Robert Wise and Martin Scorsese 'Gangs of New York': Controversial Oscar Campaign

Gangs of New York Martin Scorsese Daniel Day-Lewis Leonardo DiCaprio
Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York

Just last week, an email ad plugging Meryl Streep's performance in The Weinstein Company release The Iron Lady raised a number of eyebrows, as the email appeared to break the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' vote-soliciting rules. But thanks to a humongous loophole in the Academy's set of rules regarding that matter, the Meryl Streep email ad was perfectly “legal.”

Two years ago, however, another Oscar vote-soliciting email got an overeager producer in trouble. That was when Nicolas Chartier, one of the four Oscar-nominated producers of the eventual Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, was penalized by the Academy for sending out e-mails asking Academy members to vote for the Kathryn Bigelow-directed Iraq War drama instead of “a $500M film.” The latter was James Cameron's blockbuster Avatar, The Hurt Locker's chief competitor for Best Picture.

Although they can be easily bypassed – as can be attested by TWC's Meryl Streep/The Iron Lady campaign – Academy rules regarding vote-soliciting campaigns became more strict following a scandal in early 2003.

That was when former Academy president and two-time Best Director winner Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) was credited for an opinion piece published in the Los Angeles Daily News and the Long Beach Press-Telegram. In it, Wise extolled the virtues of Martin Scorsese's period drama Gangs of New York, a Miramax release up for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis).

Wise's piece was then used by Miramax, whose Harvey Weinstein now heads TWC, in its own Oscar ads for their film. The ads' headline read: “Two time Academy Award winner Robert Wise declares Scorsese deserves the Oscar for Gangs of New York.”

If it weren't enough that a former Academy president was seen in print blatantly pushing for a nominee, numerous Academy members became outraged when it was revealed that Wise hadn't actually written the Op-Ed column. Miramax publicist Murray Weissman, who also served on the Academy's public relations branch executive committee, had been the actual author.

As explained by John Horn in the Los Angeles Times, Wise had initially said that his assistant Michael Thomas had helped him draft the piece. Thomas, however, denied having any involvement on the matter, while Wise's wife, Millicent, told the media “that her husband did not alter 'one word' of Weissman's text. 'It's exactly the same as what they wrote.'"

Some Academy members were so incensed that, as per Horn's article, “an undisclosed number” of them asked for their ballots to be returned so they could change their votes. (The Academy turned down their request.) Rain Man's Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson, for his part, went on record saying that the Miramax ad was an example of “extremely vulgar” vote-soliciting tactics.

According to Entertainment Weekly, “even Scorsese was unhappy, with his publicist telling the Times that he was unaware that what seemed to be an unsolicited tribute from a friend would be used as an ad on his behalf.”

Leonardo DiCaprio/Daniel Day-Lewis/Gangs of New York picture: Miramax

Martin Scorsese Gangs of New York Leonardo DiCaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York

The plot got even thicker when Murray Weissman and others later claimed that Robert Wise himself had approached Miramax after reading another Op-Ed piece, this one – “Crashing the Party for Poor Marty” – published in Variety (Feb. 3, 2003) and penned by two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men). In addition to calling Martin Scorsese “a giant ape director” who disregarded his screenwriters (and throwing in mean-spirited putdowns directed at Al Pacino and Robin Williams), Goldman wrote:

“The Hollywood parties [Scorsese] is attending must make him want to barf, but there [he] is, glad-handing anyone in the vicinity who is an Academy member who might throw him a vote.

“Miramax, the greatest movie company of the era (and the most brutal – and maybe they have to go together) is so all-out for Scorsese it's heart-stopping. … And I suspect Scorsese will win, too.

“But he sure doesn't deserve it, not this year – Gangs of New York is a mess.

A Business Weekly piece by Ron Grover questioned the Academy's double standard. Why the outrage over Miramax's p.r. stunt, but not over William Goldman's attack on Scorsese?

Miramax COO Rick Sands, for his part, stated that the year before “Julia Roberts endorsed [her The Pelican Brief co-star] Denzel Washington. Warren Beatty endorsed [his Bulworth co-star] Halle Berry. Robert Wise and Stanley Donen endorsed Moulin Rouge!. Most recently, Elizabeth Taylor endorsed The PianistSteven Spielberg endorsed Marty Scorsese. Francis Ford Coppola endorsed Diane Lane.” No one was criticized, both Washington and Berry went on to win Academy Awards, and, eventually, so did The Pianist director Roman Polanski.

“As for Academy President Frank Pearson [sic] calling the Wise commentary a 'violation,'” Grover continued in his Business Weekly piece, “Miramax officials have none-too-subtly reminded folks that Pearson himself hosted a party a few months back to help the foreign film Y Tu Mamá También's chances for its own foreign-film nomination.” [Y Tu Mamá También was actually ineligible for the 2002 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, for it was released in Mexico before November 2001. Alfonso Cuarón's comedy-drama was, however, eligible in the 2002 Oscars' regular categories. The film went on to receive a Best Original Screenplay nod.]

As for Murray Weissman, he defended himself in a press release:

“There have been occasional reportorial inferences in some entertainment news columns that as a public relations consultant to Miramax I did something 'inappropriate' by drafting, at Robert Wise's specific request, an Op-Ed piece that appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News in support of Martin Scorsese and Gangs of New York. I strongly disagree with this suggestion.

“As a veteran Hollywood publicist, I've been writing speeches, letters and statements for filmmakers, executives and actors for more than 40 years. It's what the men and women in my profession do all the time. We take direction and guidance and our job is to put on paper the thoughts given to us.

“The background is that I have known Robert Wise ever since my days as publicity director of Universal Pictures, where I worked with him on three of his major films. Earlier this year, Mr. Wise volunteered his admiration and enthusiasm for Martin Scorsese's career and current film. Knowing this, when William Goldman wrote a vicious attack on Mr. Scorsese's career in Variety, urging Academy members not to vote for him, I asked Mr. Wise if he had any interest in authoring a supportive piece about Mr. Scorsese in response. He agreed with the proviso that we prepare a draft for his approval expressing the thoughts he provided on the subject. Not an unusual request and not an unusual assignment for me. The piece was drafted, submitted to Mr. Wise and he personally approved the draft as composed for placement in a newspaper or advertisement.”

Robert WiseWhether or not because of the furor over the Murray Weissman-Robert Wise (photo) ad, despite its ten nominations Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York failed to win a single Academy Award on Oscar night 2003. But if there was any ill will against Harvey Weinstein and Miramax's heavy-handed Oscar tactics, that certainly didn't prevent another Miramax release, Rob Marshall's musical Chicago, from winning that year's Best Picture Oscar.

Things were different the following year, when Miramax's Anthony Minghella-directed Cold Mountain wasn't shortlisted in the Best Picture category. Whether because of the previous year's flap or because of Nicole Kidman's poor make-up job, that marked the first time in 11 years that a Miramax production wasn't in the running for the Best Picture Oscar – though Cold Mountain did at least earn Renée Zellweger a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, in addition to six other nominations, including Best Actor for Jude Law and Best Cinematography for John Seale. (As per “a source on the film,” there was “intense debate involving Anthony and executive producer Harvey Weinstein about digitally smudging Nicole's appearance, roughing up her cheeks, that sort of thing. In the end, time and cost ruled it out. Nicole's appearance dents the credibility of the film and may have cost it Best Picture.”)

Following the Robert Wise-Miramax-Gangs of New York firestorm, Academy President Frank Pierson said in a statement that “there will now be personal consequences to improper campaigning.” According to the Academy's new rules, “Any Academy member who has authorized, approved or executed a campaign activity that is determined by the Board of Governors to have undermined the letter or spirit of these regulations will be subject to suspension of membership or expulsion from the Academy,” while those violations deemed truly serious “could result in a film losing its eligibility for Awards consideration.”

Not that such threats have prevented Oscar campaigners from taking “the letter or spirit” of the Academy regulations to the limit – and beyond – with little, if any, consequences, while Academy members continue to campaign for their favorites.

The Hollywood Reporter lists 28 actors – including 11 Oscar winners and 10 Oscar nominees – who participated in this year's edition of Variety's annual “Actors on Actors: SAG Preview.” Among those were Julia Roberts praising Viola Davis (The Help); Kate Winslet praising her Mildred Pierce co-star Evan Rachel Wood (The Ides of March); Marion Cotillard on Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn); Julianne Moore on Ellen Barkin (Another Happy Day); Anthony Hopkins on his The Silence of the Lambs' co-star Jodie Foster (Carnage); James Franco on Michael Fassbender (Shame); Bette Midler on Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs); and Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton on, respectively, Martha Marcy May Marlene's actresses Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson.

Now, should there be consequences for endorsements by Academy members used as de facto (or subtle) Oscar campaigns? What about consequences for an Academy member like William Goldman penning or voicing a gratuitous public attack against a nominee?

Feinberg, for one, thinks not – at least when it comes to “positive campaigning.” In his THR piece, he asks: “Why shouldn't an Academy member be able to publicly express his or her affection for a film or performance like anyone else can? And why shouldn't a studio be permitted to quote them if they wish to?"

Note: A version of this three-part Miramax/Robert Wise/Gangs of New York article was initially posted in March 2010.

Leonardo DiCaprio/Gangs of New York photo: Miramax

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1 Comment to Robert Wise and Martin Scorsese 'Gangs of New York': Controversial Oscar Campaign

  1. Nikki Oldaker

    For years I have worked on a true story about a man who was from the time period of Gangs of New York…So popular and admired people named their children, towns, streets and schools after him…yet not a word about him was written in the dialog of Gangs of NY…Then there was the film Martin produced using the man's home as a setting where Michelle P was the lead -again - not a word mentioned about him. I wish I had the talent (writers, actors, producers and money) has Martin has access too- but I do not…I was able to work with a top DP from Hollywood who on his death bed made me promise to continue to push for this film because he believed the story is so powerful - that it would easily be an Oscar contender…As the writer - I would hand my script over to either Martin or Robert…because I know both have the talent and influence to produce pictures audiences will enjoy. Oscar or not - audiences worldwide enjoy their work….Only disappointment I see every year is Leonardo being passed over…If anyone deserves it - he does.