02/24/2013 03:08 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2013

Oscar Controversy: When Audiences, Critics And Politicians Attack

If only winning an Oscar were as simple as winning the Super Bowl.

Championship sports teams get to prove on the field of competition that they are the best in the world -- or at least the league. By contrast, Oscar hopefuls must persuade a jury of their peers that they are worthy of the name "Best." In recent years, that campaign of persuasion has turned into a six-month marathon, costing tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars. It's as if the NFL's playoff contenders spent the entire postseason trying to get the refs to look kindly on their regular season games, instead of playing any new ones.

In the end, the only opinions that matter are those of the 6,000 or so voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- all of whom are established members of the entertainment industry, and most of whom are white, male and over 55.

But earlier in the season, other voices matter very much indeed. A look back at this season's crowded, controversial Oscar race offers examples of how the public, the press and even the government can turn a frontrunner into an also-ran.

Example 1: When Audiences Attack!

Three important Oscar films debuted last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, widely described as the unofficial kickoff of Oscar season: "The Master," "Argo" and "Silver Linings Playbook." Of those, the first was by far the most hotly anticipated. Many felt that director Paul Thomas Anderson had deserved to win Best Picture for his previous feature, "There Will Be Blood," which lost to "No Country for Old Men," and a series of mysterious trailers offered hope that "The Master" would be even more disturbingly excellent. The film boasted a stellar cast -- Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams (all of whom would go on to score Oscar nominations) -- and a scintillating setup: a thinly fictionalized retelling of the founding of Scientology, or so we were teasingly told.

The journalists who got to see "The Master" at TIFF (present company included) mostly genuflected before its presumed greatness. We didn't understand it, but we figured we would -- eventually -- after seeing it a few more times. And it was immediately apparent that Joaquin Phoenix had done something deeply special. It was easy to imagine him taking home Best Actor on Oscar night.

But then audiences got a chance to vote with their wallets. And after setting a new per-screen record at the box office in very limited release, the film promptly tanked. The teasing about Scientology had led viewers to expect a juicy exposé, possibly involving Tom Cruise's love life, not an elliptical character study of two unlikeable men set in postwar America. Today, "The Master"'s Audience Rating on Rotten Tomatoes stands at a lowly 62 percent, and its global box-office haul is a mere $26 million -- not good at all for a film that cost $40 million to produce.

Things could have been different if Academy members had sided with cinephiles who view "The Master" as a "2001"-style misunderstood classic, but word soon came that a screening for AMPAS members was a bust. "The Master" was no longer a realistic Best Picture contender, though it did pick up those three acting nods.

Example 2: When Critics Attack!

Remember when "Les Misérables" was going to sweep the Oscars? That's what a lot of people thought in the weeks before it opened.

Looking back, it's not entirely obvious why. Certainly, director Tom Hooper had made a special film -- one that successfully distilled the emotional essence of the venerable West End tearjerker and amplified it to suit today's big screens and big sound systems. But Hooper's determination to make you feel what his characters are feeling, even if he has to position the camera seven inches from their undulating uvulas, left him with a movie that pleased the crowds and infuriated the critics. "Throughout the entire hundred and fifty-seven minutes I sat cowering in my seat, lost in shame and chagrin," critic David Denby wrote on The New Yorker's website, before going on to lambast the music, the staging, the costumes, the acting, even the tears of his fellow audience members.

And Denby likes musicals! His argument was that people should be watching better ones. There is an entire class of Americans that can't stand musicals, period, and many of them grow up to be cranky film critics.

So even though "Les Mis" has grossed $380 million around the world, and even though it is nominated for Best Picture, and even though it took home the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy, it's not winning Best Picture tonight. Too many Academy members had the words of David Denby and others like him ringing in their heads when they filled out their ballots. It's enough for them that Anne Hathaway should take home the statue for Best Supporting Actress.

Example 3: When Politicians Attack!

Like "Les Miserables," Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" came out at the very end of the year -- which gave all of us plenty of time to speculate about how great it would be. A movie about the hunt for Bin Laden! By the team who created "The Hurt Locker"! Starring Jessica Chastain! We couldn't wait to award every Oscar in existence to this movie, sight unseen.

And then the rumblings started -- after the film started screening but before it opened, in fact. I was at a lunch for "Argo" when I got my first inkling that something was afoot. "Mark Boal fell for the CIA's propaganda hook, line and sinker," one prominent guest at my table darkly intoned, referring to the film's screenwriter. (The guest in question had not worked on "Argo.")

A narrative quickly materialized: "Zero Dark Thirty" tacitly condones torture by falsely suggesting that the intelligence that led to Osama Bin Laden originated in the CIA's abusive interrogations. According to the Los Angeles Times, Sony prevented Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow from striking back quickly because the studio was concerned that the controversy would harm ticket sales. Whether or not that's true, the delay allowed "Zero Dark Thirty"s critics to set the narrative, and before long the voices of outraged journalists -- notably Jane Mayer of The New Yorker and Frank Bruni of The New York Times, who said "I"m betting Dick Cheney will love the ... movie" -- were being echoed in Washington. Senators John McCain, Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin wrote a public letter calling the film "grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the capture." McCain, famously a past resident of the Hanoi Hilton, also called the film "wrong" on the floor of the Senate. The CIA's acting director, Michael Morell, even zapped the film in a letter to America's spooks.

Over the past week, some people have claimed that Bigelow missed out on a Best Director nomination because she's a woman. I think that's absurd. The film's critics made the case that a vote for "Zero Dark Thirty" was a vote condoning torture, and that hurt its fortunes badly.

"Zero Dark Thirty" wasn't the only film to come under fire from politicians this year, however. Former Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor attacked "Argo" for minimizing his and his nation's role in the real-life events that inspired the film, and former US president Jimmy Carter backed him up. And Congressman Joe Courtney of Connecticut dinged "Lincoln" screenwriter Tony Kushner for falsely depicting his state's votes on the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. In the film, two of the Nutmeg State's Representatives vote "no" on the amendment, when in fact all four voted "yes." That criticism, amplified in a stinging column by Maureen Dowd of "The New York Times," could cost Tony Kushner the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Washington's influence wasn't always negative this year, however. President Obama screened "Lincoln" at the White House, and former President Bill Clinton introduced the film at the Golden Globes. And Bradley Cooper and David O. Russell met with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss the mental-health issues raised by their film, "Silver Linings Playbook."

The spectacle of campaigning and maneuvering can leave a bad taste in the mouths of those who actually realize it's happening. (And just imagine how those on the receiving end of a negative campaign feel.) But there is a silver lining, if you will, to this loud, drawn-out process: because those inside and outside the industry attach such prestige to the Academy Awards, we have carried on robust national conversations about such unlikely topics as America's record on torture, slavery, foreign policy, mental healthcare and truthiness itself since last September. So maybe the Oscars are more than an excuse for attractive rich people to pat each other on the back; maybe they're a way for us to hash out, over the course of a loud, rambunctious conversation, just who we are and who we want to be.