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Furore over Gangs’ Oscar hype

Hollywood, March 15: After years of increasingly blatant Oscar politicking, this Academy Awards season seemed comparatively gentle until Thursday, when a furore erupted over a Gangs of New York advertisement on behalf of Martin Scorsese, the film’s director, that incensed some Oscar voters and led to an unusually harsh rebuke from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The flap began when Miramax Film Corp, which co-financed and released Gangs of New York, enlisted Oscar-winning director and former academy president Robert Wise to write an opinion column strongly recommending Scorsese for the best-director award.

The article, which Wise said he did not fully write by himself, was then reprinted in advertisements in the Hollywood trade newspapers, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

Though Oscar promotions for both nominations and awards typically involve a barrage of hype, publicity and advertising, the latest controversy has brought into the open what academy executives and many in Hollywood privately have bemoaned for several years: that the scorched-earth quest for Oscars is out of control.

Miramax’s critics charge that soliciting a testimonial from a legendary — and influential -director for the purpose of engineering an Oscar victory went beyond the already loose Oscar rules of engagement. To these detractors, Miramax, which has been at the centre of a number of Oscar controversies, is turning Oscar balloting into a sham.

The academy leadership, which rarely comments on disputes, was so incensed by Miramax’s conduct that it went public with its complaints.

Academy president Frank Pierson said the Wise column explicitly breaches a decree that all academy presidents issue to the membership: namely, that voters not reveal to anyone how they are casting their ballots. “It’s an outright violation of academy rules,” Pierson said.

“The reaction among our membership has been real dismay, anger and outrage,” Pierson said, noting that the reaction was so strong that an unspecified number of the roughly 5,800 Oscar voters have asked that completed ballots be returned so that academy members can strike Scorsese’s name. The academy said mailed ballots would not be returned.

The Gangs of New York clash is but the latest Academy Awards spat involving Miramax, a studio that has transformed Oscar campaigning. More often than not, Miramax’s aggressive promotions have yielded numerous Oscar wins in top categories.

Bruce Davis, the academy’s executive director, said of the Wise column: “I am not aware of another academy president agreeing to sign an opinion piece endorsing a particular nominee.”

Lois Smith, Scorsese’s publicist, said: “Marty was very touched by what Bob Wise said. But he never knew it was going to become an advertisement. He was not happy.” Scorsese has never won an Oscar.

The controversy exploded during the final stretch of the Oscar season; the ballots are due on Tuesday and the awards ceremony is on March 23. Earlier in the campaign, some suggested that rules were being bent by a spate of private parties and celebrity-studded screenings sponsored by academy members.

Awards arm-twisting is part of Hollywood’s everyday currency, but the use of the 88-year-old director’s endorsement of Scorsese crossed a line for some. “There is just something extremely vulgar about the idea of a blatant campaign advertisement like this,” said Barry Levinson, the Academy Award-winning director of Rain Man.

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