With movies like Truth or Dare (Alek Keshishian’s backstage-with-Madonna romp), Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (voguing with cross-dressers in New York City), and George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr’s Hearts of Darkness (detailing the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), 1991 was a boom year for documentaries. In addition to receiving across-the-board critical acclaim, these films opened wider and made more money than anyone ever expected. (Thus far, Truth or Dare has earned $15 million on close to 1,000 screens, Paris a surprising $3.7 million on 500 to 600 screens, and Hearts nearly $1 million as it gradually opens nationally.) But tell that to the committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that bypassed these titles and nominated a bunch of unknowns for Best Achievement in Documentary Features.
Is the Oscar docu-gang really determined to favor the most obscure entries? Decide for yourself. Their list: a report on industrial negligence, Death on the Job; a look at a federal penitentiary, Doing Time: Life Inside the Big House; an examination of opera choristers, In the Shadow of the Stars; the story of three men protecting wilderness lands, Wild by Law; and The Restless Conscience: Resistance to Hitler Within Germany 1933-1945 — none of which had extended theatrical runs.
And if not making money was a consideration, why did the committee also ignore such intriguing but less commercial documentaries as two Michael Apted- directed features — 35 Up, his latest in a series of movies tracking the lives of 14 contemporary Brits, and Incident at Oglala, about the murder case against Indian activist Leonard Peltier, executive-produced by Robert Redford and opening this month. The judges also passed over Errol Morris’ festival hit, A Brief History of Time, based on the life and work of physicist Stephen Hawking, which has yet to find a distributor. (Morris’ highly acclaimed The Thin Blue Line was also overlooked in 1989.)
”It’s absolutely the biggest scandal of the Oscars,” says New York-based independent publicist Mark Lipsky. Miramax Films cochairman Harvey Weinstein, who oversaw distribution of Truth or Dare and Paris Is Burning, says, ”It’s astounding that six of the best documentaries of the year were all shut out at once.” And Redford, on the set of his latest film, Sneakers, simply shakes his head and calls the committee’s choices ”weird, perverse, old-fashioned, out of touch.” Even more succinct was Madonna, who told critic Gene Siskel (who himself had declared Hearts of Darkness ”the year’s best picture”) backstage at Saturday Night Live, ”They sucked the big one.”
In defense of the choices, Sy Gomberg, a cochairman this year of the 65-member committee, says, ”Death on the Job is a great and powerful indictment. Stack that up next to Madonna and you’ve got something that’s really important and means a lot to all of us.” Yet dissenters point to other Gomberg comments as proof that the committee is out of touch. ”Is (Paris Is Burning) as important a subject as the conscience of the German officers?” Gomberg has asked. ”I don’t think drag queens can come anywhere near that in terms of importance.” Counters Paris Is Burning director Livingston, ”There may be some generational bias. The oppression of poor black gay guys is just as worthy a subject as people who resisted the Nazis.”
Angry director Michael Apted points out that the documentary committee ”is the only one that isn’t made up of professional peers, but by all sorts of people — actors, writers, old-timers. On the charitable side, they’re pushing their own agenda. On the uncharitable side, they’re out of date.” One independent producer adds that the committee ”is not an evil conspiracy. It’s just a bunch of fuddy-duddies who have a monopoly on the process.”