NEW YORK – It's a dirty game rife with scandal, press leaks and smear tactics.
Allegations of homosexuality, marital infidelity, anti-Semitism and dishonesty are buzzing. Race is an issue. A barrage of ads pushing one candidate or the other has appeared. Parties to woo voters have been thrown.
A tough Senate race? No. It's the fight for little Oscar.
"It is a political campaign," said New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick. "There is no real difference between this and politics. The Academy is in serious need of campaign reform."
The most publicized battle has been in the Best Picture category, where critics have slammed the Ron Howard film A Beautiful Mind as a dishonest portrayal of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash's struggle with schizophrenia.
Howard and the film's makers, Universal Pictures, have been accused of omitting important details about Nash. Critics have vilified him as an anti-Semite — citing comments he made while in the throes of his illness — who cheated on his wife and was a homosexual.
Howard and others have defiantly denied those charges, calling them the desperate tactics of competitors bent on taking the film out of the running. "An attack strategy … about attempting to undermine the other candidate's credibility is a shame," Howard told a news conference last week. "It's tragic."
Those steeped in the real world of politics are all too familiar with such antics.
"It looks like they've done some opposition research, in terms of going to the original sources about John Nash's life," said Eleanor Clift, a Fox News political analyst and Newsweek editor. "People have picked up on these negative things, because the movie was romanticized, and made sure that reporters write about them."
Clift noted another similarity between the Oscars fight and a political campaign: Nash's spouse has publicly and stridently supported her husband in an effort to rebut the critics.
"You have his wife come forward and basically say this is a smear campaign, warning this could make him sick again," she said. "When the wife comes in, that's a last-ditch attempt to save the campaign," Clift said.
Hillary Clinton did exactly that in a 1992 TV interview during the Gennifer Flowers scandal that dogged then-candidate Bill Clinton. Laura Bush followed suit during the presidential campaign of 2000 to ease concerns about George W.'s ability to handle the job.
Endorsements are another part of the Oscar race this year. Print ads have been taken out on behalf of films like Moulin Rouge, peppered with quotes from stars and directors of the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals, said Mark Harris, an assistant managing editor at Entertainment Weekly.
"That's the equivalent to an endorsement of a retired politician," Harris said.
There's also a racially charged controversy brewing in what is believed to be a tight race for Best Actor, with two top contenders — Denzel Washington, nominated for Training Day, and Russell Crowe, for Mind.
Washington is a previous Best Supporting Actor winner for Glory. Crowe took Best Actor last year for Gladiator.
The heated contest has stars taking sides and acting like Democrats and Republicans fighting over a judicial nominee. Last year's Best Actress, Julia Roberts, has publicly rallied around her choice, Washington.
"It's very rare for a star of Julia Roberts' caliber to come out and make an endorsement like that," said Harris. "It makes the race more interesting."
Others have spoken behind the scenes of the need to name Washington Best Actor in part because he is an African American. It has been 39 years since Sidney Poitier became the first African American male to win for a leading role, in Lilies of the Field.
Then there have been the personal jabs. Critics have decried Crowe's generally roguish behavior of late, including a recent tangle with a BBC executive at an awards show, as reason enough not to vote for him.
"It's become much more than just about the performances and the pictures," Lumenick said. "It's become a popularity contest, a spin-and-spend contest."
By the time it's all over, an unprecedented $60 million will have been spent in the frenzy — up 20 percent from last year, said Lumenick.
While experts are calling this year's battle the nastiest they've seen, Oscar campaigning isn't new. Miramax waged an aggressive marketing scheme to push Shakespeare in Love, which beat Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture in 1998. And the film Hurricane lost points in the 2000 Oscar race after allegations it deliberately misrepresented the facts in its portrayal of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.
"What makes the Oscars like a political campaign is that the accusation of negative campaigning is being used to further the ends of particular movies," Harris said, much as election candidates will blame their opponents for dredging up bad press about them in the hopes of affecting the race.