By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
17 Days To Oscar: A Thin Line Between Win & Lose
This is the time of the season when things start lining up and one starts gathering perspective. As a result, I find myself endlessly pontificating about what could have been done, what should have been done, what would have been done had there been the money or the will.
And so, a few basic rules that are guaranteed to broken almost immediately.
YOU MUST BE PRESENT
Yes, there are exceptions… every year. But those exceptions are for the Sean Penns and Supporting Actors of the world.
Why are you suddenly seeing Brad Pitt everywhere? Because someone convinced him that he could win. Of course, he’s still only doing the A-list stuff and softball blue card safe stuff like Actor’s Studio… which is why he has no chance of winning.
George Clooney has been the frontrunner for months… again. And it’s looking like he will lose… again. Why? Similar to Pitt, Clooney breathes only in the rooms that Stan Rosenfeld can control completely. And God bless them, that’s their prerogative. But while no “lower” outlet availability is going to win George an Oscar, there has become a disconnect – much as we all love George and find him endlessly charming and bright – between the movie star and the people who might vote for him.
The exceptions this season look to be Viola Davis and Christopher Plummer. Ms. Davis has been around… but not really very accessible. But she is the rock around which The Help revolves. In a way, I don’t really think she is the lead of the film… but she may well win Best Actress for her muscular stoicism. And Chris Plummer, who is a very funny, charming guy, stayed out of the fray this year after getting himself nominated by dipping in for The Last Station. But he has been the frontrunning in Supporting for 5 months now and somehow, that category has a recent history of being cemented in early.
Of course, being present doesn’t guarantee anything. Ken Branagh was very generous with his time this year and isn’t going to win. Albert Brooks is a living legend who has never gotten his due from The Academy and made himself available this year… and didn’t even get nominated. Tilda stumped hard for her movie.
And who knows? Rules are made to be broken. Meryl Streep has been more present this year than in nomination years past… but she’s also remained hidden behind the coattails of 60 “We Don’t Ask Celebrities Real Questions” Minutes and more recently, Pete Hammond. When voters feel like they know a little something real about Meryl Streep is probably when she wins her next Oscar. In the meantime, it’s an honor to be nominated.
YOU MUST NOT BE EMBARRASSING TO VOTE FOR
This is a biggie.
When an Academy member, just like any other kid in high school, tells their friends whom they voted for, they want to feel good about defending their choice. Fair or not, Melissa McCarthy is “the one who shit in the sink” this year. They may have laughed their colostomy bags off when they saw the film and most voters feel good about Ms McCarthy getting nominated. But when it comes down to bestowing the gold, shit in the pie in the name of dignity will win out over shit in the sink caused by bad Mexican food every time.
But it’s often more subtle than that. I can’t tell you how many Academy voters said out loud that they didn’t feel that Brokeback Mountain reflected the image The Academy should be presenting when it came to awarding the best of the year. (Others, to be fair, simply didn’t think it was the best film.)
When you hear the hum of “The Artist is a gimmick” or “Hugo’s just a kids film,” or “The Help is fluff,” the goal is not to make voters hate those films, but just to nudge them into wondering if The Academy is better off supporting something more serious. One of my favorite early-season Artist attacks was that by embracing the silent era, it diminishes the modern era and is therefore offensive. Uh huh.
There is no “the way they think” or “they are going to do X,” but if there is one thing I have consistently found with pretty much every Academy member I have ever spoken to, it’s that they want to feel proud of their vote and the winner. Critics play this “when we look back in 10 years” game. Academy voters do too. The only difference is that what critics love and what Academy members love are often two different things. They are not embarrassed about Driving Miss Daisy… and critics are not holding events to remember the genius of Born on the Fourth of July. Time’s a funny thing.
WANT IT, BUT NOT TOO MUCH
It is virtually impossible to define this line… yet it exists.
Dear Melissa Leo seemed to put her foot in it last year… but survived to take home the gold. Was it the late timing of those ads or the disinterest of Academy members in the petty sniping over them or did some people see them as a sign of how passionate this long-time jobbing actor was about her work?
Academy members are strung out over many voting groups, most of which allow all kinds of solicitation that The Academy does not. Does the $50 coffee table book make your case or turn people off? How many parties can you have before it looks like you are trying to buy people off? And how many parties does it take to buy people off?
It’s a funny game because so many of the same people are pushing the buttons at the different distribution companies year after year. Last year, there was bitching about Sony spending too much on events. This year, there’s bitching about Paramount spending too much on events. This year, there is talk about the team from The Artist being too available for too long. Last year, it was The King’s Speech. But who wasn’t available last year? Al of the directors who hadn’t directed The King’s Speech. Who wasn’t available this year? All of the directors who hadn’t directed The Artist.
Scorsese got his lifetime achievement award for the wonderful, commercial, star-studded The Departed. Will he win again this year without asking for it? Maybe. But probably not.
How did Demian Bichir get nominated for a little-seen film with a tiny awards marketing budget? I believe it was about is personality and his availability. He was ubiquitous… but his “aw shucks” (Mexican edition) charm never made people feel like he was desperate. And in the end, others were not there, he was… and one of the few true surprises of the season was the result.
Next year, we are looking at a frontrunner from now in Lincoln… directed by the oft-unavailable Steven Spielberg, starring the oft-unavailable Daniel Day-Lewis and the oft-impossible Tommy Lee Jones. Hmmm… Is the upset for Best Actor already in the cards because John Hawkes’ turn in The Surrogate is going to be a crowd favorite, includes a disability, and because Hawkes is accessible? (Hawkes, btw, is also in Lincoln.) Will there be a coronation for the ever-democratic Joseph Gordon-Levitt?
FIGURE OUT YOUR THEME
People get upset about Oscar talk in the spring or summer, but if you are going into the battle, you had better have your ducks in a row well before the Toronto International Film Festival. And the biggest duck is the theme of your film… what are you selling? If you don’t know, the voters – and journalists – won’t know. And you’re done.
The problem with this is that the Oscar push and the theatrical release often demand different kinds of pushes. And it’s hard – if not impossible – to switch perspectives midstream.
Perhaps it is one of the big open secrets of Harvey Weinstein’s Oscar efforts that his release campaign and his Oscar campaign are usually in lockstep. He’s selling the same idea from start to finish (with obvious fine-tuning variations). In cases of films that come out earlier in the year or are relying on a non-Academy audience for commercial success, by the time Oscar comes calling, either the distributor has stopped selling or has too much time to think about rejiggering the pitch.
IT’S ABOUT LOVE
In the end, for Best Picture at least, it still comes down to a romance with the film to which people will their vote. “We’re the best” and “Look at Rotten Tomatoes” or “Peter Travers says” is all bullshit. You need a love fest and if it doesn’t happen naturally, the job of the studios and consultants is to grease the wheels. They are The Multi-Millionaire Matchmakers.
People really like Moneyball. But converting for Oscar means giving people a way to love Moneyball. What is the theme that matters? I’m not saying that it’s not in the film. I think that’s what so many people connected with. But what, in the conscious mind, is it? Getting people to feel that way is the challenge.
And that’s my story…
There is still room for some minor shifts before all the votes are in… but we are pretty much at the end of the journey for this season. There could be some “surprises” this year… but not too many and not too surprising.
It’s been pretty painless this year. But that’s a whole different column…