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Making of a myth

Countless media outlets have reported that actor Gary Oldman, a conservative, bad-mouthed his new movie, "The Contender." He and his manager, Douglas Urbanski, charged that DreamWorks, the studio that released it, forced editing changes to fit with its Democratic leanings. Urbanski said the film was a "piece of propaganda" on par with that produced by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.


Not according to Urbanski, who told me (1) Oldman is "the least political person I know;" (2) neither he nor Oldman made the statements attributed to them; (3) "we produced this film, every last cut and frame;" and (4) DreamWorks "did not influence the final cut or have anything to do with it."

"The Contender" stars Jeff Bridges as a Democratic president who appoints a senator (Joan Allen) to fill a vice presidential vacancy. Oldman plays the GOP congressman who opposes the appointment.

If Urbanski says neither he nor Oldman dislike the movie, how did the original factoid make it to urban legend status?

Urbanski says it started with an article in the current Premiere magazine that took some 20 conversations over a two month period, "mish-mashed them together," and produced some paragraphs that were "mildly out of context"--although, basically, he liked the article.

That article was "then summarized on the Mr. ShowBiz web site," he told me, "where it was summarized to be wildly out of context." The Mr. ShowBiz piece was linked by the Drudge Report. From there mainstream press and columnists picked it up and ran it as gospel. "Neither Mr. Showbiz nor Drudge ever called to check a thing," Urbanski said.

Tom Roston, the Premiere senior editor who wrote the original piece, agrees that outlets who picked up his story were trying to create rather than report,

"It is regrettable that some of the press, probably the right-wing press, cherry-picked the story," he told me. He suggested that some of his quotes and conclusions were much improved in the retelling. The Goebbels reference, for example, was about propaganda films in general, not this film.

But Rod Lurie, who directed "The Contender," believes Roston did a little improving of his own. "Having worked for Premiere now and then," he told me, "I can assure you that the writer was trying to help create a story rather than report on one."

Not true, according to Roston.

"I flew to Los Angeles and met with Urbanski, Oldman and Lurie," he said, "and it was fascinating to see that what was going on in the film was going on behind the scenes, too, over issues of pettiness, principle and politics. I had a great story and I feel I treated it as fairly, even-handedly and accurately as possible."

True? According to Urbanski, the backstage discussions were not about the film's political leanings, but about its style. "We had a lot of test screenings where we silently observed how the audience reacted," he told me. "Based on those screenings, Gary and I thought we had the movie we wanted to make. In tone, it was more similar to 'Network.' Rod, we felt, lost his nerve, and made it more obvious and less subtle. But we supported the director's right to his cut."

Roston thinks it was more complicated than that. "They had a four and a half hour movie," Roston told me. "I respect Gary and Doug for aspiring to something more complex and subtle, but it wasn't a releasable movie."

Did Lurie lose his nerve? "I sat in the editing room with Steven Spielberg," Lurie told me, "and he told me, 'Make the movie you believe in.' And I did."

As for Gary Oldman, is he a conservative?

"He is so uninvolved in politics, he has never even declared a party affiliation," Urbanski said. "For that matter, he's not a U.S. citizen." Ahem, says Roston: "In talking to Gary, he supported the NRA and many libertarian views," Roston said. "I think I correctly described him as 'conservative-leaning'."

But in Mr. Showbiz he became "a real-life conservative," I said, who felt "disgust" at the film.

"They suggested things that are not in the story," Roston said.

After stories identified Oldman as a conservative, however, he got "creepy phone calls," Urbanski said, "advising him that he was ruining his chances of an Oscar nomination."

Oldman's response?

"He told me he just plain wasn't going to deal on that level," Urbanski said.

And what about reports that DreamWorks turned the political drama "upside down" and then released the film during the campaign season to "mesh with their pro-Al Gore agendas," an opinion Mr. Showbiz attributed to Oldman and Urbanski?

"It is a fair question," said Urbanski, "but I believe they were not thinking about politics, but riding the wave of a topical subject. Remember, this was not a DreamWorks production. We made it ourselves and they picked it up. A lot of stories suppress that." The bottom line?

"Rod Lurie was trying to make a provocative film" Tom Roston said. "I'm surprised he expresses any regret at the debate. It's refreshing to be able to write about a movie that's interesting, isn't it?"

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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