Oscar season can be such high drama. Last year, director Steve James provided one of the strongest storylines. He’s been a beloved underdog since his Hoop Dreams didn’t get nominated. The good guy who makes good but, somehow, never gets the gold. When his highly touted documentary Life Itself, about Roger Ebert, also didn’t even get a nomination, it was Shakespearean.
You might think it’s too early to start talking about the Academy Awards this year but I swear it isn’t. The Gotham nominees were just announced. And awards season screenings have already started, the ones that have a long list of docurati “hosts” and everyone’s eyes are on a possible nomination. These are perennial events now, when producers get the big guns to come out to stump for a particular film.
And this year there is even more drama in the documentary category. Alex Gibney’s HBO doc, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, about that controversial organization, is particularly charged. That’s because Scientology is largely a Hollywood phenomenon, popular with the actor set, spawned by a man obsessed with Hollywood, buttressed by its Hollywood associations.
And so when Going Clear is promoted to the Academy voters, which is to say, Hollywood, it’s an opportunity for a virtual referendum on Scientology unlike anything that’s preceded it. Finally, Hollywood has the chance to say, “This Scientology crap isn’t what we’re about.”
It’s not a small thing. I, for one, am very interested in seeing how things play out. I once profiled Tom Cruise, Scientology’s poster boy, and I was subjected to a multi-day tutorial on the teachings of the group. Just to be, er, clear: Whatever good it has done for some people, I believe Scientology is a pernicious organization that preys on human weakness. It has operated largely unchecked until recently, a result of investigations by Lawrence Wright, the defection of screenwriter Paul Haggis and now Gibney’s film.
I should note that I don’t necessarily think Going Clear is the best documentary of the year. Or that it will win. But I do hope to get across what’s at stake. And it’s personal. There are enough Scientologists in the movie business that voters will be going for or against the belief system of their costume designer or producer or co-star. I’d guess that the documentary branch, which decides the nominees, has much less interaction with believers, and I don’t want to suggest that Scientology dominates Hollywood, but its presence is very much alive in that town. How much? That’s my point. Maybe we’ll get a better sense when the votes are cast.
I asked my friend and former colleague Anne Thompson, who writes the Thompson on Hollywood column at Indiewire and has been an Oscar expert for years, what she thought about all this.
“Gibney has done a masterful campaign to show himself as the beleaguered underdog targeted by the powerful subject of his movie. That has helped him win sympathy,” said Thompson, who added that she has never seen an HBO doc discussed by more people. Which could well be to its benefit.
She also noted that Gibney is on the Academy’s board of governors and a member of the documentary branch insider’s club.
Academy voters are famous for caring about movies that are about themselves, which made the exclusion of Life Itself all the more incredible. And there have been reports of Scientology members campaigning Oscar voters against Going Clear, a move that I think will undoubtedly backfire. Gibney has won one Oscar, been nominated for another and, I’d contend, is poised for another nomination.
Gibney was unavailable to comment for this article and I’m not surprised. He’d be better off letting this story circulate on its own. He can only gain. Unless Scientologists control the Academy, which they don’t.
I’ll admit, just writing this piece, I worry about the bridges I may burn to Scientologists for possible future stories. That’s the sort of thinking that cults are good at encouraging. And I am sick of it.