Awards season: Too much of a good thing

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Mickey Rourke is stalking me.

Pretty much anywhere I go around town or anytime I read something about the Oscar race, I'm likely to run into the "Wrestler" star and his comeback tale.

At an American Cinematheque tribute/screening I attended Friday at Santa Monica's Aero Theatre, he again presented his well-honed character. It comprises equal parts hard-bitten repentant ("There's always going to be the man with the axes inside me, and it's my job to keep him the fuck quiet"), selfless craftsman ("I grabbed bums off the street to run lines with them in the middle of the night," he said of his devotion to acting) and agent provocateur ("I shot my load and it was all over the room," on how he felt when he had nothing left after a "Wrestler" take). In the last week alone, he has sat for six Q&As.

The Rourke full-court press shows what has become a popular, even dominant, method of actor campaigning. Call it the Pennsylvania Democratic primary method: If a story gets told enough times, momentum gathers, goodwill accumulates and a nomination is born. Or so consultants hope.

The approach isn't limited to Rourke. While they're unlikely to appear in any switched-at-birth features, Richard Jenkins, in his way, is doing the same thing. The "Visitor" star -- an actor who has more than 50 film credits to his name and already is well-liked in acting circles -- has come to town numerous times to promote his candidacy via interviews and public appearances.

I sat down with Jenkins -- heck, my 3-year-old niece in suburban Maryland has practically sat down with Jenkins. He's one of the nicest guys you'll meet, as sweet and straightforward as Rourke is brash and complicated. The actor has turned on the charm of a New England dad who's just happy to be a part of it all. "I have both anticipation and dread about awards," Jenkins said. "It's a world I'm not familiar with. But I love the movie, so I'm happy to do it."

Thrusting an actor into the limelight -- which Fox Searchlight is doing for the star of "The Wrestler" (a movie that happens to be one of my favorite pictures of the year) and Overture for the star of "The Visitor" (in my top 10) -- can pay dividends. It keeps a role on voters' minds. And it makes the season feel like a living, breathing event instead of just a collection of screeners and screening dates.

But at some point, it can offer diminishing returns. By running out the messenger so often, a studio risks losing control of the message. One way for Searchlight to undo the image of a down-on-his-luck actor like Rourke is to showcase him. But to do that is to unwittingly point up the reasons he faded in the first place -- a dilemma that came home to roost when a New York Times magazine profile on Rourke semi-backfired.

Rourke charmed the audience Friday with his candor. But some of his comments (on meeting director Darren Aronofsky, he said he "looked real Jewish and real smart but he had this swagger like his balls were too big for his pants") won't exactly help his bid.

Even if there's nothing provocative, too much solicitation in general could lead to backlash; just look at how some of the heaviest-campaigned movies struck out at the Globes last week, while barely mentioned titles like "In Bruges" scored noms.

It's likely that both Rourke and Jenkins will get Oscar noms, if not more. Rourke, no matter how many jaws he causes to drop, is a shoo-in, and Jenkins' bid still looks strong. And the shtick, in certain quantities, is undoubtedly entertaining.

But as much fun as it is to watch an over-the-top personality like Rourke make his case, in the end, it's the soft sell that may be the better approach. That, or a media restraining order.
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