- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The presidential race is over, but two more campaigns that directly track the red-blue split of that contest are gearing up in Hollywood.

In the red corner: Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” the $370-million-grossing muscle flex from heartlanders who couldn’t care less what the metropolitan reviewing press thought about them or the movie. Their turnout at the box office, perhaps, presaged the surprisingly big turnout for President Bush at the polls.

In the blue: the anti-Bush “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which director Michael Moore pulled from consideration in the Academy Awards’ documentary category, his eyes on the best-picture prize instead. The express intent of the movie — at $119 million, the highest-grossing documentary of all time — was to unseat Dubya. In that respect, at least, it failed.

Both sides are plotting Oscar strategies, industry observers say.

Mr. Moore and Miramax producer Harvey Weinstein, who helped assemble the Fellowship Adventure Group to distribute the movie after Disney (which owns Miramax) passed on it, met privately last week to discuss options for the short and long hauls.

A sequel, “Fahrenheit 9/111/2,” is reportedly in the works, and “Fahrenheit” videotapes were mailed to Oscar voters this week. Before the election, Mr. Weinstein hosted a party in Los Angeles in honor of “Fahrenheit” friend Lila Lipscomb, the mother of a solider killed in Iraq, as a means of re-igniting excitement about the movie among academy members and the media.

Supporters of “The Passion,” meanwhile, had been employing a reverse-psychology strategy in Hollywood, whispering to reporters that if President Bush won, liberal Hollywood would be so incensed that they’d feel duty-bound to support “Fahrenheit 9/11” for best picture as an act of defiance.

Given Mr. Bush’s recount-free victory, what are the chances now that either “The Passion” or “Fahrenheit” will see major Oscar gold?

Oscar watchers think the presidential outcome, if it influences academy voters at all, could cut both ways.

“If it prevails, ‘The Passion’ can prove that Hollywood isn’t really ruled by godless hedonists after all,” observes Tom O’Neil, an Oscar handicapper who hosts the award-predictions Web site Goldderby.com. “Maybe Hollywood will want to send that message after getting clobbered by conservatives in the presidential election.”

Conversely, Mr. O’Neil says, “Fahrenheit” might “be more formidable than ever, being the best club liberal Hollywood has to swing back.”

Michael Medved, a conservative film critic and radio-talk-show host, agrees that “Fahrenheit” could get a boost from Mr. Bush’s good fortune.

“If anything, the election probably enhances the Oscar chances for Michael Moore, since it gives his project the patina of martyrdom,” he says. “He can now pose as a lonely prophetic voice crying in the wilderness.”

On the other hand, the president’s victory is seen by many as brightening the prospects for successful elections early next year in Iraq. It’s hard to see how good news in Iraq — the beginnings of democratic stability and economic recovery — is good news for Mr. Moore.

What’s harming chances for “The Passion” most, besides liberal antipathy, are the fears of anti-Semitism it stirred up before release, if not outright anti-Christian pique, according to Mr. Medved. “The most amazing aspect of the reaction to ‘The Passion’ has been the failure of leading executives and producers to even take the time to see it,” he says.

“That’s true,” says Anne Thompson, a contributing writer for Premiere magazine who’s based in Los Angeles. “There’s a great deal of resistance to seeing the movie. It was doomed from the first, as far as the academy is concerned.”

Even without those negatives, Mr. O’Neil says, “The Passion” “committed the double sin of being released too early in the year, then issuing its DVD months before Oscar season.”

Ms. Thompson isn’t betting on “Fahrenheit 9/11,” either. “I’m talking to a lot of other journalists and actual academy members, and I do not pick up a sense that ‘Fahrenheit’ is on their radar at all,” she says.

She sees a simpler, less cynical dynamic at play. Oscar voters are filmmakers and actors, and even if a great many of them agree with Mr. Moore’s politics, they won’t think his craft is worthy of the industry’s highest honor.

“Actors aren’t going to vote for ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’; it doesn’t have any actors in it,” she says.

Watch to see if bellwether groups such as the National Board of Review and the Directors Guild of America leave Mr. Gibson and Mr. Moore in the cold.

The Golden Globes, to be held Jan. 16, have barred both “The Passion” and “Fahrenheit” from best-picture consideration — the former because it’s not in English and the latter because it’s a documentary. But Mr. Gibson is still eligible for best director there.

It seems clear that both movies will need to pick up momentum before February’s Academy Awards ceremony if they stand any chance of winning trophies. If they don’t, it’s likely that the most controversial movies of 2004 will be shut out come Oscar night.

And recounts won’t be necessary.

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