Is 12 Years a Slave the literal truth? Did Captain Phillips put his crew at risk? Does Gravity defy the laws of physics? And is Philomena anti-Catholic?

When such questions surface almost simultaneously, it's a sign the Oscars dirty tricks season is in full swing.

With the campaigning period for next week's awards extended by two weeks because of the Winter Olympics, and with rules on contacting Oscars voters tightened, the dark arts of award-winning are being deployed to full effect in what's been called the nastiest race yet.

Amid the sniping, directors have been heckled, lawsuits have been filed and stars have been out in force defending their movies.


Perhaps hardest hit has been The Wolf of Wall Street, which has been fending off a mini-avalanche of bad publicity. Around the time members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were deciding which films should be nominated last month, a video of Leonardo DiCaprio surfaced on the internet. In it he offers effusive praise for Jordan Belfort, the convicted swindler he plays, who is now a motivational speaker.

"Jordan stands as a shining example of the transformative qualities of ambition and hard work," says the actor.

One of Belfort's victims accused him and director Martin Scorsese of "glorifying greed and psychopathic behaviour", and at a screening a screenwriter shouted at them: "Shame on you. Disgusting".

In recent years the Academy has introduced tighter restrictions on campaigning. The marketing machines behind Oscar hopefuls still pour millions of dollars into billboard and newspaper advertisements, but there are no lavish parties for Academy members.

This year's favourite for best picture, 12 Years a Slave, fended off an early controversy when the historical accuracy of the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, on which it is based, was questioned. Authoritative experts rejected the allegations.

Another contender, Captain Phillips, in which Tom Hanks plays the skipper of a ship attacked by pirates off the Somali coast, faced claims that it exaggerated his heroism. A lawsuit filed five years ago, in which some of the crew claimed Phillips put their lives in danger, began receiving a lot of attention.

Gravity, in which Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are marooned in space, has been accused of scientific inaccuracy.

According to awards experts, all Oscar contenders can now expect smears, and the key is how they respond.

Perhaps the best example was from the makers of Philomena, starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. After suggestions it was anti-Catholic, Philomena Lee, on whose life the film is based, met Pope Francis at an audience in St Peter's Square.

"Supposedly the Pope saw the movie which was 'anti-Catholic' and received the film-makers," an Oscars campaign veteran said. "It doesn't get any better than that."