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This story first appeared in the Jan. 3, 2014, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A simple thanks is never enough, at least when it comes to nominations for film awards. On Dec. 11, when the Screen Actors Guild unveiled its nominees, then the next morning, when noms for the Golden Globe Awards were revealed, the machinery was in place for the lucky stars, directors, producers and writers to step forward and offer their reactions.
Predictably, everyone was “thrilled,” whether or not they used that word — and many did. So there was no real news to be had from one of the most ritualized awards-season rituals. (If someone were to reject a nomination, that would be news. But that almost never happens. Only two stars — George C. Scott in 1971 and Marlon Brando in 1973 — have turned down an Oscar.) The whole business of issuing reactions is not about making news but staying in the news, keeping front and center and remaining part of the conversation, especially during the lead-up to the Academy Award nominations coming Jan. 16.
Days before the nominations were announced, publicists began compiling names of journalists available to take calls from their clients. Morning shows like NBC’s Today booked likely nominees in the hope of catching their reactions live. And grateful statements were readied so they could be sent out at a moment’s notice.
In the wake of the Globe noms, the statements started flying. 12 Years a Slave‘s Chiwetel Ejiofor called his nomination “a huge honour,” while Rush‘s Daniel Bruhl said he was “deeply honoured” — because they’re European, that variation on the spelling of “honor” was a nice touch. Dallas Buyers Club‘s Matthew McConaughey said he was “excited and honored,” and his even more excitable co-star Jared Leto called his nomination “absolutely insane.” Striking the right note can be tricky, though. After all, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association isn’t the Nobel Committee. Captain Phillips‘ Tom Hanks managed to issue a statement keeping it all in perspective by saying, “The HFPA puts on a good party, and I’m happy to be invited.”
The media, THR included, certainly is implicated in the exercise, chatting up many nominees by phone to get more spontaneous responses. Prodded about her dual nominations for Enough Said and HBO’s Veep, Julia Louis–Dreyfus refreshingly responded: “No shit, it’s been a crazy few days! The whole thing is so bizarre, head-spinny and skin-pinchy.” Stuck, he said, in “airport limbo,” Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron admitted he hadn’t quite absorbed the news, “but obviously I’m very grateful.” 12 Years screenwriter John Ridley declared, “It’s been nuts, great, gravitating, humbling.” From the perspective of his 77 years, Nebraska‘s Bruce Dern joked, “When you make a movie, you have no idea what it’s going to do — and with my track record, you have no idea it’s even going to come out.” And Scott Rudin, who produced three films this year — Frances Ha, Captain Phillips and Inside Llewyn Davis each earned Globes recognition — justifiably used the occasion to reflect: “Making anything good these days is a staggering achievement, and to have three movies this year that are among the best we’ve ever made? It’s wonderful.”
Part of the trick is to seem enthusiastically appreciative without suggesting one anxiously was awaiting the early-morning news. In the past, nominees claimed they had completely forgotten the noms were coming and were surprised to be awakened by a call — but because no one ever quite bought that, current nominees offered other reasons as to why they happened to be up so early. Before Midnight‘s Julie Delpy explained she has a senile cat that awakens her every morning at 4. Rush‘s Ron Howard, who confessed to being in the shower while on location in the Canary Islands, said the news was “a fantastic surprise.”
Any actor playing a real person also must use the moment to acknowledge his or her inspiration. Idris Elba properly saluted Nelson Mandela, whom he portrays in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. And Judi Dench gave a shout-out to Philomena Lee, whose quest to find a long-lost son is recounted in Philomena.
On the other hand, it’s important not to be too earnest. When it comes to hitting the right breezy tone, the Brits do it best. Being nominated for Saving Mr. Banks was, declared Emma Thompson, a “lovely surprise.” Her fellow nominee, Labor Day‘s Kate Winslet (who’d given birth to a son five days earlier), had rung her up, related Thompson: “She said, ‘Hooray, we can do another red carpet and have a couple of martinis!’ ” Sounds exactly like what the occasion demands.
Nominated for playing the World War II general in 1970’s Patton, George C. Scott, who had called the Oscars a “goddamn meat parade,” sent a telegram to the Academy saying: “I respectfully request that you withdraw my name from the list of nominees. My request is in no way intended to denigrate my colleagues. … I simply do not wish to be involved.” Playing hard to get worked: The Academy voted him the prize.
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