the movie as immoral, sacrilegious and yet another example of Hollywood's left-leaning bias - and certainly not worthy of its status as an Oscar front-runner.

The controversy's effect on the film's Oscar chances (it has been nominated for seven awards, including best picture) remain to be seen. But when you're in the race for an Academy Award, it's likely that controversy will follow.

As far back as 1930, when the awards were only two years old, tongues wagged when Mary Pickford, up for best actress for Coquette, invited the five academy members who would decide the award to tea at her home. She won, and the voting pool was soon enlarged.

"Clearly, controversy has been a part of the Oscars since the earliest days," says Damien Bona, co-author of Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, "whether it's people disagreeing about the academy's choices or the academy getting involved in politics. More recently, it just seems as if people are ready to jump on any number of the Oscar contenders, if only to generate publicity for themselves."

Leading the charge against Million Dollar Baby has been conservative commentator and film critic Michael Medved, charging that Eastwood used the film's final plot twist - and most reviewers' reluctance to reveal it - as a way to subject unsuspecting audiences to his take on a controversial issue.

Eastwood has dismissed such charges, insisting the film's unexpected turn is there simply for dramatic purposes and to prod audiences into thinking about the issue.

The controversy could sink Baby's chances of taking home the gold, but its fans should take heart by looking at the Oscar track record. While controversy has been a constant, its effects have been mixed.

Few films in history have been as pilloried as Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), a thinly disguised cinematic roman a clef about the rise and fall of a megalomaniacal newspaper publisher. Although screenwriters Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz named their character Charles Foster Kane, everyone knew he was based on news magnate William Randolph Hearst.

Widely condemned and even more widely feared, especially by studio heads afraid of invoking Hearst's wrath (MGM's Louis B. Mayer unsuccessfully offered to buy the negative and destroy it), Kane nonetheless earned nine nominations. The film's detractors were doubtless heartened that it won just one (for the screenplay), but Welles and Kane got the last laugh - the film is almost universally regarded as among the greatest movies ever made.

Controversy hasn't necessarily centered on a film's politics; even before My Fair Lady (1964) was released, critics and fans were howling that Warner Bros. was playing things safe by opting to star Audrey Hepburn (who couldn't even sing, for heaven's sake!) instead of screen newcomer Julie Andrews, who had originated the role of Eliza Doolittle on Broadway.

The outrage was only partially muted when the film version proved to be a big hit, thanks in no small measure to Hepburn's sure-footed performance. Some measure of calm was restored, however, when Andrews won the year's best actress Oscar - for Mary Poppins. Hepburn wasn't even nominated.

Vanessa Redgrave was not exactly the most popular best supporting actress nominee, and the reason had nothing to do with her performance in Julia (1977). Rather, it was her political views that earned her so much vitriol, as she had voiced support for the Palestinians' cause in their struggle for a homeland.

Academy voters gave her the Oscar anyway (while the ceremony was going on, protesters outside burned her in effigy). In her acceptance speech, Redgrave applauded academy members for refusing "to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums." Several awards later, presenter Paddy Chayefsky took a swipe at Redgrave, saying he was "sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal propaganda."

Fed up with what they labeled Hollywood's unfair and stereotypical treatment of homosexual characters in films, representatives of Queer Nation and other gay rights advocacy groups promised to picket the Oscar ceremony in 1992, block cars going to the ceremony and even "out" a best actress nominee whose homosexuality had never been revealed.

Although there were demonstrations, they were peaceful and never disrupted the ceremonies. The big winner of the night was one of the films singled out for its negative portrayal of gay characters, The Silence of the Lambs, which swept the top five Oscar categories (picture, actor, actress, director and screenplay).

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