BBC 2024-03-09 10:01:24


Gaza aid ship expected to set sail from Cyprus

A ship carrying desperately needed humanitarian aid is expected to set sail this weekend, bound for Gaza.

The Spanish vessel, Open Arms, is scheduled to depart from Cyprus – the closest EU country to Gaza – and hopes to use a newly opened shipping route.

With no functioning port and shallow waters, it is still unclear where the ship will dock when it reaches Gaza.

The UN says a quarter of the Strip’s population is on the brink of famine and children are starving to death.

The ship, expected to reach Gaza in the next few days, belongs to the Spanish charity of the same name, Open Arms.

It will tow a barge loaded with 200 tonnes of food provided by US charity World Central Kitchen, Open Arms founder Oscar Camps told the Associated Press.

The ship is expected to depart Cyprus’ Larnaca port this weekend, and will take around two to three days to reach an undisclosed location off the coast of Gaza, Mr Camps told the news agency.

He added that the final mile of the journey – which is about 216 nautical miles in total – would be “the most complicated operation”, but added that he was not “concerned at all about security”.

At the destination point, a team from the World Central Kitchen has been building a pier to receive the aid, he said. The group has 60 kitchens throughout Gaza, where it will be able to distribute the food.

“What initially appeared as an insurmountable challenge is now on the verge of realization,” read a post on Open Arms’ X account.

“Our tugboat stands prepared to embark at a moment’s notice, laden with tons of food, water, and vital supplies for Palestinian civilians.”

World Central Kitchen said it had been preparing for the aid trip for weeks, waiting for the shipping route to open.

The maritime corridor was announced by European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Friday, while she was in Cyprus.

That came a day after President Joe Biden announced that the US plans to build a temporary floating port to Gaza’s shoreline.

The Pentagon later said it would take up to 60 days to complete and need about 1,000 troops to build – none of whom would go ashore.

The port will be able to receive large ships carrying food, water, medicine and temporary shelters, US officials said. Initial shipments will arrive via Cyprus, where Israeli security inspections will take place.

A Pentagon spokesman said the pier could help to deliver up to 2 million meals every day.

It is unclear whether, or how, the US’ temporary pier and the EU’s sea corridor will work together, as neither Mr Biden nor Ms Von der Leyen mentioned the other’s plans.

  • Why food airdrops into Gaza are controversial
  • Gaza desperately needs more aid but agencies can’t cope

Getting aid into the Gaza Strip has been increasingly difficult and dangerous – the World Food Programme paused its deliveries to northern Gaza last month, after its convoys endured “complete chaos and violence”, the organisation said.

With land deliveries near impossible, several nations have turned to air drops, but the situation in Gaza is so dire, the drops are an inefficient way of getting supplies to people.

And on Friday there were reports that five people had been killed by a falling aid package, when its parachute failed to open properly.

Israel’s military launched an air and ground campaign in the Gaza Strip after Hamas’s attacks on Israel on 7 October, in which about 1,200 people were killed and 253 others were taken hostage.

More than 30,800 people have been killed in Gaza since then, the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry says.

The conflict has created a growing humanitarian crisis, and the UN has warned that famine in Gaza is “almost inevitable”.

At least 576,000 people across the Gaza Strip – one quarter of the population – are facing catastrophic levels of food insecurity and one in six children under the age of two in the north are suffering from acute malnutrition, a senior UN aid official warned last week.

Save the Children welcomed the recent international efforts to provide more aid into Gaza, but said children there “cannot wait” for the time it may take to build a temporary port to eat.

“They are already dying from malnutrition and saving their lives is a matter of hours or days – not weeks,” the charity said in a statement.

Doctors Without Borders said the US plan for a temporary pier was a “glaring distraction from the real problem”, urging Israel to facilitate the flow of supplies.

Additional reporting by Tiffany Wertheimer

Meghan Markle: ‘We’ve forgotten our humanity’ on social media

The Duchess of Sussex has criticised the “seemingly endless toxicity” of social media, revealing she was targeted with “bullying and abuse” while pregnant with Archie and Lilibet.

Meghan was the keynote speaker on a high-profile panel marking International Women’s Day at the annual SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.

She said she now keeps her distance from such comments for her wellbeing.

Prince Harry was in the front row of the audience watching the event.

Meghan said people have “forgotten our humanity” in certain parts of the media and digital sphere.

“The bulk of the bullying and abuse that I was experiencing on social media and online was when I was pregnant with Archie and with Lili”, she explained.

“You just think about that and really wrap your head around why people would be so hateful – it is not catty, it is cruel.”

The event was titled Breaking Barriers, Shaping Narratives: How Women Lead On And Off The Screen.

The 42-year-old former Suits actress also discussed issues ranging from the importance of diverse representation to portrayals of motherhood in film and entertainment.

Meghan said she found it “disturbing” that women were “spewing” hatred at each other online, adding: “I cannot make sense of that.”

“If you’re reading something terrible about a woman, why are you sharing it with your friends?” she asked.

“If it was your friend, or your mum or your daughter, you wouldn’t do it.

“I think that is the piece that is so lost right now (with) what is happening in the digital space and in certain sections of the media – we have forgotten about our humanity and that has got to change.”

At fellow panellist Katie Couric’s urging, Meghan also re-shared how a letter she sent aged 11 to consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble led to a sexist advert promoting dishwashing liquid being changed.

Meghan said that experience showed her the power of speaking up and advocacy. “Your voice is not small, it just needs to be heard,” she told a live audience.

Actress Brooke Shields, also on the panel. joked: “This is one of the ways we’re different, when I was 11 I was playing a prostitute,” referring to her background as a child actor and role in 1978 film Pretty Baby.

Rare appearances

The SXSW keynote panel event was also simultaneously streamed on YouTube, with most of the comments about Meghan being overwhelmingly positive.

The Duke of Sussex and Meghan have come under heavy criticism, particularly in the UK tabloid press, after they stepped back from the Royal Family.

Scrutiny of the couple intensified following a revealing interview on Oprah and a Netflix documentary.

The couple’s public appearances have been less frequent since they moved to California and set up the Archewell Foundation. Meghan was last in England in September 2022.

There has been significant online speculation about a possible return to the UK to mark the 10-year anniversary of the Invictus Games – set up in 2014 by Prince Harry.

Meghan’s latest appearance comes during a difficult period for the Royal Family as the King undergoes cancer treatment and the Princess of Wales recovers from abdominal surgery in the UK.

They have been put further under the microscope by the appearance of Kate Middleton’s maternal uncle, Gary Goldsmith on Celebrity Big Brother.

Goldsmith has criticised Meghan on the ITV reality show and reportedly claimed that Prince William has offered an olive branch to his brother.

On Friday evening, he became the first housemate evicted from Celebrity Big Brother on ITV.

Speaking after his eviction, Goldsmith backed the one-time Dragons’ Den contestant Levi Roots to win, adding that his niece would “100%” support his choice.

“[Roots] is somebody who puts other people first and that’s our Kate,” he said.

Earlier, Prince Harry’s memoir Spare was shortlisted for the British Book Awards in two categories.

Sycamore Gap: New life springs from rescued tree

New life has sprung from the rescued seeds and twigs of the Sycamore Gap tree mysteriously cut down last year, giving hope that the iconic tree has a future.

BBC News saw the new shoots on a rare visit to the secret National Trust centre protecting the seedlings.

Millions once visited the sycamore tree nestled in a gap in Hadrian’s Wall.

A national outpouring of shock and dismay followed its felling in September.

Police are still investigating what happened in what they call a “deliberate act of vandalism”. Two men remain on bail.

Just a stump is now left – if it is healthy, a new tree could eventually grow there.

Young twigs and seeds thrown to the ground when the tree toppled were salvaged by the National Trust, which cares for the site with the Northumberland National Park Authority.

When we inquired about what happened to those specimens, they invited us to see for ourselves.

We can’t disclose the exact location of the high security greenhouse, except that it is somewhere in Devon.

It guards genetic copies of some of the UK’s most valuable plants and trees.

Its hall of fame includes copies of the apple tree that Sir Isaac Newton said inspired his theories on gravity, and a 2,500-year-old yew that witnessed King Henry VIII’s relationship with Anne Boleyn in the 1530s.

These are back-up plants – insuring the nation’s heritage in case of an outbreak of disease, a devastating storm, or an attack on the trees.

No-one expected the sudden loss of the Sycamore Gap tree, once one of the most photographed spots in Britain.

Now the green shoots poking through large pots of soil give promise it will live on.

The National Trust is still deciding what to do with them once they are strong enough – schools and communities could be given saplings to grow their own Sycamore Gap tree, explains Andy Jasper, director of gardens and parklands. If the stump does not regrow, one might replace it.

But for now, the priority is nurturing the tiny shoots.

Before entering the greenhouses, we must walk through disinfectant to stop diseases contaminating the site. The blue plastic covers put on our shoes will be incinerated when we leave.

In September it was a race against time to get the seeds and living twigs to this special centre.

“As soon as you cut something down it’s dying,” explains Chris Trimmer who runs the nursery.

When the tree came down, local horticulturist Rachel Ryver sprang into action – climbing over the damaged tree and wall to collect what is called scion – young twigs with buds. This was vital raw material for grafting genetic copies of the tree.

“It was drying out fast – we had to save whatever we could. Hours later I was standing at Hexham post office thinking “nobody knows I’m carrying what’s left of the Sycamore Gap tree”,” Rachel says.

The five bags of twigs, seeds and a few leaves arrived in Devon at 09:30 the next day.

Chris Trimmer was waiting. He has worked with plants since he was 12 – decades later, he is one of the UK’s leading horticulturists.

For him, like many across the country, the story is personal. The first film he went to see with his now-wife was Robin Hood Prince of Thieves – its scene of Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman at Hadrian’s Wall catapulted the tree to global fame.

Chris is softly-spoken, talking scientifically about the process. “It’s our job to graft this stuff,” he says.

He unpacked the bags, ran tests to check the material was free of disease, then bleached it for five minutes.

It was quite a moment. “If one had shown disease, it all would have been destroyed,” he says.

By 15.30 Chris was done – 20 pieces grafted. But he was lucky. Autumn is a bad time to do this work – it should be done in January when the trees are dormant. He just about got away with it.

Grafting is an old technique, used by ancient Egyptians and Romans. “It’s a bit Frankenstein-esque – adding body parts onto something else, making a hybrid. But it’s worked for hundreds of years,” explains Andy Jasper.

Using a lime tree as an example, Juliet Stubbington, a propagator who works alongside Chris, demonstrates how it was done. “You have to be confident with a knife,” she says.

Grafting binds fresh roots with living twigs that have buds of the same species. The hope is that the two knit together to make one larger living young tree. This was the only way to preserve the beloved Sycamore Gap tree. “It is the same tree,” Juliet explains.

Her work is not just technical to her. “It’s lovely to help them grow back. Each one of these trees is a story,” she says.

The horticulturalists also successfully planted seeds from the Sycamore Gap tree, now its descendants.

Five months on, they are looking after nine surviving grafted plants and 40-50 seedlings.

“This is literally the first one that came up,” Andy Jaspar says, carrying a small pot with a 10cm green shoot. People have cried when holding it, he says. It’s next to a type of rhododendron seedling that is the only known one in the world.

Juliet says the success rate should be high. Sycamores are famously hardy.

But the sense of responsibility is huge and she has to stop herself fussing over them. “The best way to kill something is to over-care for it,” she says.

Nothing can bring back the tree exactly as it was. It was planted in the natural dip of Hadrian’s wall in the late 1800s – time and the weather moulded it into its famous silhouette.

That shape is gone but what is born from its ruins will have its own story. It will be three years before horticulturists know if the stump is healthy enough to produce the next tree.

Until then, these seedlings hundreds of miles away are primed – each one waiting to see if it could be the next Sycamore Gap tree.

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Related Topics

  • Trees
  • National Trust

What’s left of Oppenheimer’s New Mexico?

The “father of the atomic bomb” long admired the state’s desert landscapes. Today, travellers can still see the many places that inspired the physicist – if they know where to look.
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In 1929, after a decade-long love affair with the deserts of northern New Mexico that began when he was just a teenager, the future “father of the atomic bomb“, J Robert Oppenheimer wrote to a friend: “My two great loves are physics and New Mexico. It is a pity they can’t be combined.”  

A New Yorker by birth, Oppenheimer had fallen ill with dysentery as an 18-year-old, which postponed his college plans. In spring 1922, his father sent him to New Mexico in the hope that the dry desert air and great outdoors would build his strength and speed his recovery.

It was on one of many horse rides through the wild Jemez Mountains that Oppenheimer first laid eyes on the sweeping pine-forested geologic formations of the remote Pajarito Plateau and then continued across Valles Caldera‘s mountain meadows to the isolated village of Los Alamos. Twenty years later, Oppenheimer recommended that the remote site be used as the top-secret location for the Manhattan Project, where he and scientists from around the world developed and tested the world’s first atomic weapons. 

While Christopher Nolan’s 2023 blockbuster biopic Oppenheimer earned 13 Oscar nominations and is the favourite to win Best Picture at this weekend’s awards, it largely ignores the physicist’s life-long love affair with the desert of New Mexico and how it inspired him. Yet, since the film’s release, atomic tourism to the state has spiked.

Oppenheimer recommended Los Alamos as the Manhattan Project’s location after being inspired by the surrounding landscapes (Credit: Alamy)

According to data provided by Los Alamos County, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park – and its popular sites, like the original Oppenheimer House – welcomed 110% more visitors following the film’s release in July 2023 than it had in all of 2022. “It skyrocketed in the first month after the movie,” said Leslie Bucklin, fromthe Los Alamos County public information office. “Things went way the heck up. Businesses have seen a significant uptick.” 

Oppenheimer-related sites further afield have experienced the same surge. When White Sands Missile Range opened its Trinity test site to the public for one day last autumn – a Saturday in October – 4,000 people lined up at the gates.

Northern New Mexico’s dry desert air eventually did heal Oppenheimer, and after enrolling at Harvard a few months later, he was publishing poetry inspired by the landscape’s low hills and flowering yuccas. The summer after graduating, he bought a rustic cabin on 154 acres of Sangre de Cristo Mountains 30 miles east of Los Alamos. When the US government asked him to help choose a location for the Manhattan Project’s top-secret lab, he knew that the region’s colourful plains and rock pinnacles that inspired him would have the same effect on others. 

“Oppenheimer was known to say this area will provide inspiration to the scientists,” said Bucklin, whose father has worked as a nuclear physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory for more than 40 years. “It can’t just be any environment. It not only has to be secret and hard to find, but it has to be a place of inspiration, so that they feel like they can achieve these amazing things in such a short time. “Today, as history buffs flock to see what’s left of Oppenheimer’s New Mexico, they’re not just seeking out the sites where scientists led plutonium core experiments or tested detonations, but also where he and his shrouded claque of physicists relaxed and drew inspiration while quietly working to forever change the world.

Oppenheimer explored the otherworldly geologic formations of New Mexico’s remote Pajarito Plateau (Credit: Alamy)

Oppenheimer and Georgia O’Keeffe

Hungry for opportunities to step away from physics and flex their minds in other ways, the Manhattan Project’s scientists were involved in all kinds of extracurricular pursuits near the Los Alamos lab, from sports to performing arts. Oppenheimer himself played a role in a production of Arsenic and Old Lace at the Los Alamos Little Theatre. In 1943, he joined a number of his European colleagues to found the Los Alamos Ski Club. Today, ski trails established by Manhattan Project scientists are still in use at Los Alamos ski resort Pajarito Mountain.

“They needed that outdoor recreation to blow off steam,” Bucklin said. “They needed their cultural [and] their artistic pursuits in order to stay grounded.” But considering the confidentiality of their work, the federal government was reluctant for the scientists to mingle with civilian skiers and theatregoers. So, in the early 1940s, the feds looked further away from Los Alamos for a private, secure place where the team could get away from their work. They set their sights on a place called Ghost Ranch

A secluded 21,000-acre retreat in the painted desert of New Mexico’s Chama Valley, with rolling meadows, dramatic cliffs and spectacular views of the flat-topped Cerro Pedernal mountain, Ghost Ranch was already a great source of inspiration to another influential figure of the mid-20th Century: Oppenheimer’s contemporary – and for a time, his neighbour at the ranch – American artist Georgia O’Keeffe. 

At the peak of O’Keeffe’s fame in the 1930s and ’40s, she frequently left New York to stay and paint at Ghost Ranch, which was owned by her friends Arthur and Phoebe Pack. Cerro Pedernal’s blue mountains, chalk-white canyons, red rock formations and gaucho hat-shaped profile inspired the artist’s best-known work.

Oppenheimer would check in under a fake name at Ghost Ranch, where he and O’Keeffe dined and drank together (Credit: Alamy)

According to historian Lesley Poling-Kempes, by 1942, Ghost Ranch’s cowboys, wranglers and labourers were mostly all recruited into the military and the ranch had closed to paying guests. “The only visitors to the adobe casitas clustered around the old Ghost House were invited guests of the Packs and friends of O’Keeffe’s,” Poling-Kempes writes in her book Valley of Shining Stone: The Story of Abiquiú. 

Around that time, the Packs and O’Keeffe were approached, interrogated and vetted by the FBI. “The federal government needed a restricted, secure [and] remote vacation site for men and women working ‘in the area’,” Poling-Kempes writes – and once the agency had established Ghost Ranch was “spy free”, it became the scientists’ de facto weekend getaway.

As O’Keeffe and the Packs would learn years later, the federal employees that dined and drank alongside them at the ranch’s main house and who checked in under fake names like “Henry Farmer” and “Nicholas Baker” were nuclear physicists like Niels Bohr, Edward Teller and Oppenheimer himself. Right alongside them, O’Keeffe was painting the landscapes in which they sought solace and repose, and in the summer of 1945, she witnessed the Trinity Test light up the pre-dawn sky. 

In 1949 O’Keeffe moved to New Mexico full time, into her own adobe ranch home near the village of Abiquiú. Today, visitors can explore parts of O’Keeffe’s home and studio: her adobe courtyard; her bedroom and wardrobe; her Eames furniture and her easels. But there’s one unique feature that has been drawing more attention lately: her nuclear fallout shelter.

Visitors to O’Keeffe’s home and studio can see her nuclear fallout shelter, whose relics are a reminder of her interest in Oppenheimer’s work (Credit: Alexandra Marvar)

She ordered the construction of this subterranean, cinder-block bunker in the early 1960s and it was state of the art for its time, with a steel-walled stairwell, standing water tank and hand-cranked air system designed to pipe in and filter fresh air from above. Now, close to 60 years later, a few select items from her original survival kit remain on its shelves, including a portable, bright-yellow Geiger counter used to measure radiation – a reminder of her interest in the work being done by Oppenheimer and the scientists in Los Alamos with whom she once shared Ghost Ranch. Guided group tours depart from the O’Keeffe Welcome Center. About 15 miles up the road, Ghost Ranch is also open for tours, horseback rides and hiking trails 

Ghost Ranch meets “Tamalewood”

Just as Ghost Ranch inspired the real Oppenheimer, it also inspired the team behind the 2023 film. Oppenheimer assistant location manager Jayde Ybbaro has worked on a number of major motion pictures in New Mexico – the state is home to so many film shoots, it’s earned the nickname Tamalewood

“Here in New Mexico, they teach us a lot about Oppenheimer in school,” Ybbaro said. “So, I was kind of surprised to hear that a lot of people from out of state have never heard of Los Alamos and they weren’t really educated on all that – how it happened. You don’t realise how big of an event it actually was in New Mexico.”

Ybbaro and other crew members built the film’s 1940s Los Alamos village set at Ghost Ranch. “All of the shots of Oppenheimer out on the ranch, riding his horses – that was all shot out there,” he said.

Oppenheimer and O’Keeffe used to frequent Bode’s General Store – as did the film’s cast and crew (Credit: Bode’s)

On the highway between Abiquiú and Ghost Ranch is Bode’s General Store – a roadside waystation beloved for its tamales and green chili burgers. It is not so different than it was 80 years ago, when O’Keeffe and Oppenheimer were among its clientele. And during the filming of Oppenheimer, Ybbaro said, it was a standby for cast and crew, too. 

Oppenheimer’s invisible legacy

Oppenheimer and colleagues took more than inspiration from these landscapes. Families with land downwind from White Sands or any of the hundreds of uranium mining sites in the region – a community known today as “downwinders” – know the Manhattan Project cost untold lives in New Mexico. In the forthcoming documentary First We Bombed New Mexicofilmmaker Lois Lipman shares dozens of accounts that together paint the picture of “massive cancers and deaths” that swept across the state in the decades after the Trinity test. 

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People can still experience the landscapes central to this part of the story, too – if they dare. Places like Hoot Owl Canyon, once called “Hot Canyon” by the government because of its red-hot gamma radiation levels from the Trinity test’s nuclear fallout carried by the wind, are open to the public, Lipman said. There are no recent studies indicating whether the area is still radioactive. But radioactivity in nuclear fallout has a shelf life of 24,000 years – or as some downwinders put it, 7,000 generations.

The movie taking on ‘Oppenheimer’

Like the scenic Pajarito Plateau and Ghost Ranch, Hot Canyon, with its red-rock bridges and pinnacles, is forever linked with Oppenheimer – albeit controversially. Indeed, 18 months after the Manhattan Project started, Oppenheimer is said to have stared out over the desert he loved, and confessed, “I am responsible for ruining a beautiful place.”

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One of the most controversial Oscars wins ever

When Shakespeare in Love won best picture in 1999 – keeping Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan off top spot – it was the culmination of a campaign that changed the awards landscape forever.
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When Harrison Ford walked out on stage to present the final award of the night at the 1999 Academy Awards, many in the audience thought they were about to see a replay of the moment, five years earlier, when Ford had announced Schindler’s List as the best picture winner, and delightedly handed the Oscar to his friend and former collaborator, Steven Spielberg.

Everything looked set for Spielberg to pick up his second best picture award, this time for his war epic, Saving Private Ryan. The film — famous for its 24-minute opening scene of the Allied troops storming Omaha beach — had been widely hailed a masterpiece by critics. Moments earlier that evening, Spielberg had picked up the best director award, a sign that best picture was probably in the bag, too.

Instead, a somewhat subdued Ford opened the envelope and announced three words people weren’t expecting… “Shakespeare in Love”. Cameras immediately cut to the stunned faces of the film’s team, including its star Gwyneth Paltrow, already a winner that night for best actress. There were shrieks, bear hugs and fist pumps. And no one looked happier than Harvey Weinstein, then head of Miramax, the studio behind Shakespeare in Love. Elsewhere in the audience, there was shock and bemusement. The win has gone down as one of the most controversial in Oscars’ history — not only for the surprise result, but for the campaign that led up to it, which changed the awards landscape forever.

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Watching the moment back now, it’s hard to separate it from what we now know about Harvey Weinstein, and his horrific catalogue of rape and sexual assault. No doubt at the time, there were people in the auditorium aware of Weinstein’s behaviour, if not the extent of it. Paltrow, who would later be a vital source in helping to expose Weinstein, was sexually harassed by him when she was 22. But in 1999, publicly at least, Weinstein’s reputation was more that of a notorious bully — someone who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. And in the nineties, that was Academy Awards.

In 1930, in the run-up to only the second ever ceremony, well-connected actress Mary Pickford invited the voting committee around for tea to help bag herself a win

Oscar campaigning was nothing new — studios have always made efforts to promote their films and stars in awards season, hoping to cement them in the minds of Academy Award voters. In 1930, in the run-up to only the second ever ceremony, well-connected actress Mary Pickford invited the voting committee around for tea to help bag herself a win.

Miramax was initially known for indie hits like Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction (Credit: Alamy)

In the 1990s, though, Weinstein took it up a level. “He turned Oscar campaigning into much more of a bloodsport,” Michael Schulman, author of Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat and Tears, tells BBC Culture. “From his perspective, and from the perspective of the people who worked for him at Miramax, they had to campaign for Oscars because they were the underdogs. They were the indie company that put out edgy, arty films like The Crying Game and Pulp Fiction.”

In Peter Biskind’s 2004 book, Down and Dirty Pictures, Weinstein said: “In those days, the studios had a lock on the Oscars, because none of the indies campaigned aggressively. The only thing that we did to change the rules was, rather than just sitting it out and getting beat because somebody has more money, more power, more influence, we ran a guerrilla campaign.”

Weinstein ran awards campaigns like political ones. “There’s two parts of a political campaign,” says Schulman. “There’s the messaging and there’s the ground game. And in the 90s, Weinstein did both really well.” Crafting a narrative around a film or an actor was part of it. For My Left Foot, Weinstein’s first big Oscars push, Daniel Day Lewis — who went on to win best actor — appeared in Washington to support the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Miramax arranged a screening of the film for House and Senate members.

For the ground part of the campaign, Miramax left no vote unturned, calling Academy members to check they’d received their VHS copy of a film, setting up special screenings — including in a retirement home for Academy members — and wheeling their talent out at lunches, panels and parties to schmooze with voters.

The romantic epic war drama The English Patient won nine Oscars, including best picture, in 1997 (Credit: Alamy)

In 1997, Miramax had their first best picture winner, The English Patient — and it only made Weinstein hungry for more. After Miramax was largely shut out at the 1998 awards, they knew they had to campaign even harder the next year — especially considering who they were up against.

Saving Private Ryan was released in summer 1998 and was an immediate critical and commercial hit. By that autumn, most assumed it was the frontrunner for the best picture award. “Saving Private Ryan was Spielberg’s movie about his father’s generation, about ‘the greatest generation’, and it meant so much to him,” says Schulman. “When it came out, it was immediately the frontrunner. Everyone at DreamWorks kind of assumed that they were gliding toward Oscars victory and then, at the end of the year, along comes Shakespeare in Love.”

Directed by John Madden, and starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Ralph Fiennes, Colin Firth and Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love is a fictional imagining of a young William Shakespeare falling for a woman called Viola (Paltrow) and being inspired to write Romeo & Juliet. Though it was a late entry into the awards race, the film played well with both critics and the public, and when the 1999 Oscar nominations came out, it had 13 nods to Saving Private Ryan’s 11.

After Weinstein applied a political campaigning approach to the Oscars, Shakespeare in Love won seven Academy Awards (Credit: Getty Images).

“There were a lot of legitimate reasons why people in the Academy loved Shakespeare in Love,” says Schulman. “It was light and romantic and funny and frothy and clever. It was about love, whereas Saving Private Ryan was about war. It was like a breath of fresh air.” It was also that specific genre that Hollywood loves to celebrate: films about acting and show business.

Even so, Spielberg — who not only directed Saving Private Ryan but co-owned DreamWorks, the studio that produced it – didn’t feel the need to go out and schmooze Academy voters. “He found campaigning gauche, especially for a movie with this important subject matter,” says Schulman.

Miramax, meanwhile, was throwing everything but the kitchen sink at their campaign. “For Shakespeare in Love, we used the playbook for The English Patient — turbocharged, on steroids,” said Mark Gill, then Miramax’s LA President, in an oral history of the campaign published in The Hollywood Reporter in 2019. “It was just absolutely murderous the whole way through. I mean, the hours were ridiculous and the demands were insane, just unbelievably crazy stuff.”

When the evening of the Oscars finally arrived, it felt less like a celebration of film and more like the climax of a months-long dogfight

Things reached a head when word spread that Weinstein was secretly badmouthing Saving Private Ryan to journalists, trying to plant the idea that the film tailed off after the first 25 minutes. This kind of negative campaigning was a huge no-no in the Oscars race. Spielberg refused to stoop to Weinstein’s level, but DreamWorks stepped up their campaign, running lots more ads in the trade press.

The battle between the two films drew attention from the press. In a lengthy New York Magazine article published the week before the ceremony, entertainment journalist Nikki Finke said the upcoming show was “one of the most contentious ceremonies in the 72-year history of the Academy”. When the evening of the Oscars finally arrived, it felt less like a celebration of film and more like the climax of a months-long dogfight. Even so, few really believed Weinstein would snatch the main award of the night.

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was a favourite to win best picture, receiving critical acclaim when it was released (Credit: Alamy)

By the time of the final award, Shakespeare in Love had won six Oscars and Saving Private Ryan five. It looked like the night might end with a straight tie, but when Shakespeare in Love won best picture, there were gasps throughout the auditorium. “It was a shock, but it was also a confirmation of what everyone had been primed to believe, which was that the Miramax campaign was out of control,” says Schulman.

Studio heads rarely appear on stage at awards shows, but Weinstein had put his name as a producer on Shakespeare in Love, meaning he was entitled to go up to receive the award. Once there, he elbowed his way to the front, denying producer Edward Zwick his moment of glory. In an extract from a forthcoming memoir published in Air Mail, Zwick recalled: “As I stand there, the rictus of a frozen grin immobilising my face, it occurs to me to shove him over the edge of the stage into the orchestra pit.”

Meanwhile Spielberg made a swift exit, skipping the press room. “There’s a famous photo of him at the after party with his directing Oscar, looking like someone had just killed his dog,” says Schulman. Weinstein’s win was the talk of the town — mostly for the wrong reasons. DreamWorks’ marketing chief Terry Press vowed she would never let it happen again. “I was devastated, and Steven was no longer naive about what Harvey was capable of,” she said.

Yet as controversial as Weinstein’s campaign was — and despite the bad taste it left in the industry — it marked a permanent shift in how studios approached awards season. He might have won the battle, but he’d started a war. “It was an arms race,” says Schulman. “Every studio now felt that they needed to run a Miramax-style campaign. So you now had everyone in Hollywood trying to out-campaign each other and hiring a battalion of campaign strategists, and that’s how we got this bloated cottage industry of awards campaigning.”

Other studios followed Weinstein’s lead – DreamWorks secured a 2000 win for American Beauty (Credit: Alamy)

The next year, DreamWorks went full throttle with their campaign for American Beauty and pulled off the win. They did it again in 2001 with Gladiator. Remnants of Weinstein’s methods could be seen everywhere. Negative stories about films would appear during awards sessions – often with suspicions that they were planted. In 2002, various accusations, including ones of antisemitism were levelled at John Nash – the mathematician whose story was brought to the screen in Best Picture nominee A Beautiful Mind – in the run-up to the awards. Nevertheless, the film still took home the big prize.

Other campaigning methods continued to prove controversial. When Gangs of New York was nominated for best picture, an opinion piece appeared in the press endorsing the film, apparently written by Robert Wise, the director of The Sound of Music and a former Academy president. Except, it turned out it had actually been ghostwritten by someone in the publicity department at Miramax. As a result, the Academy banned “any advertising that includes quotes or comments by academy members“.

Last year, there was controversy when Andrea Riseborough landed a surprise Oscar nomination for her role in To Leslie, which some attributed to a last-minute flurry of public endorsements and gushing social media posts about her performance from fellow actors, including Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet. Michelle Yeoh also raised eyebrows when she shared a screenshot of a Vogue story suggesting she was a more worthy winner than Cate Blanchett — violating rules that forbid references to competitors. Once again, the Academy tightened up its regulations.

But how much sway can a campaign really have? The Academy is made up of industry professionals who you would hope care enough about films not to be swayed by a few extra adverts or a handshake from an A-list actor. Was Saving Private Ryan really “robbed”? Or were more voters just charmed by a romantic comedy than a war epic that year? “A campaign cannot win an Oscar for a movie that nobody likes,” says Schulman. Where it is important is making sure your movie is in the conversation — and stays there. This is especially vital at the nominations stage, where voters are choosing from potentially hundreds of movies and performances. “You have to fight for this oxygen and campaign smartly,” Schulman adds.

Carefully timed press can remind voters of a film or performance’s merits. For instance, though Barbie was released last summer, America Ferrera popped up for another round of press at the start of this year — a week before the nomination voting period began — much of it focusing on her famous monologue in the film. When the nominations were announced later in January, she had a best supporting actress nod.

Sometimes, the methods for getting a film attention are a little more unorthodox — such as Anatomy of a Fall flying its breakout canine star Messi around the world for appearances at events (another move out of the Weinstein playbook — Uggie the dog was a vital part of the awards campaign for Miramax’s best picture winner The Artist in 2012).

In some cases, as much or more is spent on the awards campaign than making the movie itself

Twenty-five years on from Shakespeare in Love’s shock victory, Oscar campaigning continues to be a fraught — and lucrative — business. According to The Hollywood Reporter, consultants can earn $25,000 (£19,542) a month in retainer fees, plus expect bonuses of $25,000 for securing a film a nomination, and $50,000 (£39,084) for a win.

In some cases, as much or more is spent on the awards campaign than making the movie itself. According to Vulture, Netflix was estimated to have spent between $40 and $60 million on their campaign for Roma — though they failed to get the best picture win. This year, the streamer has pushed hard for Maestro — as has its star and director, Bradley Cooper. But Cooper — who few think will take home a top award — is also a cautionary tale for appearing to want an Oscar too much, which may be just as damaging as not campaigning enough.

But why, when most of us know awards shows are no guarantee of a film or filmmaker’s legacy (Hitchcock famously never won an Oscar), do studios still care enough to pour millions each year into trying to win them? Michael Schulman refers to an answer he was given by Hollywood executive Terry Press for his book. “I asked her, ‘if it doesn’t always pay off financially, why do people still want them?’ She told me: ‘Ego and bragging rights. It’s a town built on a rock-solid foundation of insecurity’.”

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