For movie studios and the savvy publicists they employ, Oscar season isn’t simply about touting their own contenders — it’s also a months-long permission slip to launch attacks against their rivals. All it takes is a subtle suggestion at an awards season party, or a cleverly crafted email to a friendly journalist, and suddenly you can advance a narrative that could ultimately take down your movie’s biggest competitor. The films that are most susceptible to these whisper campaigns are the ones that are based on true stories (like 12 Years a Slave and Captain Phillips), since they can be dinged for inaccuracy, but often, the case against these films is more unique and insidious. Here are several of the Best Picture contenders that are currently bearing the brunt of those carefully coaxed whispers.
12 Years a Slave
The whisper campaign started early for 12 Years a Slave, owing to its instant frontrunner status. Weeks before the movie was even released, the New York Times published an article questioning whether Solomon Northup actually wrote the memoir that 12 Years is based on; instead, the Times suggested, the tale was mostly told by Northup’s white amanuensis David Wilson, and the article quoted a disbelieving scholar who felt the book couldn’t pass the smell test “as autobiography and/or literature.” On the ground, I hear two more knocks against the film that its rivals are eager to encourage: One is that 12 Years is too brutal to watch, which may keep older voters and the weak-of-will from seeing it, and the other is a curious case being mounted against the film’s director Steve McQueen. The Wrap’s Steve Pond called McQueen “prickly” in one article and in another, suggested that his personality would work against the movie during awards season, and countless other Oscar pundits and publicists picked up on and seconded the idea that McQueen is too haughty or testy to win over voters, reinforcing a notion of the black director that veers dangerously close to calling him “uppity.” It also hasn’t quite been borne out: McQueen’s done a great deal of awards season press and proved himself to be an eager staple of many of this season’s parties and events.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
The brainpower behind The Butler took liberties with the truth, but they’ll freely admit to that: The film is said to be “inspired by a true story,” and though its lead is based on a real-life black butler who served many presidential administrations, director Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong renamed him and gave him a fictional family and invented personal history to better serve the film. Inaccuracy, then, isn’t the biggest knock I keep hearing against The Butler; instead, rival Oscar teams went wild last month when Deadline published a video advancing the Weinstein-approved narrative that a win for The Butler would be a fitting tribute to its late, beloved producer Laura Ziskin. Nearly every publicist I talked to called the strategy “shameless”; perhaps they’re also scared that the heartstrings-tugging tactic could actually pay off.
Is Captain Phillips a hero? As played in the film by Tom Hanks, he certainly is, though crewmates of the real-life captain would have you believe otherwise: Nine men who sailed the Maersk Alabama with Phillips are suing their shipping company for millions, arguing that Phillips ignored warnings to stay away from the Somali coast and knowingly steered his ship into pirate-infested waters. “For the first half of the movie, I was sitting there laughing at inappropriate times,” an attorney for the crew members told Radar. “I knew they were going to stretch the truth, but I just didn’t know they were going to stretch it as far as they did!” Some of the members complained to the New York Post that in reality, Captain Phillips is an “arrogant” man who “no one wants to sail with,” and that his movie act of self-sacrifice never actually happened. It’s no surprise, then, that the studio has been making the captain available for interviews: According to him, the only notable inaccuracy is the presence of four-lane roads in the movie’s Vermont-set prologue.
Here’s one whisper campaign that Harvey Weinstein is trying to use to his advantage: After New York Post critic Kyle Smith bashed the Judi Dench vehicle Philomena as a “hateful and boring attack on Catholics,” Weinstein spun the controversy into a marketing campaign that urges potential moviegoers to “decide for themselves.” At issue is the film’s depiction of cruel nuns who forced the real-life Philomena Lee into years of servitude after she became pregnant at a young age (they later sold her child to an adoptive couple, a devastating act that powers the film’s central search for his modern-day whereabouts). Lee herself wrote a kindly open letter to Smith that Weinstein ran on Deadline last week, and he’ll excerpt it in a full-page Times ad this weekend.
Saving Mr. Banks
The fact that Disney has made a movie about its founder Walt Disney presents all sorts of unusual conflicts of interest, and the studio attempted to get out in front of the situation with a friendly Times piece alleging that director John Lee Hancock and writer Kelly Marcel had free rein to create a “warts and all” depiction of the man. “Wow, this was so not the battle I anticipated,” producer Allison Owen told the Times, adding, “[The studio] behaved impeccably.” And it might have worked, if star Tom Hanks hadn’t then recalled a “no way in hell” objection from the studio when Hancock attempted to show the studio chief with a lit cigarette in his hand, an image insubordination that actually led to a “negotiation” between the filmmakers and the studio. But Disney himself isn’t the only one coming in for accusations of whitewashing, since the movie’s central character, Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, receives a bit of image rehab herself. While she’s still portrayed as ornery, the movie leaves out her blithe adoption of a son she then mostly tried to get rid of, and doesn’t even hint at her bisexuality and risque writing. Hitfix’s Drew McWeeny also took issue with how the film totally reinterprets a climactic encounter at the Mary Poppins premiere to better suit its heartwarming narrative.
Dallas Buyers Club
The AIDS drama Dallas Buyers Club has gotten plenty of acclaim for its transformative performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, but not everyone is thrilled that these straight actors (and straight director Jean-Marc Vallée) were the ones entrusted with this sensitive subject. “The people tackling [the film] — and being heroized within it — do not embody the group of people who were most ravaged by AIDS,” wrote Indiewire’s Peter Knegt, while other columnists have asked why Leto played a role that should have gone to a transgender performer. The filmmakers can at least argue that the disputed narrative — a straight, AIDS-afflicted man helps smuggle treatment drugs to an appreciative gay clientele — is based on a true story, but only to a point: Leto’s character Rayon and Jennifer Garner’s kind doctor were both invented for the film.