Yesterday Kathryn Bigelow issued a strident defense of her film Zero Dark Thirty in the L.A. Times. The statement comes as part of a campaign by the film’s producer and distributor to fight back against an onslaught of criticism of the film’s depiction of torture.
The firestorm around Zero Dark Thirty may be the most ferocious in Oscar history, but it is far from the only time an Oscar contender has incited controversy. When an Oscar contender gets too far out front, objectors seem to come out of the woodwork. At the end of the day, though, it’s debatable whether any of these campaigns — organized or not — actually have an effect on a film’s statuette chances. There is, of course, no way to know if an Academy member switched his or her vote because of bad publicity around a film. Nevertheless, in some cases, the connection seems clear. In others, controversial movies have gone on to win major awards.
Here’s a look back at some of the more strident attacks the awards trail has seen.
2. “Citizen Kane” (1941)
The Attack: When newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst learned Citizen Kane was based on his life, he convinced the head of MGM to offer Wells more than $800,000 to sell the film in order to destroy it. When that failed, Hearst banned his papers from running advertisements, reviewing it, or reporting on the film.
The Outcome: The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Score, Best Sound Recording, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Screenplay. It won only for Best Original Screenplay. The film was so reviled in Hollywood that the crowd booed every time it was mentioned as a nominee during the awards show. Most of the big prizes that year went instead to John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley.
3. “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967)
The Attack: The film was a cause célèbre while being blasted for its graphic violence. A critic for The New York Times wrote, “This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth.”
The Outcome: The film won awards for Best Supporting Actress and Best Cinematography, but it lost Best Picture to the safer In the Heat of the Night.
4. “Midnight Cowboy” (1969)
The Attack: The story of a hustler in New York City was considered so shocking upon its release that it was slapped with an X rating and met with a predictable storm of protest, not the least of which was for its oblique depiction of homosexual sex.
The Outcome: The film won the Best Picture trophy — the only X-rated film to date to do so.
5. “The Deer Hunter” (1978)
The Attack: Michael Cimino’s brutal portrayal of the Vietnam War hotly divided a nation still healing just three years after the last helicopter out of Saigon. In particular, the horrific Russian roulette scene had critics furious over the grim vision of America’s involvement in that country.
The Outcome: The film overcame its critics and won the Best Picture prize.
6. “Philadelphia” (1991)
The Attack: Writing in the L.A Times, AIDS activist and former Columbia Pictures executive Larry Kramer called Philadelphia “a heartbreakingly mediocre film. It’s dishonest, it’s often legally, medically and politically inaccurate.”
The Outcome: The film won Best Actor and Best Original Song but failed to garner a Best Picture nomination.
7. “A Beautiful Mind” (2001)
The Attack: John Forbes Nash Jr. was gay, he fathered an illegitimate child, and he was an an anti-Semite. Nash’s biographer, Sylvia Nasar, defended the Nobel laureate in the L.A. Times, writing, “Mainstream news organizations have stated everything from the ‘fact’ that Nash was gay and an adulterer to the ‘fact’ that he was a bad father and a bigot — all of which are untrue.”
The Outcome: The film overcame the critics and won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress.
8. “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008)
The Attack: The child actors were said not to have been adequately compensated for their work on the film, and their living conditions allegedly worsened after completing the movie. According to the British newspaper The Telegraph, Rubina Ali, who played a young Latika in the film, earned only “£500 for a year’s work while Azharuddin received £1,700, according to the children’s parents.” ABC News reported, “[Azharuddin] Ismail [who plays a young Salim in the film] lives under a plastic sheet by a roadside, and his father, who has tuberculosis, is in a hospital nearly 10 miles away.”
The Outcome: The film won Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Sound Mixing.
9. “Hurt Locker” (2009)
The Attack: Bomb diffusion experts told The New York Times the film was “completely implausible — wrong in almost every respect,” while the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said to the L.A. Times, “the depiction of our community in this film is disrespectful. We are not cowboys. We are not reckless. We are professionals. And a lot of the film would make you think the opposite.”
The Outcome: The film won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Film Editing.
10. “The Social Network” (2010)
The Attack: The biopic was criticized for taking wild liberties with the Mark Zuckerberg story and bending reality to shape writer Aaron Sorkin’s artistic agenda.
The Outcome: The film lost Best Picture to a competitor whose liberties with the historical record were slightly less obvious, The King’s Speech, which told the story of King George VI and the speech therapist who helped the king overcome his stammer.