It happens almost every year at this time. No, not post-Christmas malaise or New Year’s celebrations but emergence of controversies about Oscar films based on history and/or real-life people. In the past we’ve seen films like A Beautiful Mind manage to push past stories of major historical inaccuracy to go on to winning Best Picture. But it’s not without the trying, and trying hard, of rival studios to dig up as much dirt on their competitors as possible and find ways to filter them into Oscar blogs and mainstream media alike. In fact, the era of internet has allowed any and every armchair critic or no-name to simply blurt out a story, proven or unproven, to cause a stir. A retweet here, a share there and bam, you have a full-blown controversy on your hands. It’s not enough to just get your film seen, to get your stars to Q&As and film festivals. Now you have to duck and cover the shots fired to poke holes in your film’s narrative on its way through a Best Picture race. The Oscars can be a political game of the highest and most underhanded order. Scandals, controversies and slings and arrows are commonplace and with the Oscar voting period just beginning, everything and everyone is fair game.
Let’s take a look at three films that are feeling the impact of how dirty this race can be.
The Imitation Game, the only horse in the Best Picture race this year for The Weinstein Company, has been hit with accusations of historical inaccuracies in its presentation of the life of Alan Turing, the creation of his Enigma cracking machine and the omission entirely of the role of Polish code breakers in World War II. In an extraordinarily well-researched piece by L.V. Anderson at Slate, it appears the liberties taken by screenwriter Graham Moore with Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma were enormous indeed. In the film, Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is presented as an OCD personality that we’d recognize in current day as possibly autistic. Coming off as cold and aloof in the movie, all accounts of him in real life reveal him to be well liked by his colleagues and having a good sense of humor. The depiction of his homosexuality in the film is brief and carefully guarded (from others and from the audience) but in real life Turing was far more open and was known to make bold advances towards men. Moore also fabricates people who didn’t exist, like the detective who investigates Turing and to whom Turing confesses. What we’re left with in the film is not a complex and interesting man or story but a dumbed down and made to be more Oscar-friendly material. Is it the worst sin in the world? No. Will we see it again next year? Yes. But, is it too much to ask that a major studio picture allow more fact than fiction and let the audience suss out how it feels instead of being told how?
Right now, a storm is brewing around Sony Pictures Classics’ Foxcatcher. Just today, Olympic wrestler Mark Shultz, one of the three main figures in the docudrama (and played by Channing Tatum), went on a brutal and somewhat disturbing tirade on Twitter against director Bennett Miller, accusing him of falsifying a large amount of the film, twisting timelines and the nature of the relationship between Shultz and John du Pont (played by Steve Carell), the man who murdered his brother. In his tirade he calls Miller a “LIAR,” “PUNK,” “PUSSY” and says, “YOU CROSSED THE LINE MILLER. YOU’RE (sic) CAREER IS OVER. YOU THINK I CAN’T DO IT. WATCH ME.” Shultz’s Twitter and Facebook pages have already been deleted but not before screen caps of his tirade were saved here. What’s interesting to note about this is its timing. Not only has the film been out for a for over a month now but it also been shown at multiple film festivals over the last seven months, winning Best Director for Miller at Cannes in May. At the Vancouver International Film Festival in September Shultz appeared via phone and was broadcast espousing nothing but praise for the film and for Miller. Just last November Shultz gave an interview to Inside MMA calling Bennett Miller a “genius” and a “master film maker.” So what gives? Why the sudden and very dramatic turn? One has to wonder if, in all honesty, Shultz is suffering mentally from his years in wrestling and MMA to have such a psychotic break. But this kind of thing is like a late Christmas gift to other studios that see it as another film biting the dust and letting their film move up a notch. Yet I wouldn’t put it past certain execs to have even paid Shultz off. Either way, the timing is certainly suspect.
Currently, Paramount’s Selma is facing off against two controversies; separate but related. First is the widely publicized matter of script accreditation. Paul Webb (a white man) is credited with the original screenplay for Selma and indeed, when the film was initially set it was his script in place. But as the film changed hands and finally got to Ava DuVernay she overhauled the entire thing, changing the focus away from President Lyndon Baines Johnson and more on Martin Luther King Jr. She also added over a dozen new characters and fleshed out others. Without the permission to recreate the exact text of King’s speeches, she wrote all news ones. The screenplay for Selma is, by all standards, hers. Yet Webb, in a contract that is not subject to WGA (Writers Guild of America) rules, had and has the choice to allow himself sole credit for the screenplay no matter what changes are made to it. DuVernay reached out to Webb but he denied her a co-credit. Some think this controversy may shoot Webb in the foot if voters decide to give the film multiple nominations but hold off on one for Original Screenplay. This controversy is eerily similar to the one we just saw take place this year with 12 Years a Slave in which writer John Ridley denied director Steve McQueen a co-writing credit on the overhauled screenplay. It was a public and nasty fight but ultimately McQueen was given a producing credit instead and, as know, they both ended up winning Oscars anyway. DuVernay has carried herself with poise and respect during this situation, commendable even as someone is trying, and succeeding, to steal something from her.
The other controversy for Selma, albeit a smaller one, has just surfaced right at the start of Oscar voting is the accuracy of the role in the Selma marches and the intent of President Lyndon Baines Johnson on the importance and priority of the Voters Rights Act. Some have complained that LBJ is presented as reluctant or hesitant to support King and DuVernay has publicly stated that in doing her research on the script that she used an article written by Louis Menand called The Color of the Law, that appeared in the New Yorker. In it he states:
“Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson did not especially like dealing with King. But they needed him, because they needed a hero whose vision the democratic system could realize. The triumphalist narrative demanded it. King understood this perfectly. He was not political in the small-“p” sense, but he had remarkable political instincts. He could read a room. He was a preacher, after all. He spent his entire life sensing exactly which words would move a congregation. He spoke a language that Kennedy and Johnson could associate themselves with.”
Part of what DuVernay tried to accomplish with her script was not to make the relationship between LBJ and MLK a rivalry but that each man was flawed, that “We really have to scrutinize our heroes, and our champions,” and the process of pushing the Voters Rights Act through. But two men, Joseph Califano (a former Johnson aide) and LBJ library director Mark Updegrove accuse DuVernay’s film of presenting LBJ as an “obstructionist.” Quite the opposite, as Selma portrays LBJ in a positive light, breaking with George Wallace and his segregationist views. It’s not enough of LBJ for them. Califano goes so far as to say, “in fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea.” A statement that is an about face to his own previous recounting in which he said that King brought to Johnson the location of where the marches will take place.
Let’s go ahead though and call this what it is. It’s sexist and it’s racist. No need to mince words. Now, I am a white man. I don’t pretend to know the internal struggle of an African-American or a woman but am making an observation of what I see and how it fits into the world we live in. So, when a group of LBJ loyalists (aka, white men) decide to make it their mission to discount and discredit a highly educated, intelligent and outspoken African-American woman guess what, it looks kinda sexist. Aaand kinda racist. Now, both Updegrove and Califano are well-educated men. So what’s the deal? Why are they trying to take something away from the most important African-American leader in U.S. history and from the most important African-American female director of our time? It’s fear; fear of losing the stranglehold and the United States’ identity and history and facing the truth of its racially divided past. It’s especially relevant as the U.S. has seen the highest level of racial unrest after the tragedies of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It’s why a film like Selma is as important as it is. It’s why you can’t shut someone like Ava DuVernay down with simple words. She has a voice. And she is unafraid to use it.
Currently, Selma sits on Rotten Tomatoes with 70 reviews and a perfect score of 100%.