Oscar Politics: Alamo and John Wayne’s Failed Campaign

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Excessive politicking, marketing, and advertising could have a boomerang effect, as John Wayne’s patriotic campaign for The Alamo showed, in 1960. One ad compared the Alamo’s fighters with contemporary politicians, stating: “There were no ghostwriters at the Alamo, only men.” The publicity cashed in on the fact that 1960 was an election year. The Alamo was released in July, four months before the presidential elections. “Remember the Alamo,” said Wayne on?screen as Davy Crockett, and offscreen as a political figure. Another full?page ad read: “What will Oscar say this year to the world?” with a picture of the Alamo’s battered fortress.

 
According to Newsweek, publicist Russell Bidwell received the highest amount of money ever paid to a publicist to promote a movie, $125,000, all costs and salaries of his New York and Hollywood offices for a year, plus a huge operating budget. With a high emotional and financial drive, Bidwell helped The Alamo get seven nominations, including Best Picture, but no acting or directorial nominations for Wayne.
 
Much more criticized than Wayne was Chill Wills, who played Beekeeper, Crockett’s whiskey?drinking humorous sidekick. Wills was charged with using deplorable means to seek for himself a supporting nomination. At fifty?eight, after half a century in film, Wills realized this was his only chance to win the award. Thus, he didn’t hesitate to print ads like: “We of The Alamo cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives at the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar.” “Cousin Chill’s acting was great,” he wrote, signing, Your Alamo cousin.” Another ad read: “Win, lose, or draw. You’re still my cousins and I love you all.”
 
Comedian Groucho Marx, appalled by Wills’s methods, wrote back: “Dear Mr. Wills. I am delighted to be your cousin. But I’m voting for Sal Mineo (nominated for Exodus). Wayne himself didn’t approve of Wills’s campaign tactics and reproached him in print, which prompted Groucho Marx’s comment, “For John Wayne to impugn Chill Wills’s taste is tantamount to Jayne Mansfield criticizing Sabrina for too much exposure.” At the end of the day, neither Wills nor Mineo won; the supporting winner was Peter Ustinov for Spartacus.
 
The Alamo’s ad campaigns led to heated controversies over the professional and moral ethics involved in promoting movies. Examining whether advertising for Oscar nominations paid off, critic Dick Williams saw “nothing reprehensible in artists or productions blowing their own horns, because it is done in almost every other phase of American life.” 
 
Nonetheless, Williams objected to the fact that “Oscar voters are being appealed to on a patriotic basis,” and resented the implication that “one’s proud sense of Americanism may be suspected if one does not vote for The Alamo.” At Wayne’s request, Bidwell responded to the charge: “Along with the Los Angeles Times, you suggest very emphatically that we have conducted a campaign that to vote against The Alamo is un?American. This is a gratuitous and erroneous conclusion on your part.”
 
Campaigns on behalf The Alamo might have helped getting nominations but no awards. The picture lost in every category but sound. The Alamo wasn’t a bad film, but it was up against competition from Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, which won; Richard Brooks’s Elmer Gantry, the British literary adaptation, Sons and Lovers, and Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners.