OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A movie producer relentless at awards time is blindsided by rivals. 2,398 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Most independent producers who strike it big at least make an effort to distance themselves from their bottom-feeding beginnings. Not Herschel Wechsler. It wasn’t the expensive suits that hung on his doughy frame as though he’d slept in them. It didn’t matter that he sprayed spittle when he talked. Nobody even held his flyshit toupee against him. It was that he had the kind of face you just wanted to push into the front of a 1958 Buick.
Hollywood has known its share of ogres with good taste. Joseph E. Levine, Harvey Weinstein, Joel Silver, Scott Rudin, and Otto Preminger readily come to mind. Okay, maybe not Otto Preminger. But the others possessed that rare combination of passion, guts, showmanship, charisma, and intelligence that dignified them and their productions despite the controversy they sometimes courted.
Hershel Wechsler, however, was irredeemable. You didn’t even have to use his last name. Everybody just said “Herschel.” Sure, his pictures made money — and you’d think that would absolve him of the town’s enmity. Except he did it in the one way that Hollywood found unacceptable: at the expense of the motion picture industry’s dignity. As more than one of his competitors — they bristled if called his “colleagues” – remarked, Herschel always found a way to scrape underneath the bottom of the barrel.
When it came to the time-honored tradition of movie ballyhoo, Herschel knew no shame. His first great success was While You Were With The Sirens, a sword-and-sandals import starring a female bodybuilder as Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. Advertising it as “Last Tango In Paris Goes Greek,” Herschel was rapped on the knuckles by the MPAA for self-applying “Rated LXIX.” The picture cleaned up at the box office. He followed it with That Darn Gulag, a grim Russian prison camp drama. Herschel hired a popular comedian to dub the film with irreverent jokes. This time it wasn’t just the MPAA that griped; Amnesty International picketed. It likewise made a fortune.
Eventually even turds want class. Herschel thought he could earn it through charitable work. He had his publicist wangle him the chairmanship of Guardians Of Animals. That lasted until an animal rights activist sneaked onto his Yugoslavian set for Spy Kittens and brought back cell phone video of cats being tossed through blazing hoops. “It’s okay,” Herschel argued, “they landed in a swimming pool.”
Herschel might have survived the embarrassment if he even had the capacity to be embarrassed. But his craving for respectability spurred him onward, and soon he set his sights on Hollywood’s greatest honor, the Academy Award.
But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had inviolable rules covering what could and couldn’t be done to land one of their awards. Standards were long ago established to prevent breaches of propriety. By the time Herschel thirsted after Oscar, the Academy’s ethical standards of conduct were beyond restrictive. So he tested them by starting small.
In 1995 he managed to win Best Original Song for “Look At My Id” from his film Freud: A Musical Analysis. He did it by sending a DVD to every Academy member in the days when those discs were still new, and he threw in a DVD player just in case the recipient didn’t have one yet. The practice was immediately outlawed by AMPAS.
In 2002 he held champagne brunches for To Jest Bzdura, a low-budget Swedish sex drama that he dubbed into Polish, subtitled in English, and touted as the latest breakthrough in screen sensuality. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language film. The next year he won the Foreign Language Film Oscar outright for L’Artiste Silencieux, a drama about a mime that he distributed in black and white (it had been produced in color) after replacing the dialogue with subtitles (it had been shot with sound), and positioning it as the art film of the year.
His most subtle ruse was purposely misspelling the phrase “For Your Consideration” as “For Your Consternation” for the Academy campaign for his rom-com To Whom It May Concern. For the price of a single one-page display ad in the trades, he got a week’s worth of free publicity over the controversy that ensued.
What enraged the moguls in the executive suites wasn’t that Wechsler outdid them in bamboozling the industry – secretly they marveled at his chutzpah – it was that he was so blatant, even gleeful, about it. The breaking point came when Herschel went around Hillcrest Country Club proclaiming that he was going to win the Oscar for his latest film The Irish Doctor. Shot in Morocco with an English cast, an American script, and a Chinese director, it was an endlessly pretentious story about a mysterious medic whose life flashes in front of him as he dies following a car crash. Herschel hit upon an advertising campaign that crossed over from the art houses to the multiplex market by convincing Middle America that they would be enriched by seeing it when, in fact, they were just being bored. Over Hillcrest’s matzoh brei and lox, Herschel boasted that he could pull the same trick on enough Academy members to win Best Picture.
“Everybody’s onto your schemes,” lectured Johnny Armstrong of Samsung Classics. “The lunches, the tchotchkes, the home visits by your stars, even sending your poor assistant to fetch people’s laundry. If you’ve got an Oscar-worthy picture, it’ll sell itself to the voters.”
“Oh yeah?” Herschel said between bites. “What about Doctor Dolittle back in 1968? Best picture against Bonnie And Clyde, In The Heat Of The Night, The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? In a year with Point Blank, Two For The Road and In Cold Blood in it?”
“Those were the old days when studio employees voted as a bloc,” said Mel Landis of Wolf Studios. “How do you think we got The Towering Inferno up there in 1974 opposite Chinatown, The Conversation, The Godfather, Part II and Lenny? And A Woman Under The Influence, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein were shut out. People want to protect their jobs.”
“Mark my words,” Herschel promised, “The Irish Doctor is gonna win the big one or my name isn’t Harry Walters.”
“But your name isn’t Harry Walters,” Armstrong said, puzzled.
“I’m changing it after I win the Oscar,” Herschel shot back. With that, he stood up from the table, brushed matzoh brei off his signature Hawaiian shirt, and left.
When he was gone, Armstrong turned to Landis. “He’s barely spending a dime while we’re going broke fighting the coverage for his stunts.”
“I don’t see how we can get around the rules,” Landis warned. “I’ve even heard people joke that if Ampas members get a free lunch, they have to throw up on the way to their car.”
“The Academy ought to disqualify him. Do we draw straws for which of us files a complaint with the Board of Governors?” Armstrong asked with a gleam in his eye. “Knocking him on the ropes for one picture won’t do the job. We have to KO the sonofabitch forever. Whatever it takes, we must out-Herschel Herschel. And not get caught.”
Armstrong and Landis charged their own lunches as well as each other’s to the budgets of all of their studios’ current releases and left the club.
Meanwhile, Herschel’s first “For Your Consideration” ad in the trades – double-truck, of course – said, “What? You’ve only seen The Irish Doctor once?” and listed nightly screenings all across the Westwide and the Valley where Academy members and their families could see it for free — with complimentary concessions, of course. He also made arrangements with theater managers to allow each voter’s kids to sneak into other movies in the multiplex, creating a sense of obligation on the part of the Academy member. But it was when he sent out bottles of Jameson Irish Whiskey that the calls started coming in, many of them from people in recovery programs who resented his effrontery. This, naturally, garnered free publicity in the mainstream press.
Rather than apologize, Herschel announced “The Irish Doctor Cocktail” consisting of a shot of Irish whiskey and a dash of bitters served over ice with a lollipop instead of a stirring straw (because physicians always give kids lollipops after a shot). They were an instant sensation.
Back at Hillcrest there was an emergency meeting. This time Landis and Armstrong were joined by moguls at Warner Bros, Universal, Paramount, Fox, Sony, Disney and Lionsgate. “We all know Herschel’s excesses,” said one of the most senior executives of the industry. “And we’ve all sinned ourselves, but those were only against the public. They expect us to pick their pockets. Herschel Wechsler is a pimple on the ass of the entire motion picture community.”
“We can’t beat him at his own game,” said another, “because he makes up new rules as he goes along.”
“Then we must find a way to make him overplay his hand,” the aged veteran declared. “Nobody leaves this table until we find a way to neutralize Herschel Wechsler.”
It took an hour and a half, but Armstrong’s idea was so brilliant that, later, three people claimed credit for it. The moguls would convince Herschel Wechsler he’s been nominated for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
“Are you out of your effing mind?” was Landis’s reaction. “The Academy voters will never go for it.”
“They don’t have to,” Armstrong said. “The Hersholt is voted by the Board of Governors. Here’s what we do. We tell Herschel there’s a move to get him nominated for this special award. He’ll be so fired up that it’ll take his mind off his Oscar campaign for The Irish Doctor .”
“I’m on the Board of Governors,” the senior mogul intoned solemnly. “We cannot be lobbied.”
“You mis-heard me,” Armstrong said respectfully. “I said we tell Herschel that he’s nominated but we don’t tell the Board of Governors. He’ll think he’s the guest of honor at a dinner he’s not invited to and tell everybody he’s going.”
“What if he calls one of you and asks?” Landis wondered.
“All of our deliberations are secret,” the elder statesman said proudly, a smile starting to unfreeze the corners of his mouth. “Compared to the Academy Board of Governors, a Grand Jury meets in Staples Center.”
Armstrong leaked the fake news to the trades and let them start the rumor by calling Herschel. Naturally he was surprised, naturally he was honored, and naturally he was hooked. The first ad appeared 48 hours later: “I want to thank the Academy,” signed “Herschel Wechsler.” That’s all. Nice and vague. And yet it sent word throughout Hollywood that his name was in play. But for what? Knowing Herschel couldn’t keep a secret, the media pursued him.
“Can’t a fella thank the Academy out of the blue if he wants to?” he said, almost managing to sound genuine instead of coy. “Sure, The Irish Doctor is eligible for Best Picture, but there’s more to it. I love the Academy. They do good stuff. Why shouldn’t I honor them?”
The media, having been burned more than once by Herschel’s stunts, remained skeptical. “Are you in the running for some award?” one reporter asked. Herschel tried to be cagey. “I’m glad you asked that,” he began. “I’d love to be considered for a major award given how much I’ve enriched the industry. But just having my name in front of them is honor enough.”
It was that last sentence that bit him. “The Academy does not comment on its Governors Awards procedure,” the AMPAS CEO announced tersely, adding that she could neither confirm or deny that Herschel was being considered. When the picture nominations were announced a week later, he was so consumed with his personal lobbying that he paid scant attention to the Academy campaign for The Irish Doctor. The picture languished.
“The Academy honors the industry, and Herschel Wechsler honors the Academy,” his next two-page ad read.
“It’s no scheme,” the producer insisted. “People watch the Oscars and forget about the Academy the other 364 days of the year. They also have a library, they preserve film, they hold screenings and seminars, and do community outreach. I look forward to a closer association.”
This time the Academy’s silence was broken by others who expressed appropriate outrage. The Los Angeles Times editorialized about Herschel’s self-aggrandizement in the face of neither evidence nor logic nor reason. The Hollywood Foreign Press announced there wasn’t enough swag in all the G-7 nations for Herschel to be able to buy their DeMille Award.
The final blow came when the Los Angeles Film Critics Association devised a one-time-only Emperor’s New Clothes Award for The Irish Doctor. They took one of the faux Oscar statuettes sold along Hollywood Boulevard, stuck a thermometer up its ass, and promised it to Herschel if he’d have the guts to accept it in person at their awards dinner.
But it was when Academy members began returning The Irish Doctor screeners broken in two and stopping the film’s streaming downloads halfway through that Herschel started to hear whispers of blowback. The clincher was the MPAA’s anti-piracy division informing him that none of the illegal file-sharing sites wanted his film.
When the Academy announced its official recipients of the Thalberg, Sawyer, Hersholt, and other Governors awards omitting him, Herschel knew he had gone too far when, in fact, he had never been going at all. The night of the Oscars, he gave his tickets to a seat-filler and was a no-show. Though The Irish Doctor had been nominated for seven awards, it lost in every category.
At the Governors Ball after the telecast, the moguls who had engineered Herschel’s self-defeat toasted one other.
“Our industry was built on ballyhoo, but we always delivered the goods. Herschel was all ballyhoo and no goods,” theorized Armstrong. With that said, each took his seat for dinner. They were surprised to find a beautifully wrapped gift at their place settings. Nobody else at the table had one. “A waiter brought that here especially for you,” Landis’ wife said. “He just put it there and left.”
“How odd,” Landis mumbled, taking out the card and reading it. The color drained from his face. His wife took it gently out of his hands and looked at it blankly. “What does, ‘I want to thank you instead of the Academy’ mean?” she asked. “And who is Harry Walters?”
This story first posted here on February 20, 2017. Oscar®, Academy Award®, and AMPAS® are registered trademarks of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, ©AMPAS.