Saturday, October 4, 2014

Failed Oscar Campaigns: Gangs of New York (2003)

Daniel Day-Lewis
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Gangs of New York (2003)
Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Written By: Jay Cocks (story/screenplay), Steve Zailian (screenplay), Kenneth Lonergan (screenplay)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Daniel Day-Lewis
Genre: Crime, Drama, History
Running Time: 167 minutes
Summary: In 1863, Amsterdam Vallon returns to the Five Points area of New York City seeking revenge against Bill the Butcher, his father's killer.

The History

It is a film billed with production history. While Martin Scorsese is a beloved director nowadays and even around the time of Gangs of New York, there was something that delayed it since the project started in the 70's. However, with a dynamite cast that featured Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis as well as a screenplay from Oscar-winning writer Steve Zailian (Best Adapted Screenplay - Schindler's List), it looked like nothing could beat it. This tale of life in 1860's New York is one of the most impressive looking period pieces of the 00's and features one of Day-Lewis' most iconic performances pre-There Will Be Blood. While the film has gone on to be polarizing to audiences, its eventual release gave it the shot to become something greater. To this day, it is a great discussion starter and serves as one of the best flawed masterpieces of the decade.

The Campaign

It should be way more easier to get on board with a Martin Scorsese picture at the Oscars. He has been nominated in the Best Picture race at least once for the past three decades. His dedication to bringing New York culture to life has remained one of cinema's greatest gifts and the hyperbole thrown at him is simultaneously warranted and overrated. Still, Gangs of New York came out at an interesting time between Goodfellas and The Departed. Between then, Scorsese's films weren't necessarily the biggest profile films. Gangs of New York felt like a break from that. Even if he had yet to win an Oscar, this is the film that seemed like a comeback film. To some extent, it is one that guaranteed him a permanent seat at the table.

The film was polarizing and with Chicago taking up a lot of the spotlight during the campaign season, there was a sense that Gangs of New York needed to step up its game. On top of moving Day-Lewis to Best Actor, the race was shaping up in a way that wasn't entirely fair. However, the real change of pace came when there was an article published in the Los Angeles Daily News and the Long Beach Press Telegram by none other than former head of the Academy and two time Best Picture winner Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music). Wise, who was a big fan of the movie, was quoted as saying:
"Two time Academy Award winner Robert Wise declares Scorsese deserves the Oscar for Gangs of New York."
Harvey Weinstein used the quote in the ads as a form of persuasion. Still, the controversy rose when it was revealed that Miramax's publicist Murray Weissman actually wrote the original article. There were claims that it was altered, which was later proven untrue. This resulted in several voters asking for their ballots back to reconsider. Even Best Picture winner Barry Levinson (Rain Man) claimed that it was "extremely vulgar" vote-soliciting tactics. To add the biggest insult, even Scorsese was unhappy with this particular article.

The Payoff

It is tough to tell if this is a Failed Oscar Campaign if there was a great backlash that shifted Oscar voting afterwards. Still, in 2003, with 10 nominations, Gangs of New York joined a prestigious club of The Color Purple and American Hustle as being a double digit nominee to completely strike out. While Scorsese would win Best Picture with The Departed three years later, it is hard to see Weinstein's marketing strategy as anything short of botching the film's chances. Even if Chicago (which was also a Miramax release) remains a controversial winner (though not as much as others of the 00's), there's still an honest discussion to be had on if Gangs of New York stood a chance at all. Sure, Day-Lewis was phenomenal, but the film was already getting mixed reviews. 

However, where the film ended up having a tremendous loss, a lot of good came from Weinstein's aggravating strategy. On top of Miramax's contender Cold Mountain being excised from Best Picture despite being from Best Picture winner Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), it was for bigger reasons. The Academy was bitter and wanted to prove it. Academy President Frank Pierson released a statement claiming:
''Any Academy member who has authorized, approved or executed a campaign activity that is determined by the Board of Governors to have undermined the letter or spirit of these regulations will be subject to suspension of membership or expulsion from the Academy.'' 
In regards to more serious violations it ''could result in a film losing its eligibility for Awards consideration.''
It may continue to be occasionally problematic, but for the most part has been improved. Still, it raises an interesting question. Should Academy members be allowed to participate in campaigns? The Hollywood Reporter holds annual Actors on Actors events in which former winners often praise their co-stars. In some cases, like last year's Best Original Song nominee "Alone Yet Not Alone" from Alone Yet Not Alone, the participation is more clear and supportive of this ban. Even then, the lack of campaigning from Academy members has made the race more interesting and has kept it from turning into a biased swamp of prestige telling others how to vote. While it isn't enough to fix Gangs of New York's tragic outcome, it does help to shape a better Oscar future.

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