Undoubtedly my favorite entertainment news story of the week is the rescission of the Academy Award ® song nomination for the independently produced, Christian-themed movie "Alone, Yet Not Alone" (2013) by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences due to the emails that its composer, the esteemed Bruce Broughton and a former member of the Academy's Board of Governors, sent to 70 out of the approximately 239 members of the Academy's music branch bringing the song to their attention and asking them to consider it. When the nominations came out on January 16th, I remember thinking "Good for them, a small independent movie up against much bigger movies and songs," even though I haven't seen the film and I further admit the movie itself does not sound like my cup of tea. As the days followed after the nomination, I became more and more intrigued by the level of vitriol directed at the song's nomination, as well as reports that an unnamed composer, miffed that the song he or she had composed for another film was not nominated, hired a private investigator to look into the matter. When news came out this week that the Academy Board of Governors rescinded the nomination due to Broughton's email campaign, I figured it was due to the fact that he had violated a specific rule with the Academy. But thanks to Scott Feinberg's excellent and articulate editorial in the Hollywood Reporter, which affirms that Broughton didn't violate any specific rule that the Academy can cite, and that major studios are much more pushy and opportunistic about promoting its products during awards season, I have to side with Broughton's supporters who feel that the rescission was done in an arbitrary and inconsistent manner compared to other instances where the penalty issued was a comparative slap on the wrist--such as the one where a producer of "The Hurt Locker" (2009) emailed Academy voters urging them to vote for, as opposed to merely asking them to consider, his movie instead of "Avatar" (2009) and as a result got his tickets to the Award ceremony revoked.
What does concern me is how the rescission of this song nomination seems to be another issue fueling the religious vs. secular ideological culture war that continues to divide this country, with both sides using this issue to further their own agenda. The LA Times' esteemed Steven Zeitchik and Glenn Whipp have written effectively on this aspect of the controversy. As mentioned earlier, there were people on the internet representing a secular perspective who appeared opposed to the nomination due to the Christian and Conservative pedigree of the filmmakers, and who appear to support the rescission of the nomination without any genuine insight or understanding of the inconsistency with which the Academy applies and enforces its rules just because they are biased against the film's religious content. Because the central storyline of the film concerns two young women kidnapped by Native Americans, there were even people who attacked the film as racist based on what they have seen in the trailer even though it doesn't appear that these detractors have actually seen the entire movie, just the trailer. (Update 2/5/2014 EST; 10:37 AM: In one recent instance, a secular detractor, who expresses a very shallow, one-dimensional understanding of the nuances of Bruce Broughton's actions and the Academy's inconsistent enforcement of its rules, and clearly has no understanding of how major studios shamelessly promote their films for awards, argues that the film is racist, and says that they have seen "much of the movie", but not necessarily all of it. The fact that this individual admits they have not seen the whole film calls into question how much of the film they actually have watched, and whether they are basing their opinion on the trailer or other excerpts taken out of context. In this example, it's apparent that the secular bias of this commentator has shaped their entire argument against the song and the movie.) If the secular detractors have seen the whole film, and still feel it's racist, then they are welcome to that opinion. I haven't seen the film, either, and it's entirely possible that I would think the movie is indeed racist and offensive after I see it. But basing a conclusion on watching a trailer, or portions of the actual film, makes about as much sense as drawing conclusions about a book based on looking at its book jacket, or reading a few excerpts out of context. What I don't like about this is that people have always argued for years, whenever a Christian or conservative group protests a movie they don't like despite never having seen it--such as Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988)--the logical and reasoned response is to always say "Please see it first before drawing your conclusions." Having self-respecting film writers or bloggers criticize or condemn a Christian Conservative movie sight unseen undermines our ability to defend movies like "The Last Temptation of Christ" from such reactionary opinion.
Concurrently, I do not agree with some Christian Conservative supporters of the movie who feel that the rescission of the nomination is another sign of how Hollywood is filled with "Godless" people and that this shows how the entertainment industry is out to destroy their perspective and demean their way of life. I didn't particularly care for pastor Joni Eareckson Tada, who performed the song in-question, telling the LA Times, "If it was for reasons connected with a faith-based message, it shouldn’t surprise us that Hollywood would shun Jesus...Jesus has been shunned by much weedier characters" because the statement has such a condescendingly reductive, generalized tone to it. As I've mentioned on this blog before, I've interviewed actors and actresses and other entertainment industry personnel through the years. I know many people in show business who do believe in God and are Conservative, just as I know people in show business who are liberal and secular and fit the common assumption and stereotype. I've learned how people working in the industry reflect many different perspectives and points of view and I dislike it whenever I hear someone who has no contact with anyone in the industry making such generalizations, and generalized comments, about people they know nothing about. I feel that way whenever I meet people here in Washington, D.C. and its surrounding areas who express such opinions. If they are basing it on actual personally gained knowledge and facts, that's one thing, but it's not fair to dismiss an entire industry of people just because it fits with your own personal agenda and viewpoint. As such, I've bristled at the online comments left by people who have complained about the rescission of the "Alone Yet Not Alone" song nomination to the effect of "Gays and lesbians get their point of view, but we don't" or "This would never have happened to a movie with a Muslim theme!" Politically, I'm a centrist and I have a Protestant perspective, yet I admit I haven't been to church in years and I don't proselytize to others, because I think people deserve to come to their perspective on their own. I also admit I had my doubts about whether I still believed in God after witnessing my father suffer and pass away from lung cancer. At the end of the day, though, I still believe in God and I believe in the right to practice your beliefs (whether its atheism, agnosticism, or an organized faith) without criticism, but I also believe that having some (but not necessarily all) Christians espouse opinions demeaning gays or Muslims, in defense of this song and this film, only serve to further divide our country and help give secular detractors more fuel to their arguments.
I don't think the movie should be defended or criticized on the basis of its Christian Conservative content or pedigree, but merely on the basis of whether or not Bruce Broughton's email violated a hard and fast rule of the Academy. Moreover, I do not believe there was a Christian Conservative conspiracy to help the song garner its unexpected, surprise nomination through shady means, any more than I believe that there's a liberal, secular conspiracy in Hollywood to rescind the nomination because of the movie's religious element. As such, the only persons or entities whose side I'm on in this controversy is Bruce Broughton and his collaborator Dennis Spiegel and that's it. I feel that their professional reputation and integrity have been sullied by the Academy's rescission and those who call Broughton a "cheater" should be prepared to cite what specific rule with the Academy he broke, and also be able to rationally and persuasively argue how it applies in this instance, especially in light of the millions of dollars and promotional activities that major studios undertake to promote their wares. The people accusing Broughton of underhandedness appear to have not thoroughly researched the matter, or have chosen to be willfully ignorant of what the Academy's rules are just because it fits with their argument and agenda. (One person attacking Broughton online even mocks him for having won 10 Emmy Awards, as if to imply that composing music for television was somehow a sign of inferiority!) Moreover, I don't believe that knowledge of Broughton's former position on the Academy Board of Governors could have given his song that much weight with voters in the Music Branch compared to the millions of dollars and overt campaigning that was spent on behalf of the other, more famous songs from the major studios, especially since Broughton doesn't even reference his former role with the Board of Governors in the email. I also believe Broughton when he says that the 70 individuals he emailed came from his personal rolodex of names and contacts he has accumulated throughout his career and did not come from some Academy database list. (If he did have a list of names from the Academy music branch database, why did he only email 70 individuals? Why not email all 239 Academy music branch members?) I also don't believe that Broughton's participation in this film necessarily demonstrates his political or religious ideologies, as his many detractors appear to have alleged in their criticism against him, because I am sure that he has worked many times for filmmakers throughout his career who represent a more secular, liberal perspective. I think Mr. Broughton as simply an artist who was hired to help compose the song and believed it was a good song and that was that.
I've had a bad opinion about the Academy for years, ever since I started hearing anecdotes first-hand from "working class" actors and actresses I personally know who said that they had their membership with the Academy rescinded for weird reasons, such as not paying their dues on time (in one instance that I heard about, it was a day late). In another instance, one actor told me that they never received their renewal notice in the mail and, when they called the membership office to pay over the phone with their credit card, they were told that the Academy sent out a letter to its membership asking them to contact the Academy if they wanted to remain a member. Purportedly, because the Academy claimed that they never heard back from this performer, they dropped this individual from their roster, even though this actor swore to me that they never received such a "opt in" letter and would have responded immediately had they known. As a result, these people are no longer members of the Academy and will have to start from scratch in order to apply to try to get in again, which is going to be difficult because, based on what I've heard, the Academy's standards about who they are inviting in appears to have become, in my opinion, more stringent and elitist. Of course, I am only hearing this story from those who have alleged it has happened to them, and I have no proof about it other than what I was personally told. Nevertheless, I sincerely believe the individuals who told me these stories and it seems odd that the Academy would take such action when, in the legal profession, an attorney has several opportunities to pay their annual dues before their license to practice law would be suspended. I came away from hearing these stories with the impression that the Academy may be taking such action to try and get rid of its less "esteemed" or older members so that they can make room in their roster to open up its membership to the young and the hip. Of course, that's just my opinion and I have no inside knowledge as to how they develop and formulate their membership policy. It's just strange that the Academy would be much more stringent and arbitrary on such matters than the legal profession would be in terms of its dues paying policies. As such, after hearing these anecdotes, it didn't completely surprise me that the Academy took such inconsistent and arbitrary actions against Mr. Broughton, and didn't allow him to defend himself before issuing their decision. I have heard enough about the Academy to allow me to form an opinion that they seem to have a tendency, when it suits their purposes, to make things up as they go along and try to rationalize it later. I think it is interesting that the Academy leadership and organization holds its members to such a strict standard of review, but do not appear to hold themselves to the same exacting standards as well.
Rather than basing any arguments in support or against the song nomination rescission on religious or ideological grounds, I think the best, most reasoned comments in support of Bruce Broughton and Dennis Spiegel have come from their own colleagues in the industry. In an online petition asking the Academy to reconsider the rescission, Conrad Pope, an accomplished orchestrator working in the film industry wrote, "Bruce Broughton did nothing inappropriate in my opinion. I am a member of the Music Branch, I received Bruce's email informing me that he had written a song that was eligible for consideration. That was all. When I consider the blandishments proffered by the major studios to 'consider' their submissions, I feel that the Board of Governors is over reacting and committing a grave injustice." Gael MacGregor, a film music coordinator further explained, "Blockbuster films and big studio productions hire PR mavens to agressively (sic) lobby Academy members durnig (sic) the nominating and voting processes, yet the Academy has chosen to sanction an individual who sent some emails alerting members to the small indie film for which he co-wrote the title song. Hypocrisy in action in this blatant double standard." Film composer Don Peake, who composed the score for the original "The Hills Have Eyes" (1977) wrote, "I am a member of the music branch. I have received several invitations to elaborate lunches and screenings promoting songs for the voting this year. Bruce has done nothing wrong." Southern California attorney Randal Billington, who does not appear to be connected to the entertainment industry but is an interested observer, rationally proposed on the petition, "This is simply a request for fairness and openness. It is not a demand that the nomination be reinstated, but simply a request for proof that the other nominees did not promote their own songs in ways similar to the song in question here. If no such proof is available, and this song is on the same footing as the others, then the nomination should be reinstated."
I recognize that there are bigger, more important, more relevant issues out there in the world than whether or not the song from "Alone Yet Not Alone" is competing for the Academy Awards. I also recognize that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is a non-governmental institution that has a right to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. However, because of the emotions and religious and ideological issues that this nomination rescission has stirred up, the Academy should at the very least have allowed Bruce Broughton an opportunity to publicly respond to the criticism lodged against him for having sent that email to 70 members of the music branch and be allowed to defend himself before the Board of Governors before they took such drastic actions. That way, Mr. Broughton would have had his "day in court" and the Board of Governors could have minimized the fallout from this controversy had they allowed him an opportunity to make his case as to why the nomination should not be rescinded. I hope, in the long run, Mr. Broughton will be able to look back and laugh at this incident and that he will continue to prosper as a film composer for years to come. The only thing I take comfort in knowing about all of this is that, whoever was the disgruntled, anonymous composer who hired a private investigator to look into this nomination, they won't have their song replace "Alone Yet Not Alone" as the fifth nominee because of the Board of Governor's decision to not put another song in its place. That disgruntled composer, who didn't even have the guts to publicly accuse Broughton of purportedly cheating, and who I feel helped add fuel to this controversy and helped to influence the Academy Board of Governor's decision, is still left empty-handed at the end of the day and I am glad that it's a Pyrrhic victory for them.
(Update 4:12 PM EST, 2/1/14): Glenn Whipp of the LA Times just posted a very informative article citing a statement released on Saturday by the Academy alleging that Broughton violated the rules of the Academy because the voting process is supposed to be "anonymous" in the interests of promoting "fairness" and "unbiased" voting. They cited rule 5.3 of the 86th Academy Award rules that states composer and lyricist credits should be omitted from DVDs of songs sent to voters in the Music Branch. If this was indeed the reasoning behind the rescission, why not cite it upfront earlier this week? Moreover, trade paper ads for songs, as I recall, do indeed have the composer and lyricist's names listed on them, not to mention the fact that one can easily look up the names of the composers and lyricists for a song on the internet or IMDB, so forget about promoting anonymity and fairness. If rule 5.3 is all they can cite to, then Broughton has done no wrong because a rule requiring no names on a DVD featuring songs for voters to review is wholly different than sending an email to members asking them to just consider a song. Offhand, this statement just sounds like an excuse made up after the fact to justify their actions because of the controversy that erupted and it doesn't change my mind on this issue at all.