(See previous post: “Biggest Oscar Snubs: Non-Nominated Actors from Charles Farrell & Paul Newman to Tom Cruise & Leonardo DiCaprio.”) For better or for worse, Errol Morris’ 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line has become so influential that it’s now commonplace for documentary filmmakers to use (however cheesy) reenactments whenever they get the chance.
Additionally, Morris’ investigative piece, which argued that a man had been wrongly convicted of murder thanks to Dallas County’s corrupt justice system, won awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics, and the National Board of Review. All that, and the overturning of the death-row conviction of its subject, too.
“If there was ever a film with a lock on an Academy Award,” wrote Jack Mathews in the Los Angeles Times, “Erroll [sic] Morris’ The Thin Blue Line appeared to be it. It had a profound topic, overwhelming critical acclaim and the kind of respectful media coverage that benefits the entire industry. Morris himself was the subject of a 15,000-word profile in New Yorker magazine, and there were those in Hollywood who thought he might become the first person to receive a best director nomination for a documentary.”
The Academy’s Documentary Committee, however, remained unimpressed. As per Mathews’ piece, “all but one of the members interviewed said they did not consider it one of the five best films they saw. In fact, at the committee screening of The Thin Blue Line, enough members raised their hands to have the film stopped before it was completed.” Ultimately, The Thin Blue Line failed to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
“I think (the distributors) set the film up as a shoo-in and that it created an expectation among members that the film couldn’t meet,” committee member Mitchell Block told Mathews. “But there was no backlash. As a group, we simply thought the five nominated films were better.”
Roger Ebert disagreed, calling the Thin Blue Line omission “the worst non-nomination” of the year.
For the record: the five nominated documentary features in 1988 were Robert Bilheimer’s The Cry of Reason: Beyers Naude - An Afrikaner Speaks Out, Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost, Ginny Durrin’s Promises to Keep, Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Pena’s Who Killed Vincent Chin?, and the eventual winner, Marcel Ophüls’ Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie.
Michael Moore ‘Roger & Me’
Michael Moore’s Roger & Me was attacked in some quarters for distorting facts so as to fit them into Moore’s political agenda. In The New Yorker, for instance, Pauline Kael wrote:
“I’ve heard it said that Michael Moore’s muckraking documentary Roger & Me is scathing and Voltairean. I’ve read that Michael Moore is ‘a satirist of the Reagan period equal in talent to Mencken and Lewis,’ and ‘an irrepressible new humorist in the tradition of Mark Twain and Artemus Ward.’ But the film I saw was shallow and facetious, a piece of gonzo demagoguery that made me feel cheap for laughing.” [Kael’s complete Roger & Me review can be found here.]
Even so, Roger & Me, about Moore’s frustrated attempts to meet with General Motors honcho Roger Smith, was a box office hit (for a documentary) – grossing $6.7 million (approx. $13.5 million today) – and, for the most part, a critical success. The film won Best Documentary awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Board of Review, and the National Society of Film Critics, among others.
Roger & Me, however, was left without an Academy Award nomination.
Among those attacking Roger & Me was Academy Documentary Committee member Mitchell Block, who was quoted as calling the movie “unethical.” But Moore had his say as well.
In his hilarious – and probably quite “creative” – reminiscences of his Roger & Me adventures, described in a July 1990 New York Times article (a transcription can be found here), Michael Moore stated the following:
“The L.A. Times quoted an unnamed member of the Academy committee who said that Roger and Me didn’t stand a chance of even being nominated because they [sic] were easily ‘five better films’ that the committee has seen. This was the same quote given last year by a committee member, Mitchell Block, when he explained why The Thin Blue Line was not nominated. Mr. Block has a financial interest in who gets nominated; he owns a documentary distribution company [Direct Cinema] and, in the last 10 years, nearly one quarter of all films that have won the Academy Award for best documentary have been Mitchell Block films.”
Carl Bromley later reported in The Nation that “in the year of Roger & Me’s omission, Block owned the distribution rights to three of the nominees,” though in the following years, he “excused himself from the committee if one of his company’s films was nominated.”
Note: A version of this post was first published on Feb. 20, 2009. It initially included information found in Mason Wiley and Damien Bona’s excellent Academy Award history book Inside Oscar. Since that particular bit of information contained a factual error – Mitchell Block was never the Chair of the Academy’s Documentary Committee – Wiley and Bona’s text was removed from the post. At the time, Mitchell Block took the trouble to explain his side of the issue in a lengthy comment that has been reposted below, with its original date.
Feb. 21, 2009
It’s interesting how factual errors live on.
For the “record.”
1. I was never the chair of the documentary committee. I was one of the committee members for over 20 years.
2. AMPAS rules prohibited committtee members from voting or discussing films they had any connection to. To lobby for any film would be somewhat obvious to any of the 50 or so members of this small committee. I was not able to “vote” for my films, I was on record for my conflicts. Under AMPAS weighted ballot counting procedures not voting a film would hurt it in the ballot counting process.
3. Direct Cinema at the time did distribute three of the nominated films, including the winner, COMMON THREADS: STORIES FROM THE QUILT. COMMONN THREADS was produced by Warner’s HBO division, ROGER AND ME was released by Warber’s Theatrical division.
Direct Cinema’s PR director was hired by Warners on a freelance basis to work as a consultant on ROGER AND ME’s Oscar campaign to try to reverse the committee’s perception that the negative reviews of the film’s distortions of “truth.” This was the devestating review of ROGER by Critic, Pauline Kael in the New Yorker.
4. The other nominees of 1989 included ADAM CLAYTON POWELL, CRACK USA: COUNTRY UNDER SIEGE, FOR ALL MANKIND and SUPER CHIEF: THE LEGACY OF EARL WARREN. Interestingly the filmmakers of three of the other nominated features have multiple nominations (and/or Oscars). FOR ALL MANKIND by first time nominees received multiple awards in 1989 for its excellence.
5. COMMON THREADS continues to be praised for its excellence, historical accurate telling of the causes (and effects) of the AIDS epidemic. Robert Epstein one of it’s two filmmakers is currently an elector Governor of the Documentary Branch.
6. Direct Cinema’s documentary films continued to to receive multi-documentary Oscar nominations (and Oscars) after the committee was restructured so that members who had any conflict of interest could not participate in the nomination process and a few years later the Academy Doc Branch was formed. Because of the new “conflict” rule adapted several years later, I could no longer serve on the committee.
7. Today controversy continues to dog the Branch for omissions, clicks, etc.
8. Mr. Moore showed that creating controversy about the Oscars can sell movie tickets.
9. In Flint, a lawyer representing a number of the cast of ROGER AND ME prevailed in a court case to remove his clients from future releases of the film because Michael Moore placed them in a “false light.”
Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, about two Chicago inner-city youths struggling to become professional basketball players, was one of the best-reviewed movies of 1994. In fact, there were many who believed the film would become the first documentary to be included in the Academy’s Best Picture shortlist.
It wasn’t. Nor could Hoop Dreams be found among the nominees in the Best Documentary Feature category.
Newsday‘s John Anderson labeled the omission a “singularly unspeakable outrage,” while the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote that if the documentary committee members “knew the meaning of the word shame they would now be making arrangements for mass suicides.”
“According to one shocked insider, in the committee’s prescoring discussion one voter cautioned that if Hoop Dreams were nominated, it would surely win. He appealed to his fellow members to preserve other films’ chances of winning the Oscar by denying Hoop Dreams a nomination altogether.
“When balloting time came, at least two other attendees joined the anti-Hoop Dreams speaker. According to the source, those scorers together shot down Hoop Dreams by giving it the lowest possible score, a 4. Others on the committee gave the film top scores, but to no avail.”
“Why the animosity toward Hoop Dreams?” inquired Carl Bromley in his 2001 piece “While the Academy Slept” for The Nation.
“Many of the committee members at the time considered documentary the real weakling in the cinema litter,” Adelson responded. “They had a patronizing, paternalistic attitude toward the form: Documentaries are never seen by anyone until the [A]cademy shines their light on it and gives the poor weakling sustenance. There was a sense of mission. They promoted films they thought the public needed. And they felt threatened by an already successful film.”
Turan/Anderson quotes: Inside Oscar by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona