The anti-campaign just might be the latest fashion in Oscar campaigning. And Joaquin Phoenix, considered a leading contender for best actor for his portrayal of a haunted man in The Master, is wearing it proudly as he kicked off the first kerfuffle in this year’s developing awards season Thursday by calling Oscar campaigning “total, utter bullshit.”
In an interview conducted by Elvis Mitchell in the current Interview magazine, Phoenix said: “I don’t want to be part of it. I don’t believe in it. It’s the worst-tasting carrot I’ve ever tasted in my whole life. I don’t want this carrot.”
The actor has been through the Oscar campaign mill a couple of times already: He was nominated in 2001 for Gladiator and again in 2006 for Walk the Line. And of his most recent turn on the awards merry-go-round, he said: “It was one of the most uncomfortable periods of my life when Walk the Line was going through all the awards stuff and all that. I never want to have that experience again. I don’t know how to explain it — and it’s not like I’m in this place where I think I’m just above it — but I don’t ever want to get comfortable with that part of things.”
Needless to say, that got everyone’s attention. The Playlist ran its story with the headline, “Joaquin Phoenix Says Goodbye to Oscar Chances.” And Vulture called the remark “an awards-tanking quote.” But just as quickly, a second wave of opinion began to take shape, with Entertainment Weekly’s Anthony Breznican saying that by blasting awards-season campaigning, Phoenix actually “improved his chances of an Oscar nomination.”
Breznican argues that Phoenix’s choice words come at an opportune moment, thrusting him back into the awards conversation just as The Master, which opened Sept. 14, is starting to disappear from theaters. And — a couple of those excitable headlines notwithstanding — the actor wasn’t dissing the Academy or the Oscar itself but voicing a complaint, shared by a lot of his peers, about the endless dog-and-pony shows they are forced to participate in during the run-up to the awards. One of Phoenix’s main competitors this season probably will be Lincoln’s Daniel Day-Lewis, who has proved to be something of an anti-campaigner himself, so the sentiment isn’t unique even if it is rarely voiced aloud.
In fact, the Academy itself tacitly agrees with Phoenix. It would be happy if most of the most overt campaigning would just go away. It has laid down fairly restrictive rules, limiting the number of appearances that the talent behind a given film can make once the nominations are announced Jan. 10.
And there are a couple of precedents of actors who’ve turned their backs on the Oscars without losing out on a trophy. George C. Scott refused his nominations for The Hustler in 1962 and Patton in 1971, calling the whole process of actors competing with one another “a goddamn meat parade.” But the Academy still voted him best actor for Patton. Marlon Brando treated his Oscar nomination as an offer he could refuse when he didn’t show up when he was nominated for The Godfather in 1973, but he still was awarded the statuette, which was accepted for him by a young Native American woman.
Of course, that all took place before the explosion of media outlets covering the awards as well as all the attendant social media that now magnifies every blip on the awards screen to a state of DEFCON 1.
Three years ago, when Mo’Nique decided not to go on the stump for Precious when it played the Toronto and New York film festivals, a big segment of the bloggerati — which has a vested interest in the current system that keeps actors parading in front of them for months on end — was outraged. “You know what, Academy? Don’t give her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar,” wrote Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells. “In fact, deny her a nomination and teach her a lesson. She doesn’t want to play the game and show the respect, so, you know, give the Oscar nomination to someone who really wants and values it.”
But though Mo’Nique was a no-show during most of the season, even skipping the Academy’s clubby nominees luncheon, she eventually took home the supporting actress prize. Mo’Nique proved that even in this overheated digital age, an anti-campaign can be just as effective as months of glad-handing.
So Phoenix’s blunt remarks don’t really put him at odds with the Academy; in fact, they actually could win him some additional backing within the critics groups that will begin announcing their picks in December, in advance of the Academy noms.
Phoenix’s words, though he might not have intended them as such, instead could be read as more of a critique of the full-on awards campaign style perfected by Harvey Weinstein, the impresario behind many a winning Oscar campaign, whose company just happens to be distributing The Master. Weinstein believes in red-carpet-bombing Academy voters by ensuring that his awards hopefuls are as visible as possible. He even has persuaded campaign-averse talent to overcome their reluctance to press the flesh — sometimes unsuccessfully, as when he tried to win Martin Scorsese a directing Oscar for 2002’s Gangs of New York, but more often successively as when he helped Meryl Streep win her best actress Oscar for 2011’s The Iron Lady. To say nothing of his back-to-back best picture wins for The King’s Speech and The Artist the past two years.
The Weinstein camp didn’t have any comment on the latest development. And, in truth, Phoenix hasn’t been quite as shy as Mo’Nique; he attended the movie’s unveilings in Venice and Toronto, met with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and has done a number of other interviews. So as awards campaigns go, the fact that he is now shifting to anti-campaign status, as genuine as it might be, is a pretty shrewd move. At least, it has everyone talking.