Update: Oscar Song Flap – The Spotlight
By ROBERT W. WELKOS
It was only last July that Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a long-time, behind-the-scenes Hollywood publicist and marketing executive, was elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The first African American and third woman to lead the prominent movie industry organization that each year hands out the Oscars, Isaacs’ election provided proof, if any was still required, that the traditionally white and male AMPAS membership was becoming more diversified. An academy veteran, she had served in various posts inside the organization’s hierarchy and produced last year’s Governors Awards.
But now Isaacs tenure as president is being buffeted by controversy over a decision by the academy’s board of governors to disqualify the song Alone Yet Not Alone from a small, faith-based movie of the same name that few have seen. How deftly she navigates the controversy could prevent the dispute from tarnishing the Oscars.
The song is from a film that had a limited release last fall to qualify for Oscar consideration and will be released more widely June 13. The song was recorded by Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic with limited lung capacity, and was one of five songs nominated by the academy on Jan. 16.
The academy’s rare step of rescinding a nomination came after the board of governors determined that composer Bruce Broughton, a long-time academy member himself and former board governor, violated academy rules by sending emails to approximately 70 of his fellow music branch members suggesting they listen to the song, which he wrote with lyricist Dennis Spiegel.
“No matter how well-intentioned the communication, using one’s position as a former governor and current executive committee member to personally promote one’s own Oscar submission creates the appearance of an unfair advantage,” the academy said in a written statement announcing its ruling. The action was designed “to protect the reputation and integrity of the awards process.”
But some have questioned the harshness of the ruling.
For example, Scott Feinberg, the Hollywood Reporter’s awards analyst, wondered if the punishment fit the crime. “… Do I think that they deserved to have their Oscar nomination rescinded by the Academy? “ he wrote. “On the basis of the evidence that the Academy has supplied and in the context of how most contenders campaign for Oscars these days: No, I do not.”
One long-time Academy member, who asked not to be named, said the board’s action seemed “a little hypocritical” going after the song when studios routinely spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on “For Your Consideration” advertisements. “For Your Consideration,” he noted, “is a euphemism for “vote for me.” But he wouldn’t single out Isaacs for criticism. “The board of governors makes policy. Cheryl doesn’t make policy. …There are many things the academy does that we only find out about after the board of governors votes on it.”
“She’s a company man,” Broughton told HollywoodNews. “If I was president, I’d be defending the Oscars, too. I’ve seen her for years and I’ve always thought she is a bright, intelligent person. She’s a publicist…I’m not going to hold that against her. I have absolutely no bad things to say about her or her CEO, Dawn Hudson…but Dawn and I have gone back and forth on the phone.”
“As a former Academy Governor and current member of the Music Branch’s executive committee, Mr. Broughton should have been more cautious about acting in a way that made it appear as if he were taking advantage of his position to exert undue influence,” the academy said. “At a minimum, his actions called into question whether the process was ‘fair and equitable,’ as the Academy’s rules require. The Academy is dedicated to doing everything it can to ensure a level playing field for all potential Oscar contenders—including those who don’t enjoy the access, knowledge, and influence of a long-standing Academy insider.”
Broughton acknowledged that there has been speculation in the conservative Christian community that the song’s disqualification might stem from a left-liberal bias in Hollywood, but he said the Christian community “is getting a little weird about this.”
The faith-based film was underwritten by Dr. James Leininger, a wealthy San Antonio businessman and former physician, who is a big donor to GOP politicians, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry. And, according to the film’s official website, “Alone Yet Not Alone” has been endorsed by, among others, Dr. James Dobson of Family Talk, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, Josh Dugger, executive director of Family Resource Council Action, and former U.S. Sen. and GOP Presidential candidate Rick Santorum.
“I understand the concern with conservative Christians,” Broughton said. “My family is part of it. My kids are part of it. I come from that myself.” He said it’s easy to blame “Jesus bashing” but “the worst thing I can say is, it’s about money.”
“I think this one is purely about disappointment a studio or studios had in not getting their heavily purchased song being recognized by (the academy),” he told HollywoodNews.”
Ken Wales, the film’s executive producer and also a long-time academy member, described the song’s disqualification as “almost a jealousy” by some in the industry who wonder “how could a little, tiny film that’s not been out there have this kind of response?”
Wales suggested that other pressures might have come to bear on Isaacs.
“She’s probably holding on…because there is a lot of Jewish influence in the academy and they may all be saying, ‘You’re doing it right, stay your place’ because quietly, the Jews are wary of anybody pushing them out of their place whether Christian or non-Christian,” Wales told HollywoodNews.
The entertainment website Deadline.com wondered “how the academy’s most obscure nominee—maybe EVER—managed to beat Taylor Swift, Coldplay and Celine Dion.” Deadline also noted that “the music score for the film is by William Ross, who is also conductor of the Academy Awards orchestra this year (as he was last year)….”
Broughton, who has won 10 Emmys and received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score for director Lawrence Kasdan’s 1985 western “Silvarado,” admits to sending “69 or 70” emails to members of the academy’s music branch.
The academy said Broughton had contacted nearly one-third of the music branch’s 240 members. “When he identified the song as track #57 as one he had composed, and asked voting branch members to listen to it, he took advantage of information that few other potential nominees are privy to,” the academy explained in its written statement.
But Broughton contended that one reason he knew people to contact in the music branch was because over the years he had spent “a lot of time” leading the Society of Composers & Lyricists. “A few years ago, the group tried to unionize film composers with the Teamsters. In that process, I must have accumulated 400 to 500 emails. It wasn’t a matter of being a former Oscar governor.”
Wales said he first approached Broughton about composing a song for the film. “I had worked with Bruce on the (1983) film, ’The Prodigal,’” Wales said. “I called him up and said, ‘I have something special.’”
The film is based on the novel “Alone Yet Not Alone” authored by Tracy Leininger Craven, Dr. Leininger’s daughter, and is based on a true story of the Leininger family’s history about the abduction of two girls by Indians during the French and Indian War in 1755.
“Bruce called me and said, ‘You really got something here. Give me a few days,’” Wales recalled.
Broughton and lyricist Spiegel, who also had worked on “The Prodigal,” came up with a song for the new film that Wales thought was “marvelous.” The producer then took the recording along with a high-quality boom box to Virginia to play at the first meeting of the cast and crew. Wales said they were “mesmerized” by the music.
“Ten minutes later, Jim Leininger…came in,” Wales recalled. “I said, ‘Jim, sit down. I want to play you something.’ He had tears in his eyes.’”
“Everything in the song comes straight out of the Bible,” Broughton said. “…There is nothing you can’t find in the Bible that the Jews believe in or the Bible that theChristians believe in. It’s all the word of God.”
Broughton added that you don’t have to be Christian to appreciate the song. “Some woman who is Buddhist said, ‘Even though I’m not a Christian, I find this song really comforting.’”
Wales is the son of a minister and is currently a member of Bel-Air Presbyterian Church. He has worked in Hollywood for decades as both an actor and producer.
He said Walt Disney himself got him started on his road to being a filmmaker back in 1955 when he received a scholarship from Disney, who encouraged him to enroll in the then-fledgling USC film school.
Wales later became an actor and producer. He worked with director Blake Edwards on such films as “The Party,” “Darling Lili” and “Revenge of the Pink Panther” and became close with Edwards and his wife, actress Julie Andrews. In fact, Wales said, his father married Edwards and Andrews in a backyard ceremony.
As a bit actor on the set of the 1958 film, “Torpedo Run,” starring Glenn Ford and Ernest Borgnine, Wales said he was in danger of drowning inside a large tank of water where a scene was being shot when his clothes became snared by a hook. It was quick thinking by Borgnine and fellow actor Dean Jones that pushed Wales to the surface. “They shot me out to the top,” Wales recalled. “Borgnine really saved my life.”
Wales was an executive producer on “Christy,” a 1994-95 TV series based on the inspirational bestseller by author Catherine Marshall. Leininger recalled the series when he approached Wales about making a film out of the book.
Both Wales and Broughton are pessimistic that anything can be done to reverse the decision of the academy but do see public opinion turning their direction.
“I think the tide is turning about now,” Wales said. “It seems (at the start) it was all the attack, the attack, the attack. Now people are saying that promoting what you have done or what a friend has done is part of show business, whether you say it in a letter or an email.”
Broughton noted that he has heard about petition drives being started and, as a one-time academy governor himself, he knows how earnestly the academy listens.
“For me, the appeals court I’ve been through has been (giving interviews through the) public media,” Broughton said. He claims that thousands of people from Europe to South America have written him over the issue.
Ironically, all the negative publicity could result in boosting the song onto the Billboard charts.
The dispute, Broughton said, “is going to help the film, it’s going to help the song and Christians can hold their heads up.”
Welkos can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos Courtesy Getty and “Alone Yet Not Alone”