Oscar Ethics: Was Melissa Leo’s Campaign Wrong?

On a difficult day, I am not up to writing about heavy ethics issues, so instead I will comment on an ethics controversy that is as inconsequential as possible—one involving the Oscars.

Melissa Leo, a front-running Best Supporting Actress nominee for her role in “The Fighter,” courted controversy by violating one of the Academy Awards’ unwritten rules: “Don’t promote yourself for an Award—it’s tacky!” Leo personally placed Hollywood trade ads showing her in full glamor mode, a sharp contrast to her character in “The Fighter.” The text simply said “Consider,’ then below that, “Melissa Leo,” and in small print off to the side, the web address http://www.melissaleo.com. She argued that she needed to promote herself because her competitors were getting the benefit of big studio publicity, while she was not.

What rankled some of the Hollywood elite was that Leo’s ad didn’t promote her performance, but herself, as if the Academy Awards were <gasp!> just a popularity contest. Of course, they are a popularity contest, but performance factors in there somewhere too (well, most of the time), as well as politics. political correctness, whatever minority group the Academy want to mollify, and career credits. Now, if Leo wins, her ads may make some believe the Academy voters  considered factors other than performance (which they always do), and if she doesn’t people will say it is because she was punished for breaking the unwritten rule, a rationale which would  have nothing to do with performance quality….proving, ironically,  that her reasoning was correct.

How would it have been better to promote the film or the performance? If the process has integrity, voters will vote based on whether her performance is the best of the nominees, not based on the promotion of it. All promotion of a particular candidate for an artistic award is unethical. Its purpose is to bias what should be a fair competition by argument and persuasion by non-voting parties. Its very existence undermines public faith in the objectivity of the process.

If Leo’s is the best performance (setting aside for the time being the matter of whether it is really possible to determine what is “best” when comparing different fruit), then she should win regardless of anyone’s promotional campaigns, including her own. Her efforts show that she (like most of us) doesn’t believe that the competition is objective, so either she is refusing to play a public deception game (ethical) or engaged in rogue activity undermining her industry’s yearly publicity fest for personal gain (unethical).

Or doing both at the same time, which is my view.

For the record, self-promotion campaigns for Oscars usually backfire. One of the most infamous was the obnoxious Supporting Actor campaign whisper-voiced character actor Chill Wills ran for his role in “The Alamo” in 1960. Featuring a photo of the entire “Alamo” cast, it read: “We of the Alamo cast are praying harder  than the real Texans prayed for their lives in the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar as the Best Supporting Actor. Cousin Chill’s acting was great!” It was signed “Your Alamo Cousins”.  The film’s director John Wayne was moved to take out his own ad denouncing his own actor, saying in part, “I refrain from using stronger language because I am sure his intentions were not as bad as his taste.”

Leo’s ad wasn’t in bad taste—it just refused to go along with Academy’s myth. Whether that is ethical or not shouldn’t matter: the Oscar is not an ethics award.


5 thoughts on “Oscar Ethics: Was Melissa Leo’s Campaign Wrong?

  1. I don’t think, by this time, that many moviegoers or insiders alike have much faith in the Academy’s “objectivity”… anymore than they have with any of the other fallen standards of the business. That’s why attendance is steadily declining, why quality is decaying and why no one cares about the Oscars anymore, despite their increasingly massive and desperate campaigns to promote it.

    The Oscars just don’t mean what they used to. They are often an embarrassment to watch, besides. I turned it off after that hideous Snow White routine back when and have never been back since!

    So… if Melissa Leo wants to promote herself for the Best Supporting Actress award, let her. Who cares who wins? And, after all, she’s only doing up front what the others are doing under the table. In that respect, she’s being more ethical than they are.

    The bottom line, however, is that the Academy itself is unethical… as is the business that it represents. They all deserve each other. So let them promote, backstab, self-congratulate in style and push their often deprave wares all they want in the process. Just don’t expect people to accept it. And don’t expect, Hollywood, that some day those people won’t put their collective foot down on your smug faces.

    Boy, I feel better for having said that!!

  2. The “Calendar” section of the LA Times for weeks now has been full of ads asking “For Your Consideration…”, paid for by the studios. The motivation, of course, is big money. In the weeks following Oscar night they can expect a big surge in attendance for the “winners'” movies. So I don’t fault Melissa Leo — it’s about money. She’s entitled to self-promote if her studio won’t. No law against it.

    Whether or not it’s in “good taste” is another question. “Chacun a son gout” – each to his own taste. Also, “De gustibus non disputandum est” – taste is not arguable.

    • (This is morning after Oscars.) Furthermore, I was delighted to see Natalie Portman’s prize. It was a beautiful, if dark, film and of course I cried at the end.

      • I said I don’t fault Melissa Leo for tootng her own horn, and I don’t.

        I do fault her for dropping the F-Bomb. Totally lacking in class.

  3. And Leo could have afforded the audience a little class, after her mild act of classlessness apparently helped get her the big prize. But, then again, Hollywood doesn’t give any brownie points these days for acting like a civilized human being.

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