From 'Airport' to 'The Towering Inferno,' over-the-top campaigning has helped turn critical clunkers into Oscar contenders.

By Steve Daly
Updated February 06, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST


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”I don’t know why it was nominated. It’s the biggest piece of junk ever made.” — Burt Lancaster, on hearing that 1970’s Airport, in which Lancaster plays a manager, Dean Martin a pilot, and Helen Hayes a little old stowaway, had garnered 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Elections are messy things. A few wrong-headed remarks can sink a worthy candidate. Promotion can make a mediocrity a contender. And when it comes to America’s most glamorous annual political event, the Oscars, the combative process by which Hollywood folks campaign for nominations and wins has, over the decades, yielded some truly dubious choices.

How, for instance, did 1952’s popular but lowbrow circus potboiler The Greatest Show on Earth wind up winning Best Picture over front-runner morality tale High Noon? Split factions for The Quiet Man and Moulin Rouge, probably, along with controversy over Noon’s embattled, blacklisted screenwriter, Carl Foreman. In other words, rough-and-tumble politics.

Right now, the Academy is desperately trying to curtail what it disdainfully calls ”electioneering” by shortening the awards season. It issued an eight-page code of ethics in September that many in the industry felt was aimed squarely at Harvey Weinstein and his Miramax promotion team. In recent years, the studio’s hardball tactics and vast spending on ads have repeatedly come under fire — not least for the 2000 race, when the fluffy crowd-pleaser Chocolat scored a surprising five nominations, including Best Picture. Some critics found the movie a load of hooey and its Oscar prominence reprehensible. As questionable nominees go, however, Chocolat remains a relatively minor lapse in taste. In fact, a look back at some of Oscar’s kookiest contenders of all time makes the sputtering over Chocolat’s merits look like a tempest in a fondue pot.

A much more embarrassing rash of clinkers hijacked Oscar’s attentions in the late ’60s. The industry was in a frenzy to duplicate the success of four big musicals that had made a mint while also winning lots of awards: United Artists’ West Side Story (1961), Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964), Warner’s My Fair Lady (same year), and Twentieth Century Fox’s The Sound of Music (1965). Most of the imitations that followed simply didn’t work, yet these off-key wannabes kept racking up plenty of nominations.

Fox rolled out a trio of extremely expensive, poorly received songfests in three successive seasons: Doctor Dolittle (1967), Star! (1968), and Hello, Dolly! (1969). While Dolly had a decent gross, it was nowhere near enough to earn back its reported $26.4 million budget, nor did Dolittle (which cost $16 million) or Star! ($12 million) recoup well. Fox needed publicity to stanch the losses. By one account, studio brass went so far as to help bump 1967’s Two for the Road out of early ballots in the editing and cinematography races, the better to secure nods for Dolittle instead. They also wined and dined Academy members at a systematically administered series of lavishly catered studio screenings, where alcohol flowed freely. Result? Dolittle nabbed a flabbergasting nine nominations (Best Picture was one of them), while Star! and Dolly! took seven each.


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