If all the scenarios play out as predicted — if the U.S. invades Iraq next week and Michael Moore wins the best documentary category for Bowling for Columbine — the 75th Oscar awards ceremony on March 23 will be a historically controversial event.
Given the intense divisions over the war in the United States, especially in the anti-war Hollywood community, a win by Moore could eclipse such historically political years as 1972 and 1978. In the first case, Marlon Brando sent a model dressed as an Apache woman to reject his best-actor award for The Godfather in a protest on behalf of Native Americans. In 1978, a pro-Palestinian Vanessa Redgrave won best actress for Julia, and referred to "Zionist hoodlums" from the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, while protestors burned her in effigy outside.
Moore's angry documentary condemns American culture as paranoid, gun-crazy at home and militaristic abroad. Put him in front of a worldwide audience of a billion and you can expect a forceful tirade against President George W. Bush and his war plans.
On the surface, Bowling for Columbine's Oscar win seems as much a foregone conclusion as the onset of the bombing of Baghdad. Though Moore was shut out back in 1989 when his hit film Roger and Me was nominated, even his rivals concede that Bowling is a juggernaut.
Since its commercial release last fall, it has become the best-selling non-concert documentary in history, with a global box office of more than $30-million (U.S.). In France, it has won the French Oscar, the César. It finished among the top 10 films of the year in such mainstream publications as Time magazine, USA Today and Entertainment Weekly and, in an arguable case of overkill, was picked as the greatest documentary of all time by the International Documentary Association in a poll of 2,000 documentary filmmakers around the world.
In the closely watched trade awards that lead up to the Oscars, the film has even won an award from the Writers' Guild for best original screenplay, unprecedented for a documentary.
One more safe prediction is that if Moore wins, he'll make a point of saying, as he has said all along, that the film would not have been made except for the conviction of a relatively small Nova Scotia production company, Salter Street Films. Bowling for Columbine portrays Canadian society as a more peaceful alternative to American domestic violence. As well, Canadians have accounted for 25 per cent of the North American viewing audience for Bowling for Columbine.
Salter Street, which was founded by a couple of donnish intellectual brothers, lawyer and CEO Michael Donovan and his writer brother Paul, is best known for its episodic series, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Lexx, Made in Canada, Emily of New Moon and Blackfly, as well as made-for-TV movies such as Life with Billy. Salter Street, which also owns the Independent Film Channel Canada, previously produced Moore's television series, The Awful Truth.
In 2001, Salter Street was acquired by Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc. of Toronto. Alliance Atlantis was also a producer of one of the other five films in documentary competition, Prisoner of Paradise. Alliance Atlantis had the global clout that helped Bowling for Columbine enter the Cannes competition last May, where it won a Jury Award, and earned standing ovations from the Europeans.
Michael Donovan, already in L.A. for the events, admits to being, uncharacteristically, a "little excited" but insists that, despite the film's momentum, "this is no shoo-in. Let's say I haven't gone out and rented a new tux yet." What's exciting, he says, is not just his company's shot at an Oscar, but the confluence of the American war momentum and the movie as a focus for the opposition to it. "This makes the event important and very, very interesting. If Michael gets up, I doubt he'll feel the need to be silent."
One of the reasons Donovan is reserving his enthusiasm is the nature of the documentary voting. Any member of the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences, and there are 6,000 of them, can vote in the documentary category. But the rules stipulate that every voter in that category must see all five films. Attendance is taken.
"It's a rule that favors the obscure," says Donovan. "If someone has already seen Bowling for Columbine, as a lot of people have, then they have to go back and see it again, along with all the other nominees, in order to vote. The documentary screenings are also not that easy to find."
Donovan says only about 200 members of the Academy actually do vote in the documentary category. That's one of the reasons why United Artists, the American distributor of Bowling for Columbine, took out a large ad in Variety, explaining the rules to voters and listing where the screenings were for all the documentaries.
Bowling for Columbine has some very legitimate competition. The Director's Guild awards (which can include documentaries that showed only on television) nominated only one of the Oscar candidates, director Malcolm Clarke's Prisoner of Paradise, the biography of Kurt Gerron, a German actor/director forced to make a Nazi propaganda film.
Other Oscar nominations include Daughter of Danang, the reunion story of a Vietnamese woman and her daughter, who was raised in the United States after they were separated at the end of the Vietnam war. There's a highly touted film on birds, Winged Migration, by the French team who produced the hit, Microcosmos; and there's Spellbound, about the quest of eight teenagers to win the American national spelling bee.
In truth, Donovan has been talking about the timeliness of having Moore on the Oscar podium ever since Bowling for Columbine was released commercially last September. Partly, he admits, he was trying to plug his product but he understood, at least from the Cannes film festival on, that the film was going to be something unusual.
"I was more confident nine months ago [when the film was commercially released] than I am now. I did know that the film would be a big success. I was aware of a shift that had taken place in the past year and a half, mostly through my week-to-week contact with the This Hour Has 22 Minutes audience. People were shaken out of their complacency by Sept. 11 and became extremely skeptical in all areas, particularly of business and the right. It was the right film at the right time. The Europeans were fed up and they showed that through their support of the film. A lot of other people are fed up and angry. The film has become an outlet for a consensus of people who don't believe what is happening is right."
How that plays to the Hollywood liberal vote remains an open question. The city of West Hollywood has officially declared its opposition to an Iraq war. Oscar nominee Martin Scorsese, along with West Wing star Martin Sheen, Sean Penn, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, have spoken out against a new Gulf War and more than 100 celebrities have signed an open letter to President Bush, urging him to pursue peaceful methods. Still, Donovan isn't sure Hollywood sentiment is entirely behind Bowling for Columbine.
"I've discovered that liberal doesn't necessarily mean the same thing in Halifax as it does in Hollywood. Hollywood is very positive toward capitalism but it also has a lot of creative people living there and most creative people are liberal."
The other factor is Charlton Heston, spokesman for the National Rifle Association and a revered figure in Hollywood. In Bowling for Columbine, Moore confronts Heston at his home, making the aged actor look foolish and callous about the death of a child. Heston subsequently announced in public that he has Alzheimer's, though he has not resigned his job with the NRA.
"It's certainly a factor," concedes Donovan. "We might face a kind of circle-the-wagons phenomenon by this perceived attack on a Hollywood icon, a respected figure, and reasonably so. I mean, he's Moses. That's why the NRA chose him."
Though Hollywood media have been abuzz with rumors of a McCarthy-ite witch hunt with the new security measures in the U.S., a win for Bowling for Columbine would send a bold message to Washington, that Hollywood is not toeing the line this time.
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