One week before the 89th Academy Awards ceremony was set to take place in Hollywood on Sunday night, Feb. 26, a full-page ad appeared in the New York Times arts section on Feb. 17 listing Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin as one of “21 voices on why Lion is the Best Picture of the Year.”
The ad includes a quote from Griffin praising “Lion,” a highly acclaimed film about an adopted child from India who, as a young adult, searches for his biological family and self-identity. The film doesn’t have any LGBT-related content or storyline.
“Lion is a profoundly beautiful testament to the power of finding and understanding your identity,” the ad quotes Griffin as saying. “People from all backgrounds and all walks of life will be moved by this universal story.”
The ad identifies Griffin as “president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest national LGBT organization.”
The Feb. 17 ad and a smaller follow-up ad in the Times the next day that includes the same quote from Griffin were placed by the Weinstein Company, an LGBT-supportive film distribution company that is competing this year for a Best Picture award for “Lion” against eight other movies nominated for an Oscar in the Best Picture category.
Among the competition is “Moonlight,” another highly acclaimed movie that follows the life of a black gay man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles against bullying and cultural norms related to masculinity and self-acceptance.
HRC spokesperson Olivia Dalton said Griffin “loved” the movie “Lion” and “said so.” But she told the Washington Blade Griffin “didn’t have anything to do with the creation” of the New York Times ads and the ads “cannot” be interpreted to imply that Griffin supports Lion over Moonlight for an Academy Award for Best Picture.
Dalton did not reply to a Blade follow-up question asking how Griffin’s quote praising Lion found its way into the New York Times ads and whether Griffin, as speculated by Hollywood observers, agreed to a request by the Weinstein Company to submit a testimonial on behalf of “Lion.”
However, Dalton pointed out that the Times ads appeared one week after Griffin and HRC honored the movie “Moonlight” and the creative team that produced it with an HRC award at its annual New York dinner on Feb. 11.
“Moonlight has captured the hearts and the minds of audiences across the country,” Griffin said in a statement announcing the award. “The film triumphs in its portrayal of the struggles that many in this country face every day because of discriminatory barriers that still exist, especially if you’re young, African American, and LGBTQ,” Griffin said. “We are proud to recognize the brilliance of Moonlight with the HRC Visionary Arts Award and welcome playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney to accept the award.”
“Moonlight” is based on a play written by McCraney called ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.’
Although it’s clear that Griffin and HRC singled out “Moonlight” for high praise, LGBT movie fans might be wondering why Griffin would submit a statement praising “Lion” in a prominent New York Times ad. LGBT activists have expressed strong support for “Moonlight” to receive the Best Picture award, saying that honor would boost the cause for LGBT equality.
Jay Gendron, an entertainment lawyer who worked for more than 20 years as an attorney for Warner Brothers Studios before becoming a visiting professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, said Hollywood insiders would most likely speculate that Griffin was courted by Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of the Miramax movie distribution company in the 1990s and who later joined his brother Bob Weinstein in founding the Weinstein Company.
“They are masters at Oscar campaigns,” said Gendron. “They’re really good at marketing. And sometimes they’re a little on the edge,” he said. “And I’m not casting aspersions on them, but their marketing department is the best when it comes to the awards season.”
Prior press releases issued by HRC show that the LGBT rights group has honored the Weinstein Company for at least two of its previous LGBT-themed movies – “The Imitation Game” and “Carol.”
“The Imitation Game” tells the story of gay British scientist and World War II hero Alan Turing, who committed suicide after being subjected to anti-gay persecution in the 1950s.
“Carol” tells of a love story between two lesbians in the 1950s who struggled to build a life together amid an era of anti-gay prejudice.
Last April, HRC announced that Harvey Weinstein was among more than 160 corporate CEOs and business leaders that signed an open letter drafted and distributed by HRC calling for the repeal of HB 2, the anti-LGBT law passed by the North Carolina Legislature.
“I feel a little sad for Chad that he’s stuck in the middle of this,” Gendron said. “And I’m sure he loved Lion very much. Everybody thought it was outstanding.”
Yet Gendron noted that everyone he knows also loves “Moonlight,” and it’s clear that Griffin praised both movies.
“They both have wonderful messages. One is obviously more a message with respect to gay rights – a story that gay people love,” he said. “But they both are incredibly powerful movies with a really good, honest appropriate message. And I wonder if the Moonlight people shouldn’t have more strongly touted the fact that HRC honored them.”
Representatives of the Weinstein Company and A24, an independent entertainment company that produced and distributed Moonlight, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Gendron and others familiar with the Academy Awards say the hit film “La La Land,” a musical love story that takes place amid the Los Angeles entertainment industry, is considered the strong favorite to win the Oscar this year for Best Picture. Nine movies have been nominated for Best Picture this year.
“La La Land” has been nominated for 14 Academy Awards in various categories, including Best Picture. “Moonlight” was nominated for seven Oscars in addition to Best Picture. “Lion” received six Oscar nominations including Best Picture.
According to Gendron, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who choose the Academy Award winners by secret ballot, may not be ready to pick a movie like “Moonlight,” which portrays a black gay man and addresses issues related to drug dealing.
“I don’t think Moonlight can win,” he said. “I wish it would. But if they weren’t ready for Brokeback Mountain I just don’t see it happening with Moonlight.”
Gendron was referring to the 2005 decision by the Academy not to award an Oscar for Best Picture for the movie “Brokeback Mountain,” which portrayed a love affair between two gay cowboys in the early 1960s.
Some gay activists accused the Academy of bypassing “Brokeback Mountain” for Best Picture because of a bias against gays. Gendron said he thinks the Academy will be hesitant about “Moonlight,” even though LGBT rights have advanced significantly since “Brokeback Mountain” was released in 2005.