Whoa... flashback! Just as Oscar voters receive their final ballots, someone's talking trash about the critically acclaimed Slumdog Millionaire, this year's Cinderella story.
Once upon a time, not so very long ago (like, a few years), everyone — by which I mean a relatively small group of people actively engaged in making or writing about movies — was in a tizzy over smear campaigns.
For years, studios and a handful of individuals campaigned hard to influence members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when it came to nominating and voting for film. Full page ads in Variety were only the tip of the iceberg: There were parties, there was swag and there was the notorious smear campaign, the deliberate anonymous spreading of rumors meant to tarnish the lustre of a particular film and, by extension, everyone involved, thus diminishing its chances.
In 2002, an unprecedented three African-American actors went home with Oscars (Halle Berry for Monster's Ball, Denzel Washington for Training Day and Sidney Poitier for Lifetime Achievement), onetime host Whoopie Goldberg felt compelled to observe that "So much mud has been thrown this year, all the nominees look black." In fact, the bulk of it was lobbed at Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, which was nominated for eight awards and won four.
Now, I'm not so sure I'd call it smearing to point out that a fact-based film plays extremely fast and loose with the facts. But there was a mean spirit in the air, and two years later AMPAS laid down some tough new rules about Oscar campaigns intended to force everyone to play nice or risk been booted out of the academy or having their films removed from consideration in certain categories.
Flashforward to now: Disparaging words about Scumdog Millionaire, the little movie that's suddenly a front-runner with ten nominations, including best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay, are flying thick and fast.
First came the sniping that it was a white man's fantasy about Indian social problems. True, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy are white Englishmen. But Loveleen Tandan, credited onscreen as "co-director India" at Boyle's insistance, is Indian, as is Vikas Swarup, who wrote the novel on which Beaufoy's screenplay is based.
Then came the ugly stuff: Allegations that the filmmakers exploited child actors Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, who play two of the three main characters as small children. The rumor would be nasty enough for any film, but it's especially bad for Slumdog, which cast most of the kids' roles with non-professionals who really live in Mumbai's fetid shantytowns.
In another life, I was a publicist (for New York City Ballet) and I would have advised the filmmakers to do exactly what they've done: Calmly and thoroughly refute the accusations without being combative. No speculation about where they came from, no defensive bluster and no sly counter-rumor mongering.
I love Slumdog Millionaire, and now I'm rooting for it harder than ever.
For detailed coverage, go to Variety's story.