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Tom Cruise, Instagram and the Ethics of Oscar Campaigning: Inside a ‘Messy’ Season

Tom Cruise got a hero’s welcome in Hollywood over the last week of February. The Oscar nominee for producing “Top Gun: Maverick” had been largely absent from Los Angeles during prime awards campaigning season, held up filming his latest “Mission: Impossible” epic, and the town was more than compensated for his absence when he finally touched down.

On Feb. 26, “Top Gun: Maverick” producer Jerry Bruckheimer opened his Beverly Hills home to power players and stars (many of them voters for the Academy Awards). Days later, former Paramount chief and show business stateswoman Sherry Lansing gave an equally well-attended cocktail party to fete the producer-star. It’s not surprising that the industry would want to celebrate the man who Steven Spielberg said “saved Hollywood’s ass” by getting moviegoers back in theaters. But were the events legit in the eyes of the film academy, which enforces how and when Oscar hopefuls get to woo the figures that hand them golden trophies? The Academy’s bylaws say that after Oscar nominations are released, campaigns cannot “invite members to attend any parties, dinners, lunches, or other non-screening events that promote nominated films.” Organizer involved with the Feb. 26 event said that Cruise did not attend the dinner at Bruckheimer’s house.

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One high-ranking source with knowledge of the Cruise events wondered, “why are people taking shots at that random best actress nominee but not talking about this?” They refer of course to the firestorm around Andrea Riseborough, whose shock nomination for “To Leslie” produced international headlines and sparked a formal investigation at the Academy over campaign practices in January.

Insiders close to the “Top Gun: Maverick” campaign said the Cruise events were legit and well within the Academy’s code of conduct. The Bruckheimer event was billed as a celebration of the producer himself, after winning an honor from the Motion Picture Sound Editors Guild. The Lansing event was specifically in celebration of Cruise’s honor this year from the Producers Guild of America. The guest list was populated by people who had formerly worked with Cruise, another source added, billing them as “old friends.” The Academy bylaws state that “members may be invited to pre-receptions or after-parties held by film companies at the time and locale of any guild awards or other recognized industry awards event.”

That a movie star of Cruise’s caliber is not safe from suspicion points to how “messy” the year in campaigning has been, according to one of many industry insiders that spoke with Variety for this piece.

“It borders on undignified,” another top film producer said of a climate that has been rife with social media blunders, schadenfreude and finger pointing (though, honestly, that could be contemporary Hollywood in any given year).

The Riseborough affair resulted in a pledge from the Academy to look harder at social media endorsements, as many attributed her nomination to last minute support from members and stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Demi Moore. Instagram again gave us an 11th hour incident from best actress contender Michelle Yeoh, who posted numerous screengrabs of a Vogue story on Tuesday (the final day of Oscar voting) which praised her performance and specifically mentioned why fellow nominee Cate Blanchett should not win (another no-no is for a nominee to reference any of their competitors by name). Yeoh deleted the post, and reactions were mixed over her decision to post it in the first place. 

“Social media has definitely made this year a bit sticky,” said one awards consultant who works in-house at a major content company, speaking on the condition of anonymity. This specific problem is two-fold: not only do Instagram and Twitter accounts with massive followings provide new platforms to promote nominees, but social media can provide a window into many events and campaign stops that were formerly exclusive, back-channel affairs.

Where there is not outrage or whispering, the campaign issues have led to a weariness with the entire concept. In accepting the best actress prize for “Tar” at this year’s Critics Choice Awards, Blanchett spoke of all this year’s excellent female performances and said bluntly, “Stop with the televised horserace of it all.”

The art of the Oscar campaigning has seeped into the larger consciousness. Two different nonfiction books this year have considered the matter: Michael Schulman’s “Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears,” and Bruce Davis’ “The Academy and The Award.”

In an interview with Variety, Schulman downplayed the sourness of this year’s campaign tactics.

“This is not a bad year at all,” he said. Similarly, three different campaign consultants who spoke anonymously agreed that this year’s race felt no different than others, thought admittedly their process has seen an unusual amount of mainstream media coverage. One of those awards consultants said that Academy rules evolve because campaigners keep finding new ways to stretch them.

Besides, Schulman said, there have been worse years. Take 1999, he said, when now-disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein led “Shakespeare in Love” to a best picture victory over “Saving Private Ryan.”

“That was like the Spanish Civil War,” Schulman said. “People still have PTSD about it.”

Updated: After publication, organizers for the event on Feb. 26 stated that Cruise was not in attendance.

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