Friday, February 10, 2012

The Meryl Streep Oscar Email Controversy

If you have been keeping track of this year's Oscar race, you may well be aware of a controversy over an email promoting Meryl Streep for Best Actress for her role in The Iron Lady. If not, it seems that Prometheus Global Media, the parent company of The Hollywood Reporter, sent the email as a third party advertisement out to Hollywood Reporter subscribers, many of who are members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The header of the email read "From: The Weinstein Company: The Iron Lady." The subject line of the email read "Exclusive Meryl Streep Video." Within the email itself was an advert which quoted critic Thelma Adams, "It's been TWENTY-NINE YEARS SINCE MERYL STREEP WON AN OSCAR and she certainly deserves to win for her performance in 'The Iron Lady'!" Embedded in the advert was a link to a video interview with Meryl Streep on the Weinstein Company website. In the interview itself, moderator Peter Hammond notes that it has been 29 years since Meryl Streep has won an Oscar and states, "Something has to be done about that!"

On the surface the email would appear to violate rules four and five of the Academy's rule on Oscar campaigns. Rule number four forbids emails that "extol the merits of a film, an achievement or an individual" and forbids any mention of past awards or links to websites to promote a nominated film or individual. Rule number five clarifies that links to websites are only permitted if the website only contains screening information and has no promotional material whatsoever. That having been said, these rules only apply to emails sent direct to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Since the email was sent to subscribers of The Hollywood Reporter, they are technically legal.

Regardless, the email sent by the Weinstein Company to subscribers of The Hollywood Reporter has angered many members in the Academy. Many of the angered Academy members contacted TheWrap.Com, a news site covering Hollywood, who broke the story. Weinstein Company COO commented on the controversy with the words, "“We are surprised that a media outlet like TheWrap, which normally has journalistic integrity, would print the strange accusation of an anonymous competitor and use this as a direct broadside against Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. (the email appears to have been sent out from Variety as well)."

This is hardly the first time that campaigning to win a particular Oscar has generated controversy. Perhaps the most memorable instance occurred in 1961 when the publicist of Best Supporting Actor award nominee Chill Wills from The Alamo, W. S. Wojeiechowicz, took a two page advert in Hollywood trade papers that read, "Win, Lose, or Draw, You're Still My Cousins and I Love You All" and included a list of hundreds of Academy members. In response, Groucho Marx (who was among those listed) took out an advert that read, "Dear Mr. Chill Wills: I Am Delighted to Be Your Cousin, but I Voted for Sal Mineo." Regardless, Mr. Wojeiechowicz took out another full page advert in The Hollywood Reporter that included a photo of Chill Wills from The Alamo and a photo of the cast of the film and read, "We of The Alamo cast are praying--harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives in the Alamo--for Chill Wills to win the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor--Cousin Chill's acting was great" and was signed, "Your Alamo Cousins."

This second advertisement outraged Academy members, not the least of who was John Wayne, who placed his own disclaimer adverts in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter condemning the advert, stating that the Chill Wills advert was " untrue and reprehensible claim." Needless to say, Texans were also outraged. Texas newspapers received many letters to their editors that condemned the comparison. The Alamo took home only one Oscar for Best Sound. While the fact that its competition were such films as The Apartment, Spartacus, and Psycho, there can be little doubt that at least part of the reason it won no Oscars was that Chill Wills' campaign for an Oscar left many Academy members cold.

I rather suspect that this email could result in the same situation for The Iron Lady. If enough Academy members were offended by the email, they might not only deny Meryl Streep an Oscar for Best Actress, but an Oscar for any other category in which The Iron Lady is nominated. While the email does not violate the Academy's Oscar campaign rules, it would certainly seem to be in poor taste in that it seems to advocate giving Meryl Streep another Oscar not for her performance in The Iron Lady, but because she has not won one in the past 29 years.

Of course, this brings me to another point. I have not seen The Iron Lady and I do not know how good or bad Miss Streep's performance may have been in the film, but if many Academy members agree with me there is a good reason she has not  won an Oscar for 29 years. Quite simply, my late best friend summed up Meryl Streep's performances of the past few decades, with but a few exceptions, as, "Look at me, I'm acting!" I must say that I always agreed with him. I always felt that the vast majority of her performances were self-conscious and overly contrived, that it was far too obvious that she was playing a character. To me truly great acting only occurs when the viewer doesn't think the actor is acting. In other words, Meryl Streep is like a ventriloquist who makes no effort to hide the fact that her lips are moving the entire time. I believe that is the reason she has not won an Oscar in 29 years.

By all means, The Iron Lady could be the first truly great performance Meryl Streep has given in literally years. Perhaps in playing Margaret Thatcher in the film it is not so blatantly obvious that she is acting as it has been in her other roles. That having been said, even if it is the greatest performance of her career and deserving of a Best Lead Actress Oscar, the email sent to Hollywood Reporter subscribers promoting her for a role leaves a bad taste in my mouth the way that reading about Chill Wills' campaign for an Oscar always did. Quite simply, I oppose any and all campaigning to win an Oscar, let alone campaigns that are conducted in bad tastes. To me the Oscars should not be a popularity race. The awards should not be awarded simply to those who can cajole, wheedle, or otherwise use undue influence on Academy members to vote for them. To me Oscars should only be given to those films and individuals who truly deserve them. Oscars should only be given to those films and individuals who are truly the best. I know it doesn't always work like that. I know that all too many times that films and individuals have won Oscars for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the film or the actor's performance. Certainly there is no shortage of examples from movie history.

That having been said, while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can hardly keep its members from voting for a film because they are pals with the director or voting for a particular actor because they feel he or she is overdue for an Oscar, I think the Academy can certainly insure that Oscars not awarded simply to whoever campaigns the best for one. Quite simply, I think the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should simply ban campaigning for Oscars entirely. No advertisements. No emails. No letters. No phone calls. The only thing permissible would be screenings, at which no gifts would be given nor food nor drink available. To me the Academy Awards should not be like running for Prom Queen. They should be about who truly did the best.

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