Saturday, December 20, 2014

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "The Alamo" (1960)

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

The Alamo (1960)
Directed By: John Wayne
Written By: James Edward Grant
Starring: John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey
Genre: Adventure, Drama, History
Running Time: 167 minutes
Summary: The legendary true story of a small band of soldiers who sacrificed their lives in hopeless combat against a massive army in order to prevent a tyrant from smashing the new Republic of Texas.

The History

There sure is something about The Alamo that movie audiences don't like. Not to be mistaken with the 2004 film of the same name, this historical epic has been lost to history. The film was considered a bomb at the time making $7.2 million on a $12 million budget. If nothing else, it was also reflecting of the dying influence of westerns on American society that paved the way for the nihilistic styles of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Still, on the heels of epics such as Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, The Alamo didn't seem like all that much of a haphazard idea. In fact, it almost seemed like it could work. Westerns were in need of a great epic to compete with the others.

Following the real life story of Battle of the Alamo, there was something that drew John Wayne to make this his directorial debut. A long admired character actor, it was time to see what he could do behind the camera. With help from his collaborator John Ford and his son Pat Ford (who did research), the film took awhile to get going. The initial script for Republic Pictures was scrapped when it wouldn't work at a $3 million budget (it would later be made into The Last Command). There was a lot of collaboration issues as Wayne forced John Ford to shoot unnecessary b-roll that didn't even make the final cut.

The film itself is a disaster in terms of quality. Alamo historian Timothy Todish claimed that a lot of the scenes didn't correspond to any verifiable historical incident. Likewise, J. Frank Dobie and Lon Tinkle asked to have their names removed from the project as historical advisers. Many saw the film as Wayne's personal response to the ongoing Cold War thanks to dialogue references to the Republic and other blatant signs of patriotism. As a whole, audiences didn't respond to it, as the film was perceived by critic Leonard Maltin as a lot of historical name droppings. However, the final battle has gotten a lot of praise.

With the rising costs, the film itself was a bomb despite decent attendance. This is likely due to the escalating budget and the growing insignificance of westerns. Even then, the film went on to be anachronistically featured in How the West Was Won. There was later a roadshow version that clocked in at 202 minutes with musical accompaniment. However, that version was poorly stored and destroyed by 2007. As of this year, there's been petitions to restore this version with enthusiasm from the likes of Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro and J.J. Abrams.

The Campaign

The film itself had one hurdle to get over. It was one that was almost as notorious as the budgetary problems. Actor Chill Wills, who played Beekeeper in the film, campaigned really hard for an Oscar. The character was an alcoholic sidekick to Wayne's Davy Crockett. At 58-years-old and a lengthy time working as an actor, Wills figured that this was his only shot at getting the Academy Award. For the problematic marketing that Wayne did, Wills was more notorious and took an approach that Harvey Weinstein would use as his bread and butter decades later. He took to the printing sources and caused a public stir in the trade pages. If you find Weinstein using sentimentality to get Chocolat recognized, then this will surely shock you.

In the trade papers, Wills wrote blasphemous messages meant to create a deeper bond with the historical event. The most notorious of his ads read "We of The Alamo cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives at the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar." Of course, the "we" in question was actually just Wills overcompensating. Still, it was a desperate approach that seemed highly offensive giving that The Alamo didn't cost Wills any life changing trauma. It was a cry for a sympathetic comparison that suggested that several deaths were somehow warranting his Oscar win. Another ad read "Win, lose, or draw. You're still my cousins and I love you all." 

By this point, many were questioning the legitimacy of this campaign. It was playing too highly on emotions and caused many to reconsider the campaigning rule book. What makes the incident more interesting is that even his co-star and director Wayne decided to write "Dear Mr. Wills. I am delighted to be your cousin. But I'm voting for Sal Mineo (Exodus)." 

Still, there was the conflict that The Alamo would become a voting juggernaut solely because of its subject matter. To vote against it would be un-American. Yes, Wayne made a lot of the parallels between the historical event and the ongoing Cold War, but his pleading went beyond the guidelines of film. It was no longer about the quality, which was evident by its lack of critical or box office acclaim. While none of it compared to the notoriety that Wills would gather following this film, it was proof that Weinstein's shtick is nothing new. In fact, Wills eventually managed to pass the blame of this fiasco onto his publicity agent W.S. "Bow-Wow" Wojciechowicz. 

The Payoff

The film won an Oscar. It just wasn't the one that was necessarily important and worth mentioning in the same vein of Wills and Wayne's aggressive campaigns. The film won Best Sound. Total, the film received seven nominations including a Best Picture and Wills' coveted Best Supporting Actor. From there, things became a little less successful. Even Wayne's vote for Sal Mineo in Exodus didn't payoff because Peter Ustinov ended up winning for Spartacus. The Alamo's forceful marketing likely garnered it a lot of dismissal from voters, which is likely why it missed out on the top prizes.

It lost Best Picture to director Billy Wilder's The Apartment. It was a dark comedy with a contemporary look at American society. While it was different from the past few winners, including Ben-Hur and Gigi, it would usher in a new era of Best Picture winners. These would be films that dealt with more important issues than spectacle. They dealt with class structures and problematic social issues such as racism and poverty. This was the year that The Oscars would embrace their need to feel concerned. The fact that The Alamo even got nominated for Best Picture is a little baffling by today's standards, as box office gain makes or breaks a notion of a film. 

Still, The Apartment had an interesting predicament considering that Wilder was a veteran director having won before for The Lost Weekend. Wayne was an actor with an already impressive career playing cowboys in classics such as Stagecoach, The Searchers and Rio Bravo. It also plays into the notion that first time directors don't stand a chance at the Oscars. Even if Wayne's reputation was already built, he didn't necessarily do anything new with his debut that he had already done with Ford or Howard Hawks. The same could be said for the more controversial debut Citizen Kane by Orson Welles two decades prior. Or it could just be that the film wasn't that good. In fact, Wayne wouldn't actually win an Oscar until his Best Actor win for True Grit towards the end of the decade.

Nonetheless, it is one of the best examples of an Oscar campaign going off the rails with greed. Wills soured his reputation and was never nominated again. While he wasn't blacklisted, he still set the precedent for how not to do an Oscar campaign. For all of the problematic things that Weinstein has done in his 25 years of showboating, they all don't compare to the fiasco behind the scenes of The Alamo. It was a film plagued with problems and that included having a public dispute between performers and even getting commentary from Groucho Marx. It is a campaign that definitely deserved to fail. However, it is one that I wish that more people learned from and never imitated.

1 comment:

  1. 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.
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