What some in Hollywood foresaw as a brewing Good Guy vs. Bad Guy Oscar campaign war at Warner Bros. has evaporated quickly.
Ads taken out by the studio in the Hollywood trade papers trumpeting the Academy Award-level of acting, directing and other achievements in Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" are invariably matched, a few pages later, by those for Spike Lee's "Malcolm X."
The treatment is viewed as strictly 50-50 -- no matter what executives might feel in their hearts after fending off nearly a year's worth of public attacks from Mr. Lee that they discriminated against his $35 million screen biography of the slain black leader.
(Mr. Lee has quieted down somewhat, though as recently as two weeks ago he told PBS talk-show host Charlie Rose that as a Hollywood outsider, not to mention a black filmmaker, he held little hope his film had a chance against the established competition.)
What is more surprising is that "Unforgiven" is clearly the darling of the two with critics, having won several key awards and numerous Golden Globe nominations. Although "X" is on many critics' 10-best lists, it so far has been largely bypassed except for Denzel Washington's performance in the title role.
For Warners' money, Mr. Eastwood is a longtime beloved resident of its Burbank lot; his Malpaso Productions office is there, and he has developed and made numerous hits for the studio, including the "Dirty Harry" series, several celebrated Westerns like "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and the orangutan comedies "Every Which Way but Loose" and "Any Which Way You Can."
Mr. Lee has made only "X" at Warners and already is returning to Universal Studios, where he made "Do the Right Thing," under a recently struck multipicture deal.
Despite the discrepancies, in the words of one Warner Bros. executive, the studio is bent on achieving "total parity" in the number of "For Your Consideration" ads it takes out in the Hollywood trade papers and other special efforts to try to persuade academy members that these big-budget productions are two of 1992's finest.
An Oscar nod on a picture can translate to additional revenue for the producing studio in box-office and video sales, making an expensive campaign -- some cost upward of $400,000 -- worthwhile.
Just last week, an ad reminding academy members (and Daily Variety readers) that Mr. Washington is already a two-time winner of the best-actor award by the New York Film Critics' Circle and the Boston Society of Film Critics and a Golden Globe nominee in the best-actor category playing "Malcolm X" was answered by an ad suggesting a best supporting actor nomination for Morgan Freeman in "Unforgiven" 20 pages later.
But, as one insider said of Warners' experience with Mr. Lee and "Malcolm X": "It's been a long-fought struggle and we'd like to avoid any further problems. Why not go out on a high note?"