Pop quiz: Do you know what won the Oscar for Best Picture at the 55th annual Academy Awards in 1983? Before you Google it, the answer is Gandhi. Now, do you know what massively successful, critically lauded and ultimately beloved 1982 film it beat in that category? That's a lot easier -- E.T.. After Gandhi's upset win, there was a quiet refrain heard around Hollywood and across America in response to what many considered an injustice committed by an out-of-touch Academy. "Gandhi was a great man," went the saying. "But E.T. was a great movie."
On paper and in the relentless promotion leading up to them, the Oscars are about honoring the creative and technical art of filmmaking. Whether a movie is about a real-life leader who changed history or an alien who befriends a little boy, if the exceptional craft is there, it should be worthy of attention and potential reward. That's how it's supposed to be. That's not, of course, how it is. The reality is that if you make a pretty good movie about the struggles of a historical figure -- well-known, somewhat-known or, best of all, known-but-misunderstood -- you've bought yourself a second and third look when it comes time for the Academy to vote on the best of the best for that year. Biopics are often inherently dramatic, carrying with them the heft of reality in the minds of audiences, and when the lives of their subjects need a little punching-up there's always Hollywood screenwriting magic at the ready. But "fictionalized" portrayal or not, a real person means real cachet. And that means Oscar-bait.
Drive around Hollywood right now and nearly everywhere you look there are FYC billboards. For the uninitiated, an FYC is a "For Your Consideration" ad, meant to promote a movie to the Academy members who will no doubt drive past it on the street or thumb past it in a trade publication. The ads are taken out by production companies looking to get Oscar voters to remember their films, the stars, the stories, and so on, in the hope that they'll cast their ballots the way those companies want. For the most part, these ads are straightforward: the title and cast of the film, a few blurbs from stellar reviews, that kind of thing. But there's a one particular billboard you can find all around the city right now that, to put it bluntly, really crosses the line in how far it's willing to go to cynically pander for votes. It's for one of the four biopics nominated for Best Picture this year.
If you live or work in Hollywood you've seen this thing. It's for The Imitation Game and unlike most FYCs that appeal to voters on the basis of the quality of the films they're promoting, this one blatantly violates the "great man vs. great movie" axiom by suggesting -- demanding really -- that voters recognize the subject of the film and do it by recognizing the film itself. In other words, according to this ad, an Oscar vote for The Imitation Game is a posthumous honor for its heroic -- and unfairly persecuted -- subject, British computer scientist and mathematician Alan Turing. The billboard doesn't even try to hide its baseness, stating flat-out, "He saved millions during World War II," then in huge lettering, all-caps, "HONOR THE MAN. HONOR THE MOVIE." The ads are part of a last-minute promotional push for votes aimed at removing the filmmaking as the central focus of why the movie should be honored and putting the whole thing squarely on the shoulders on Turing himself. You have to feel for the people who, you know, actually made the movie -- the talented people who apparently aren't talented enough to be honored in their own right.
The Imitation Game is a Weinstein production and Harvey Weinstein has a long and well-documented history of doing anything and everything to ensure his films wipe out the competition come awards time. His most impressive feat may be, ironically, promoting and backroom glad-handing his way to a Best Picture win for Shakespeare in Love in 1999. I say ironic, because the big movie it beat that year was Saving Private Ryan, which means that if you go by the standard Weinstein is applying to The Imitation Game, a group of actors were more worthy of recognition than the guys who saved the world from Nazi Germany. With the deadline for Academy voting ending Tuesday, Weinstein's been pushing The Imitation Game hard and he's even targeted the promotion, playing, as The Hollywood Reporter calls it, "the gay card." Since Alan Turing was persecuted for being gay during World War II, Harvey Weinstein took to CBS Morning News recently to declare that Turing now deserves to be officially honored by the British government, an honor that would of course benefit Harvey Weinstein and his movie a hell of a lot more than it would benefit the long-since-dead Alan Turing. He's pulled this kind of thing before, sending the cast of Silver Linings Playbook to D.C. a couple of years ago to be the face of the fight for stronger mental health legislation and attaching The King's Speech to some far more noble message about "finding your voice."
Granted, this is how Hollywood works these days, but in the case of an FYC ad that literally tells you to honor the subject of a movie by giving that movie an Oscar is well below underhanded. It's wrong -- period. I haven't seen The Imitation Game yet, but that's the point: it doesn't matter. As far as Harvey Weinstein is concerned the quality of the film he made isn't important, clearly not as important as the fact that he made a movie about Alan Turing at all. I spoke to a Hollywood insider about this tactic and his response left little room for debate. "It's despicable... Aside from its baldfaced, loathsome 'honesty,' it feels like an extortion note," he said. "I have to imagine anyone associated with the movie driving by and just cringing with embarrassment." What's worse, one of the plot points within The Imitation Game involves Turing choosing not to reveal that someone on his team is a Russian spy because doing so might out his own secret. That plot-line is entirely fictional, though, meaning, as the person I spoke to said, "They want you to honor the man, but they're perfectly happy slandering the poor, dead bastard."
There is "honesty" here, certainly. Hollywood produces movies like The Imitation Game because they're Oscar-bait. Simple as that. It's an open secret that producers hope Academy voters and the moviegoing public will recognize the real people and larger cultural issues they've been courageous enough to call attention to by making the films they do. They hope this will translate into big box-office takes and Oscar gold. But Hollywood is still supposed to be about the movies themselves, the craft that goes into them, rather than about a producer's willingness to take on a project that brings with it surefire critical acclaim. Alan Turing was a great man, but under no circumstances should The Imitation Game be considered for Best Picture unless it was a great movie. If you're an Academy member and you cast a vote for a movie about Turing because you want to honor Turing, as Harvey Weinstein hopes you will, the only people you're honoring are Harvey Weinstein and those who engineered this campaign.
Hell, you're not even honoring the talents of the people who actually made the damn movie. And that's completely unfair to them.