Years listed denote the Oscar ceremony year, not the year of theatrical release.
Target: Citizen Kane
Tactic: William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate who serves as the chief influences for Orson Welles' iconic character, had an ax to grind against the revolutionary opus and more than enough muscle to swing it. He used his media ties to ban all mention of the film in his papers, crippled its theatrical run to limited engagements, and would curse Orson's name to anyone who would listen.
Result: Despite nine nominations, including Best Picture, Kane only took home an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Time would vindicate it as one of the greatest films of all time, but the sting of defeat would hang over it for years to come, effectively damning Welles' once promising career.
Target: High Noon
Tactic: At the height of McCarthyism, critics and rival studios exploited Red Menace paranoia, accusing the acclaimed Western of pushing a liberal agenda. Screenwriter Carl Foreman was a figure of interest in McCarthy's Hollywood "black list" and analysts interpreted the text of the film as being a highly critical metaphor for the Communist witch hunts, along with U.S. involvement in the Korean War. Pulling the old "anti-american" card when it still had some weight behind it, these days that sort of thing would get you a documentary Oscar.
Result: Seven nominations, winning four but voters edged away from supporting High Noon directly, denying it the Best Picture, Director and Screenplay awards.
Targets: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Good Will Hunting.
Tactic: Rumours began to circulate that the definitive bromantic pair of the late '90s did not write the movie, with some reports claiming their friend and fellow one-time Miramax darling, Kevin Smith, performed ghost writing duties on the feature. Other claims were that the pair stole the story from Silence of the Lambs writer, Ted Tally.
Result: A win for Damon and Affleck and the start of their careers.
Target: Saving Private Ryan.
Tactic: Questions of accuracy arose around the film, one of the more basic smears out there. Entertainment journalists would later admit that figures at Miramax asked them to criticize the film in print. Miramax being the studio backing Ryan's main rival, and eventual victor, Shakespeare in Love.
Result: Despite eleven Oscar nominations, Ryan walked with only five, including Best Director for Spielberg, but was denied Best Picture and the illustrious "sweep" by Shakespeare in Love, which took six including Best Picture.
Target: A Beautiful Mind
Tactic: Where to begin? Claims that the film tiptoed around the schizophrenia of the protagonist and that the makers censored his life story, including the removal of homosexual encounters and anti-Semitism. Experts and figures connected to the story accused the film of being inaccurate, further accusations arose that Akiva Goldsman plagiarised the screenplay.
Result: Out of the eight nominations received, A Beautiful Mind won four, including Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay.
Target: Million Dollar Baby
Tactic: A New York Times piece claimed that social activists were concerned that Eastwood's euthanasia ending sent the "wrong message" to people with serious spinal-cord injuries. Euthanasia isn't exactly a tepid topic, either.
Result: Four Oscars out of seven, including Best Picture.
Target: Slumdog Millionaire
Tactic: Unlike A Beautiful Mind, which was a sustained series of attacks on the films legitimacy, the smear campaign against Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire had fewer strikes but they made a louder impression. Claims began to circulate that the 8-year-old stars were underpaid and exploited by the filmmakers and returned to a life of poverty once shooting wrapped up. A last kicker was a distressing image of one of the young stars being beaten by his abusive father, said to be a hard reminder of life beyond the fairy tale ending.
Result: Of the ten nominations, Slumdog won a staggering eight Oscars, including Best Picture.
Target: The Hurt Locker
Tactic: Former veterans criticised the accuracy of the film and a little accidental piece of self-promotion became an act of self-sabotage, when producer Nicolas Chartier distributed an e-mail, encouraging Academy members to vote for his film "and not a $500M film", a thinly veiled and inoffensive dig at Avatar. This was a violation of Academy rules and Avatar fans were livid at this one mans attempt to casually discredit their precious little billion dollar baby.
Result: Six Oscars, including Best Picture, and an empty seat where Nicholas Chartier would have been sitting.
Target: The King's Speech.
Tactic: The film glosses over the "fact" that King George VI was sympathetic to the Third Reich and a bit of an anti-Semite before war broke out.
Result: Four Oscars, including Best Picture.
You will, of course, notice that the game has certainly picked up over recent years becoming an invaluable tool in modern PR warfare.
There was a time, back when the media had much tighter controls (ie, before the internet made the distribution of information easier and mucked it all up) when a smear campaign could all but destroy a films chances at Oscar glory, but now the best you can hope for is making a dent. The actual cost of the last four major examples is negligible, they are in categories that the films were never guaranteed success in, and as long as they win Best Picture you know their reputation remains intact.
The important thing is, as long as you don't violate the voting rules set out by the Academy, it really doesn't matter what facts you bring up about the back story of a film if it has no bearing on the film itself, you still have a shot. Even the ever controversial Roman Polanski was spared the full wrath of a smear campaign that pulled no punches, regarding his rape charges and flight from justice. The Pianist still won three Oscars, including Best Director for Polanski. Sometimes the work speaks for itself.
The narrative of a films oscar campaign is as important as the quality of the film, if you find a good hook then most of the work has been done for you.
The Avatar vs Hurt Locker narrative was the stuff of publicist and awards prognosticators dreams, ex-husband versus ex-wife, the biggest movie of all time versus a scrappy little indie, the Titanic directors triumphant return to blockbuster glory versus the chance to be the first woman to win a Best Director. As much as Oscar loves to reward success, it also loves to have a message. The campaign against The Hurt Locker, with the typical accusations of inaccuracy that most historically based films must bear, could not derail such a great awards narrative.
You are doubly impervious to smearing if the subject in question is a feel good movie. People do not want to see insidious elements invade the warm fuzzies they received from watching the movie. All the purported child labour violations in the world could not undo the big dance number at the end of Slumdog Millionaire.
The Artist has a narrative; a film harking back to a simpler, purer era in movie making, taps into a romanticized view of the past and even charming the pants off the family of Mr. Silent Film himself, Charlie Chaplin. It also has an adorable fucking dog doing press tours for the film and inspiring grass-roots campaigns for his eligibility for an actor nod.
On top of that, it's essentially the only feel good movie of the year in the Oscar race. The recurring competition coming in the form of films about World War One, 9/11 and misogyny. Even the critically acclaimed, equally affectionate ode to cinema's glory days, Hugo, lacks the peppy charms of The Artist.
You would need to really push it to badmouth such an affectionate display. Frankly, unless it turns out that Uggie the Dog is a Holocaust denier, there really isn't going to be a lot of ammunition against The Artist that will undo the good will it has generated in audiences.
That does not change the fact that, being the favourite in this race, makes it a bigger target for attacks. The smear campaign is a part of the process, some much-needed licks before a film is ready for the title fight. If anything, history is beginning to show that a vicious smear campaign actually engenders even more goodwill for a film. It takes the fan base from supportive to defensive and that is when they become truly passionate, when they feel they have something to prove.
The best offence is a good defence. Once you become a victim in the eyes of audiences and the voting community, a target of scorn or resentment, sympathies will side with the accused. It's such a reliable turn of events that you have to wonder how long it is before producers begin fabricating scandals to boost their chances of a golden sympathy vote? A better question might be; have they already reached that point?
This current attack on The Artist could be a rival studios attempts to stir up some anti-Artist sentiment, it could be an inside job devised by the Weinstein's (the masters of Oscar campaigning) or it could just be the admittedly irrational actions of a single person.
The fact this story even appeared on our radars is indicative of a media culture obsessed with the politics and less so the films. The irony of saying that, despite dedicating an entire article to smear campaigning is not lost on me, so don't bother pointing that out we've had enough smearing done for one week.