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A Story About A Little-Known Song In A Little-Known Movie That Got A Big Oscar Nod

The Oscar statue is seen at the entrance of the Hollywood & Highland Center before the 2012 Academy Awards.
Frazer Harrison
Getty Images
The Oscar statue is seen at the entrance of the Hollywood & Highland Center before the 2012 Academy Awards.

Well, it's safe to say we're shocked — shocked — to find that Oscar campaigning was going on in here.

Tuesday night, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences — the Oscars people — rescinded the Best Original Song nomination for "Alone Yet Not Alone," from the movie Alone Yet Not Alone.

If you don't know what Alone Yet Not Alone is, you are alone yet not alone, because nobody was talking about this movie before the Oscar nominations came out, but a lot of people have been talking about it since then, asking a single searching question: "A what yet a what?"

Alone Yet Not Alone was the 314th biggest domestic earner of 2013, making $133,546 over three weeks in 11 theaters. It's a story about faith in God, and it boasts endorsements from Rick Santorum, Focus On The Family founder James Dobson, and Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council.

But the association that resulted in the yanking of the nomination was with Bruce Broughton, once an Academy Governor and still a member of the executive committee of the music branch. Broughton wrote the music for the song "Alone Yet Not Alone," and the Academy found that during the voting on nominations, he'd reached out to members of the music branch (which he helps govern) to tell them about his song that could maybe be nominated.

Now, it's not that the Oscars never nominate little movies that few people have heard of — and it's certainly not that they shouldn't nominate little movies that few people have heard of. But when the song you wrote that few people have ever heard from the little movie that few people have heard of bags a major Oscar nomination, and you're on the executive committee of the relevant branch, and it turns out that you campaigned via e-mail for your own song? Well, the Academy decided to draw the line there, saying through President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, "Using one's position as a former governor and current executive committee member to personally promote one's own Oscar submission creates the appearance of an unfair advantage."

On the one hand, this seems an utterly reasonable thing to do — it does indeed seem like having a member of the governing committee of a group of people reach out to them to remind them that perhaps they'd like to consider his work creates at the very least the appearance of an unfair advantage.

But on the other hand, it is a bit of a fig leaf on a process that is well-understood to involve plenty of nudging, needling, calling, advertising, wheedling, and any number of other approaches that do not amount to looking solemnly to one's peers and saying, "Do what you think is right."

Just yesterday, Vulture ran a history of what it called the "Oscar campaign shenanigans" of super-producer Harvey Weinstein. It cited reports that Weinstein spent $5 million just trying (successfully) to get a Best Picture win for Shakespeare In Love, and detailed persistent accusations that Weinstein has participated in various "whisper campaigns" against other Best Picture contenders.

Whether or not all of those accusations are true, the Academy is certainly dogged by an increasing sense that they are true. It's possible to have a very successful awards show even if people sort of suspect that your entire process contains very much wining as well as a great deal of dining — just ask the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which gives out the Golden Globes.

But every awards show has its little niche, the thing it tries to be good at. The Globes are sometimes edgy and usually boozy — a fun show in support of a pretty goofy process. The Grammys focus on performances and have essentially given up on matching any critical sense of what music is actually best.

For the Oscars, the thin layer of alleged dignity and respectability that has survived even the years of highly publicized campaigning is, among other things, what the show is selling. The Oscars, while gentle comedy is encouraged, should feel like a grown-up evening, so the popular understanding goes. The Oscars are supposed to be about champagne sipped demurely, not white wine in barrels brought directly to your seat. You still can't wear what people deem too va-voomy a dress to the Oscars, or people will talk. (Sometimes in weird, uncomfortably coded language.) The Academy is not looking to become a less boozy Golden Globes.

So without actually drilling down into the ugly business of everything other than quality that affects who takes home which little naked statue, pulling a nomination that's been raising eyebrows since it was announced is as good a way as any to make the point that while it might not seem like it, some things are too detrimental to the appearance of a meritocracy, even for the Oscars.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.