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Campaign For Oscar Votes Takes 'Ugly' Turn - 2002-03-16

Hollywood will present its annual Academy Awards March 24, and studios and filmmakers are trying to attract attention to their movies. This year's Oscar race has taken a cue from politics and drawn cries of dirty campaigning.

As readers open up film industry publications, they are greeted with full-page ads for Oscar-nominated pictures, introduced by the words "for your consideration." The ads also appear in local newspapers.

Targeted are the 5700 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who will select this year's winners of Academy Awards.

It is a heavy responsibility, says academy member and filmmaker Ron Howard, a leading nominee for the Oscar for best director for his film A Beautiful Mind.

"I take my vote very seriously," he says. " And everyone I know gets their ballot and pays real attention and tries to live up to the responsibility."

This year, says Mr. Howard, the campaign to reach Oscar voters took an ugly turn after stories appeared on the Internet and in a New York gossip column accusing the subject of his film, mathematician John Nash, of making anti-Semitic statements and of abandoning an illegitimate child. Internet columnist Matt Drudge also said the movie ignores incidents suggesting Mr. Nash is homosexual. As the controversy developed, it was reported in the mainstream media.

John Nash battled mental illness over a long career and went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work as a mathematician. The author of the biography on which the film is based says the charges stem from incidents that were taken out of context. Writer Sylvia Nasar says Mr. Nash is not a bigot or bad father, nor is he gay.

Mr. Nash and his wife said the same thing in a recent interview to be aired on CBS Television, according to remarks released by the network before the broadcast.

No one in Hollywood is sure where the stories originated, but suspicion falls on the studios that are promoting rival films in this year's Oscar competition. Officials at Miramax, a competing studio known for aggressive Oscar campaigning, denied any connection with the attacks.

Director Howard says, whoever is responsible, this year's Oscar competition has borrowed a page from the negative campaigns of politics.

"In our case, John Nash is 72-years-old, he's alive, a noble figure who's endured a great deal," says Mr. Howard. "For anyone to try to distort behaviors that are reported to have occurred at the absolute height of his delusions, in the midst of a hellish 35-year period of schizophrenia, is, I think, not doing the world or John Nash or themselves any kind of service. I have no respect for that whatsoever."

Actor Russell Crowe plays John Nash in the movie and is a leading contender for this year's Oscar for best actor.

The actor says it is irresponsible to quote statements made by Mr. Nash at the height of his mental illness.

"At some point, he thought he was a mouse. He also declared himself governor of Antarctica," explains Mr. Crowe. "This is a fellow who was getting messages from aliens through The New York Times. I mean, he was a very sick man."

Director Ron Howard says it is fair to promote a film during the Oscar campaign if it is done without attacking other movies.

Helen Mirren, a nominee for her role in the mystery Gosford Park, believes supporting the film is part of her job as an actress.

"It's a small film, with a fairly small budget. It can't possibly compete in the marketplace with the bigger films in terms of those enormous ads that they take out," she says. "So our job as actors is very instrumental in simply getting people into the theater."

Actress Nicole Kidman agrees. She was nominated for the Oscar for best actress for her role in Moulin Rouge, a film about seduction in turn-of-the-century Paris. On the subject of Oscar campaigning, she says she shares the philosophy of her director, Baz Luhrmann.

"To see all the films is a hard thing for an Academy member. What you're trying to say to people is look at this film, if you haven't seen it on the big screen, then pop it in your video or get your dvd out and watch it and consider it," she says.

Nicole Kidman says the purpose of the campaigning is to get movie academy members to make an informed decision as they cast their votes for the Oscars.