Damon was the target of an especially outrageous smear when he and Ben Affleck were nominated for Best Original Screenplay for 'Good Will Hunting' in 1998. Speaking to the New York Times' Carpetbagger blog, Damon recalled the flap that arose when no less an authority than Variety published a story suggesting that Oscar-winning screenwriter Ted Tally ('The Silence of the Lambs') had actually written the script, not the actors-turned-rookie screenwriters. Think 'The Hurt Locker' has been hit by some suspiciously timed bad press as Oscar voting wound down last weekend? It's nothing compared to the bad publicity and outright smears some Oscar contenders have faced in years past. Just ask Matt Damon.
Damon was the target of an especially outrageous smear when he and Ben Affleck were nominated for Best Original Screenplay for 'Good Will Hunting' in 1998. Speaking to the New York Times' Carpetbagger blog, Damon recalled the flap that arose when no less an authority than Variety published a story suggesting that Oscar-winning screenwriter Ted Tally ('The Silence of the Lambs') had actually written the script, not the actors-turned-rookie screenwriters.
Damon declined comment at the time, though he told the Times he recalled that Tally spoke to Variety to deny the rumor, adding that he wished he'd written the 'Good Will' script and would have taken credit for it if he had. Damon and Affleck went on to win the Oscar. Damon would meet Tally for the first time a couple years later when he starred in the Tally-scripted 'All the Pretty Horses.'
Damon told the Times that his people blamed the smear on the campaigners behind a rival screenplay nominee. "It's the 'As Good As It Gets' camp," he recalled hearing. "And I was like, 'Come on, you must be kidding me. You're telling me it's ['As Good' director and co-screenwriter] Jim Brooks?' 'No, Jim Brooks would never do that. It's the camp!' Like, what does that mean? It was so stupid. I was just flabbergasted."
Damon said he came to realize that the smear wasn't about flinging credible charges against another movie but merely about sowing doubt. "It's literally to just put doubt in somebody's mind because ultimately, what it comes down to is somebody is gonna take a pen and write a name on a line. That's all it is. And so what does it actually take to change that? You don't have to make people think they don't like 'The Hurt Locker,' you just have to make them think something about 'The Hurt Locker' that would make them write 'Avatar' or 'Up in the Air' or whatever it is."
Actually, 'Hurt Locker's' chief Oscar competition is 'Avatar' (for Best Picture and Best Director) and 'Inglourious Basterds' (for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay). Some Oscar-watchers have blamed 'Basterds' distributor Harvey Weinstein, whose Oscar campaigning skills are legendary, for the recent spate of negative articles about veterans questioning the verisimilitude of 'Hurt Locker's' portrayal of the Iraq War combat experience, but there's no evidence of Weinstein's involvement.
In fact, the most recent negative development might actually bolster 'Hurt Locker's' credibility. The lawsuit filed Tuesday by Master Sgt. Jeffrey S. Sarver, who claims the filmmakers appropriated his life story to create the characters and situations in 'Hurt Locker' (screenwriter Mark Boal was embedded with Sarver's unit when he made Sarver the central figure in a profile he wrote for Playboy), suggests that the movie was awfully true-to-life after all. Of course, both the lawsuit and last week's bad press may have come too late to do any damage to 'Hurt Locker's' Oscar chances, since ballots were due on Tuesday.
Whisper attacks on a movie's accuracy have had mixed results at the Oscars. Such attacks appeared to work against the Oscar hopes of 1999's Rubin Carter biopic 'The Hurricane.' There were even more articles two years later about 'A Beautiful Mind,' noting that, when the filmmakers adapted Sylvia Nasar's biography of mathematician John Nash, they whitewashed some of his more unflattering behavior, including fathering a child out of wedlock and making anti-Semitic outbursts. Universal studio chief Stacey Snider and director Ron Howard both accused the studio's rivals of a smear campaign, particularly Miramax (then run by Weinstein; its big nominee that year was 'In the Bedroom'). Miramax denied responsibility, and reporters who wrote the offending stories all denied that the articles had been planted by rival studios. None of it mattered, however, as 'Mind' went on to win four Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay.
One indirect result of the 'Beautiful Mind' brouhaha, however, was to move the Oscar show up to late February, in part to shorten the campaign season so that there would be less time for such negative stories to emerge before voters submitted their ballots. This year's Oscars, however, got pushed back a couple weeks into March because of the Winter Olympics, which allowed more time for possible negative campaigning.
Still, no charge flung this season has been as inflammatory as what was said about 'Beautiful Mind,' 'The Hurricane' or 'Good Will Hunting.' Even the slur that got a 'Hurt Locker' producer in trouble -- Nicolas Chartier disparaged 'Avatar' in a pro-'Hurt Locker' e-mail, leading the Academy to penalize him by barring him from attending the awards ceremony -- was a mild attack on 'Avatar's' blockbuster budget, referring to 'Avatar' as "a $500M film." Not exactly fightin' words there.
Damon, of course, is nominated this year for another based-in-fact story, and while he's told the Times he doubts he'll win Best Supporting Actor for 'Invictus,' it won't be because anyone has questioned the movie's accuracy. No one has, but that's less a reflection on whether or not the drama has fudged its facts than on its lack of frontrunner status. Damon is widely expected to lose to 'Basterds'' Christoph Waltz, just as Damon's costar Morgan Freeman is widely expected to lose Best Actor to 'Crazy Heart's' Jeff Bridges. So 'Invictus,' whether it's accurate or not, isn't worth smearing.