Hollywood director David O. Russell took a meeting this week to talk about a movie. But the man in the room with him wasn't a studio executive or an actor hoping for a role — he was Vice President Joe Biden.
Russell met Biden and spoke on the Senate floor in support of legislation on mental health care. His movie "Silver Linings Playbook" focuses on a man with bipolar disorder and is in contention for eight Oscars, including best picture, come Feb. 24.
Hollywood and politics: An article in the Feb. 9 Section A on the relationship between Hollywood and Washington said "Silver Linings Playbook" director David O. Russell spoke on the Senate floor on behalf of a mental-health bill. He spoke in a separate room inside the Capitol and appeared with sponsoring senators. —
"Right now I have a little bit of leverage to have a dialogue," Russell, whose 19-year-old son has long suffered from emotional difficulties, said by phone from Washington.
The Academy Awards may give Russell an elevated platform to fight for an issue he cares about. But his Capitol Hill visit just before Oscar balloting began Friday also helps give his dramatic comedy a sense of gravitas on par with politically heavyweight rival nominees "Lincoln," "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty." Those films all have attracted a strong measure of Washington interest, from senators to former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
This year's crop of serious and politically minded Oscar movies — coupled with the willingness of politicians and film personalities to go to bat for one another with unusual frequency — has created an awards season in which Washington and Hollywood are more entangled than at any time in recent memory.
Although past races have seen small D.C.-centric discussions over an individual nominee — 2009's "The Hurt Locker" and 2008's '"Frost/Nixon" each stirred some conversation — rarely has there been such deep involvement by Beltway heavyweights.
Oscar voters often shy from political fare — the last movie with overt political themes to win best picture came in 1987, when Oliver Stone's Vietnam film "Platoon" walked away with top honors. "Argo," a rescue drama set during the Iran hostage crisis that has swept top Hollywood guild awards in recent weeks, could break that dry spell.
Though that film is considered the front-runner, this year's race has seen an uncharacteristically large number of ups and downs, prompting campaigners to look outside Hollywood for an edge.
As Russell was in Washington meeting with Biden, Warner Bros. was releasing a new DVD aimed at Oscar voters on behalf of "Argo" that featured Jimmy Carter extolling director Ben Affleck's handling of the subject. "Though it seems like fiction, every word of this story is true," proclaimed the former president.
That followed Bill Clinton's appearance last month at the Golden Globes, where he touted "Lincoln." (DreamWorks founder and "Lincoln" director Steven Spielberg, a major Clinton donor, recruited him.) "President Lincoln's struggle to abolish slavery reminds us that enduring progress is forged in a caldron of both principle and compromise," Clinton said on the show. "This brilliant film shows us how he did it and gives us hope that we can do it again."
Meanwhile, the Osama bin Laden manhunt film "Zero Dark Thirty" has been both a punching bag and a legacy-builder for leaders in Washington over the last six weeks. After senators including Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) slammed the movie as "grossly inaccurate" for the way it depicted torture, former CIA head Leon Panetta, played in the movie by James Gandolfini, came out in support of it.
Amid the din of dozens of critics awards and guild prizes, an endorsement from the likes of Democratic statesmen like Clinton, Carter or Panetta may carry a different kind of weight with the approximately 5,800 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And with about 1,000 members living outside of California, endorsements from beyond the Hollywood community could prompt voters not plugged in to the back-and-forth of awards season to pay closer attention.
At the same time, politicians and activists say the growing Hollywood-D.C. axis benefits them as well.
"It's very helpful [for the bill] to have somebody who's highly visible," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), sponsor of the mental-health bill. "Someone from the entertainment community brings a different level in terms of public awareness and a buzz and an excitement about an issue."
Russell, who has long been campaigning for stronger mental-health legislation, said he wanted to use his position as a director to advance a cause that's important to him. "We have stigmas in this society that we don't treat as a crisis until it's too late, and some of the scenes in our movie speak directly to that," he noted.
Nevertheless, some observers say the D.C. tie-ins could be seen by Oscar voters as cynical grabs at some quick credibility.
"It's a curious conception that help will be coming soon from Washington in this arena," said veteran Hollywood awards consultant Tony Angellotti, who represents the filmmakers of "Zero Dark Thirty." "This is the worst-reviewed Congress in the history of Congress."
The worlds have become so entwined in recent weeks that one lawmaker, Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), appears to have unwittingly created a perception problem for a filmmaker ally, Ben Affleck.
After he went to see "Lincoln" on Saturday, Courtney was bothered by the portrayal of Connecticut's vote on the 13th Amendment. (The movie suggests, incorrectly, the majority of his state's representatives in the House voted against the measure to abolish slavery.) He fired off a letter asking DreamWorks to set the record straight before the DVD release.
Courtney says he was just standing up for Connecticut's reputation. But some saw a more shadowy motivation to knock "Lincoln": Affleck, the director of "Argo," had campaigned for Courtney in 2006, a race Courtney won by just 83 votes.
In an interview, Courtney credited his win to a rally Affleck held on the University of Connecticut campus, but maintained that he had no contact with Affleck before writing about "Lincoln."
"It's hilarious, that conspiracy theory," Courtney said and laughed. "I'm not smart enough to know when Oscar voting begins." A spokeswoman for "Argo" said that "there was no involvement with the Courtney letter" and said she felt "dismay that anyone would suggest otherwise."
Still, such scrutiny and perception questions have some awards campaign strategists emphasizing that they're merely passive recipients of Washington interest. Consultants for "Lincoln," for instance, made a point of saying that Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) approached them to screen the film on Capitol Hill, not the other way around.
Russell's D.C. visit was overseen by the Weinstein Co., which financed and distributed "Silver Linings Playbook." The company's co-founder Bob Weinstein is friendly with Stabenow, but both sides say this was not a matter of politically connected studio chiefs using their influence with Washington.
A Weinstein Co. representative said the appearances happened "organically," and Stabenow said that "the Weinsteins reached out to me at the same time I was reaching out to them," adding that the D.C. tie-ins were the result of the pictures themselves. "I think it's the nature of the films this year — they are powerful movies that offer very important messages," she said.