If it looks like an Oscar smear campaign and smells like an Oscar smear campaign, is it really an Oscar smear campaign? On January 29, the Los Angeles Times ran a page-one story titled 'CROUCHING TIGER' CAN'T HIDE FROM BAD REVIEWS IN CHINA. A week later, just as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee's Best Picture-nominated Chinese kung-fu romance, was breaking Life Is Beautiful's record as the world's highest-grossing foreign film ever (and four days before Oscar nominations were announced), came Variety's page-one, above-the-banner story ASIA TO 'TIGER': KUNG-FOOEY, which cited poor Pacific Rim box-office numbers for the picture and accused it of "cultural bastardization." "If I see another one or two of these," said Reid Rosefelt, the publicist overseeing Crouching Tiger's national press, "I'm going to think there's a campaign. It's like someone made a call."
Which brings us to last week's New York Times page-one Arts-section salvo: LEE'S 'TIGER': CELEBRATED EVERYWHERE BUT AT HOME, with similar box-office numbers, this time disputed by the producers. Could this be sabotage? The usual suspect would be Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein -- he of the aggressive Oscar campaigns for Life Is Beautiful, Shakespeare in Love, and, this year, Chocolat. But Miramax's nascent first-look deal with Good Machine, which produced Crouching Tiger, would seem to rule him out. Another suspect could be Terry Press of Dreamworks, whose screenings of Gladiator to hail its DVD release supposedly signaled a new tactic in Oscar-publicity-mongering. Press flatly denies any dirty pool, and Variety editor Peter Bart concurs: "That story originated from me. The trouble is, there's a tendency to rule every story below the belt."
Lee's co-screenwriter and co-executive producer, James Schamus, shot back with a response in Variety, calling the argument "chauvinism" and "fantasy" -- noting that if the movie had been released in Asia alone, it still would have turned a profit. Weeks later, he remains baffled: "So now his ability to make movies in the West compromises our faith that he can make movies in the East? It's bizarre."
But Rosefelt isn't so sure about a smear campaign now. His new spin: The debate shows that Ang Lee is a truly international artist. "Correct me if I'm wrong," the publicist says, "but I don't think Ingmar Bergman was as successful in his home country -- or Akira Kurosawa in Japan." Unfortunately, neither of them ever won a Best Picture Oscar.