LOS ANGELES—Perhaps it is no surprise, given that 2012 was a US election year, but this year’s Oscars crop includes a heavy dose of politics—which has arguably influenced Hollywood’s top awards race.
From gun control advocates blasting blood-spattered “Django Unchained,” to rows over CIA torture that were triggered by “Zero Dark Thirty,” this year’s nominees have, whether coincidentally or not, fueled topical political debates.
The most obviously political film vying for Academy Award glory on Sunday, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” even won a surprise backing from none other than former president Bill Clinton, on stage at the Golden Globes last month.
That looked eerily like the kind of candidate endorsement America spent last year watching, as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney vied for the White House, except that it was for a movie, in this case by Democrat-supporting Spielberg.
“A tough fight to push a bill through a bitterly divided House of Representatives—winning it required the president to make a lot of unsavory deals… I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Clinton quipped at the Globes.
He was joking about the film’s plot, in which the 16th US president schemes to ensure Congress backs the 13th Amendment to ban slavery. But he could easily have been referring to any Washington crisis including the current budget one.
“Lincoln” has the most nominations going into the 85th Academy Awards, but even Clinton’s backing may not be enough to secure it top honors, in one of the most unpredictable Oscars contests in recent memory.
Political thriller “Argo,” which has won virtually every major pre-Oscars award, tells a true story from the sidelines of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, a US diplomatic disaster which effectively sealed president Jimmy Carter’s fate.
Reminding US voters of that debacle overall possibly didn’t help Democrats too much, although the movie’s focus on an audacious CIA operation to free six hostages leaves Carter looking surprisingly good.
One Oscar-nominated film which definitely sheds a good light on a Democratic president—Obama—is Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden manhunt movie “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Indeed, the risk of the film being seen as propaganda—it climaxes with the deadly raid on the Al Qaeda chief’s Pakistan hideout, a game-changing Obama triumph—was such that it was only released after the November 6 election.
But the bigger political row it triggered was over its depiction of CIA “enhanced interrogation” techniques, widely seen as torture, and specifically how much role they played in tracking bin Laden to his Abbottabad compound.
The CIA’s acting head and a number of top lawmakers lambasted the film for implying that torture helped turn the tide in the hunt for bin Laden—a charge Oscar-winning Bigelow repeatedly rebuffed.
“I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden,” she said.
But the torture row could well have clouded the movie’s Oscars chances, as Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters may have balked at casting their ballots for such a politically-loaded film.
But perhaps the most obvious victim of political controversy, in awards terms, has been Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.”
The film is about a black slave freed by a white bounty-hunter in pre-Civil War America, and features Tarantino’s trademark over-the-top violence as the pair kill for rewards and revenge in nearly three hours of blood-soaked chaos.
Days before its release, the massacre of 20 small children occurred in Newtown, Connecticut—and America went into paroxysms of hand-wringing about gun violence, just as “Django” was gearing up for its big entrance.
A red-carpet premiere was called off, and a range of toys of the film’s key characters was withdrawn and banned from eBay as “offensive.”
Tarantino, long used to defending violence in his films, was pushed even more in media interviews, losing his temper in at least one encounter with a British TV channel.
“Yeah, I’m really annoyed,” he told National Public Radio (NPR) in the US, saying his film had nothing to do with the deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“I think it’s disrespectful to their memory. The issue is gun control and mental health,” he said.
But for all his arguments, it was never going to help his film’s awards chances.
The movie won Golden Globes for best supporting actor for Christoph Waltz and best screenplay for a visibly startled Tarantino (“This is a damn surprise!”) but has otherwise failed to pick up any big prizes this season.
It is nominated in five Oscars categories, including best picture—but even Tarantino admits it has little hope of the top honor.
“I don’t think we’re going to win best film,” he told the BBC after the nominations were announced last month. “But the recognition, being invited to the party, is a lot of fun.”