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Scorsese Oscar campaign angers Academy members

Will these two come together on Oscar night?

Just when it seemed that heavy-handed Oscar promotional campaigns of recent years were on the wane, Miramax Films has drawn fire for running newspaper ads quoting a revered Hollywood figure as praising Gangs of New York and its director, Martin Scorsese.

Executives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presents the Oscars, say Miramax crossed a line by recruiting former Academy president and Oscar-winning director Robert Wise to write a commentary endorsing Scorsese for the best-director award.

Critics of Wise's column, published initially as an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Daily News, said the director breached an unwritten but apparently sacred prohibition against academy members revealing how they were casting their Oscar ballots.

And they say Miramax, the film's distributor, violated the spirit of Oscar-campaigning guidelines designed to maintain the "fairness and dignity" of the voting process.

"It's an outright violation of academy rules," academy president Frank Pierson told the Los Angeles Times in a rare public rebuke over Oscar politicking. "The reaction among our membership has been real dismay, anger and outrage."

Producer-director Barry Levinson, an Oscar winner for Rain Man, told the Times he found the Wise ads "extremely vulgar."

"You look at an ad like that and say, '... Why don't we just give money to people and tell them how to vote?" he said.

After appearing in the Los Angeles Daily News earlier this month, Wise's column was reprinted as an advertisement paid for by Miramax that ran in several other publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and Hollywood trade papers.


Pierson said some academy members were so miffed that they wanted their completed ballots returned so they could strike Scorsese's name. Ballots mailed out to some 5,800 voting academy members are due back this week.

Scorsese with a DGA Lifetime Achievement Award presented to him by Steven Spielberg

Miramax executives countered that ads and opinion pieces from Hollywood luminaries praising the work of peers are commonplace. They said Wise agreed to write a column supporting Scorsese after the industry daily paper Variety published a scathing commentary from screenwriter William Goldman saying Gangs was a "mess" and that Scorsese did not deserve an Oscar for it.

Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands said he found it "ironic" that the studio heard no complaints from academy members about Goldman's piece. "Was that not vulgar?"

But Scorsese, a five-time Oscar nominee who has yet to win, was "horrified" by the ads, said his spokeswoman Lois Smith.

"He's known Robert Wise for many years, so of course he was touched by what Bob wrote about him, but he didn't know it was going to be used for an ad," she told Reuters.

Miramax, which is owned by the Walt Disney Co., has a reputation for its spare-no-expense, take-no-prisoners approach to Oscar politicking. The studio co-financed and released Gangs of New York, which is nominated in 10 Oscar categories, including best picture and best director.

Although some regarded Scorsese as a sentimental favorite in the race for the best directors Oscar, he became more of an underdog after rival nominee Rob Marshall claimed the top honor from the Directors Guild of America for his work on Chicago.


Wise could not immediately be reached for comment but told the Times he was not aware his column had upset anyone.

Academy spokesman John Pavlik said that in more than 10 years he could not recall any other past or present academy president signing an opinion piece endorsing a particular Oscar nominee. "The academy presidents for years have been the ones sending notices to members saying, 'please don't over-do the campaigning,"' though nothing in the campaign guidelines expressly bars such endorsements, he said.

A Miramax spokesman said the studio withdrew the ads after "a couple of academy members had expressed concern about it," but executives were surprised by the controversy.

"We were completely unaware that this was something academy members found offensive and ... we certainly did not know this practice was a violation of academy rules," Miramax operating chief Sands said in a written statement.

Scorsese with daughters Domenica and Catherine and wife Helen

He cited a number of recent ads or published commentaries from Hollywood heavyweights praising the work of others, even during Oscar season. Among them were endorsements last year by Wise praising the 20th Century Fox musical Moulin Rouge. In addition, Julia Roberts endorsed Denzel Washington and Warren Beatty endorsed Halle Berry, Sands said.

Pavlik said the academy's board would likely take up the issue of published Oscar endorsements at its meeting in April.

The flap over the Miramax ads came during an Oscar season in which high-octane politicking that marked previous years appeared to have otherwise have cooled down.

Steve Gorman