Narratives & Precedents: How PR Strategists Frame the Oscar Race (Analysis)

THR's awards expert Scott Feinberg journeys back through Oscar history to identify the four perfs most similar to each of this year's top acting contenders.
Philip V. Caruso/Paramount Pictures
"Young Adult"

Modern presidential campaigns and Oscar campaigns share several things in common: both have become months-long affairs; both cost sums of money that would have been unimaginable just a generation ago; and, above all, both are now shaped tremendously by publicity strategists.

Because most Academy members do not follow the annual Oscar race nearly as regularly or closely as the pundits who cover it, it has become imperative for studios to employ publicity strategists to try to corral their attention -- and to make the “case” for their clients in the most succinct and digestible manner possible when they have it.

From conversations with strategists in both the political and cinematic arenas, I learned that two of the oldest and most effective ways to do so are to…

1. Create and hammer home short, general, and easy-to-remember narratives describing their client. For example…

  • Obama in 2008: “the candidate who has shown good judgment in the past can be counted on to make good decisions in the future”
  • McCain in 2008: “the candidate with vast experience can be trusted to handle unforeseeable scenarios better than a relative newcomer”


2. Make voters feel comfortable voting for their client by reminding them of precedents of performances like theirs that won their support before. For example…

  • Obama in 2008: Abraham Lincoln, another Illinois lawyer-turned-lawmaker who rose above party politics; Franklin D. Roosevelt, who promised Americans a new deal; John F. Kennedy, a young and senator who won on a message of hope
  • McCain in 2008: Teddy Roosevelt, a maverick unafraid to buck his party; Dwight D. Eisenhower, a military man who understood issues of national security; Ronald Reagan, an older man who reformed government

(Getting too specific with narratives makes it much harder to find precedents. Therefore, publicity strategists have learned that overarching themes and messages resonate much more effectively, so they tend to stick with them.)

Narratives and precedents are useful -- to an extent -- not only for promoting a contender, but also for assessing a contender’s viability. For that reason, I have identified a/the narrative for the seven strongest contenders in each acting category and identified four past nominees/winners who also fit it (or at least come close to fitting it). As a lover of films past and present, I found this to be interesting, and I hope you will, too.

[Beware of spoilers!]


Demian Bichir in A Better Life
A man who is a hard worker struggles to get ahead.

  • Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
  • James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
  • Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (1960)
  • Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

George Clooney in The Descendants
A man who grows closer to his child(ren) during tough times.

  • Wallace Beery in The Champ (1931) WON
  • Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond (1981) WON
  • Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful (1998) WON
  • Javier Bardem in Biutiful (2010)

Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar
A man who gains great power but loses his sense of perspective.

  • Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941)
  • Laurence Olivier in Richard III (1956)
  • George C. Scott in Patton (1970) WON
  • Peter Finch in Network (1976) WON

Jean Dujardin in The Artist
A once-popular talent who now finds himself a has-been.

  • James Mason in A Star Is Born (1954)
  • Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980) WON
  • Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008)
  • Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart (2009) WON

Michael Fassbender in Shame
A man whose personal demons make it hard for him to experience love.

  • Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
  • Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
  • Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets (1997) WON
  • Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator (2004)

Ryan Gosling in The Ides of March
A man who is idealistic is forced to face disappointing reality.

  • James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
  • Alexander Knox in Wilson (1944)
  • Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) WON
  • Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) WON

Brad Pitt in Moneyball
A good man who sees the world differently than those around him.

  • James Stewart in Harvey (1950)
  • Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) WON
  • Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek (1964)
  • Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society (1989)


Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs
A woman who passes as a man.

  • Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria (1982)
  • Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love (1998) WON
  • Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry (1999) WON
  • Felicity Huffman in Transamerica (2005)

Viola Davis in The Help
A woman who decides to open up about her tragic past.

  • Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940)
  • Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice (1982) WON
  • Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
  • Kate Winslet in Titanic (1997)

Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene
A woman who is mentally traumatized by those she trusts most.

  • Joan Fontaine in Suspicion (1941) WON
  • Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944) WON
  • Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1982) WON
  • Natalie Portman in Black Swan (2010) WON

Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady
A woman who has experienced memory loss tries to remember her life.

  • Ingrid Bergman in Anastasia (1956) WON
  • Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve (1957) WON
  • Judi Dench in Iris (2001)
  • Julie Christie in Away from Her (2007)

Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin
A woman whose child causes her considerable grief.

  • Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945) WON
  • Nancy Kelly in The Bad Seed (1956)
  • Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist (1973)
  • Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People (1980)

Charlize Theron in Young Adult
A woman who is feisty and filled with anger and bitterness.

  • Bette Davis in The Little Foxes (1941)
  • Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944)
  • Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
  • Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn
A woman who is an actress battles personal demons.

  • Bette Davis in Dangerous (1935) WON
  • Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950)
  • Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. (1950)
  • Bette Davis in The Star (1952)


Kenneth Branagh in My Week with Marilyn
A man who is the frustrated superior of the protagonist.

  • Ned Beatty in Network (1976)
  • Louis Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) WON
  • Danny Aiello in Do the Right Thing (1989)
  • Alec Baldwin in The Cooler (2003)

Albert Brooks in Drive
A man who is a psychopathic cold-blooded killer.

  • Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (1947)
  • Joe Pesci in Goodfellas (1990) WON
  • Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List (1993)
  • William Hurt in A History of Violence (2005)

Armie Hammer in J. Edgar
A man who works closely -- and becomes romantically involved -- with the protagonist.

  • Clifton Webb in Laura (1944)
  • George Sanders in All About Eve (1950) WON
  • Albert Brooks in Broadcast News (1987)
  • Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Jonah Hill in Moneyball
A man who is a close co-worker and confidante of the protagonist.

  • Robert Duvall in The Godfather (1972)
  • Jason Robards in All the President's Men (1976) WON
  • Albert Finney in Erin Brokovich (2000)
  • Woody Harrelson in The Messenger (2009)

Viggo Mortensen in A Dangerous Method
A man who is a deep thinker and able to shape the behavior of others.

  • Michael Chekhov in Spellbound (1945)
  • Alec Guinness in Star Wars (1977)
  • Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People (1980)
  • Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting (1997) WON

Nick Nolte in Warrior
A man who is a patient and loyal coach to a much younger athlete.

  • Burgess Meredith in Rocky (1976)
  • Ian Holm in Chariots of Fire (1981)
  • Pat Morita in The Karate Kid (1984)
  • Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby (2004) WON

Christopher Plummer in Beginners
A man who is a colorful character and the father (or father-figure) of the protagonist.

  • Stanley Holloway in My Fair Lady (1964)
  • Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show (1971) WON
  • Christopher Walken in Catch Me If You Can (2002)
  • Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild (2007)


Berenice Bejo in The Artist
A woman who looks out for someone who once looked out for her.

  • Nina Foch in Executive Suite (1954
  • Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon (1973) WON
  • Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind (2001) WON
  • Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler (2008)

Jessica Chastain in The Help
A woman who is sweet but not very sophisticated.

  • Jean Hagen in Singin' in the Rain (1952)
  • Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny (1992) WON
  • Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite (1996) WON
  • Amy Adams in Junebug (2005)

Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids
A woman who is unfamiliar with proper manners and/or self-censorship.

  • Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles (1974)
  • Kathy Bates in About Schmidt (2002)
  • Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone (2007)
  • Melissa Leo in The Fighter (2010) WON

Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs
A woman who is involved in a secret relationship.

  • Vivien Merchant in Alfie (1966)
  • Cloris Leachman in The Last Picture Show (1971) WON
  • Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal (2006)
  • Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air (2009)

Carey Mulligan in Shame
A woman who is emotionally-disturbed and self-destructive.

  • Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted (1999) WON
  • Julianne Moore in The Hours (2002)
  • Rinko Kikuchi in Babel (2006)
  • Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) WON

Octavia Spencer in The Help
A woman who is black and works as a domestic for white people.

  • Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind (1939) WON
  • Ethel Waters in Pinky (1949)
  • Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life (1959)
  • Alfre Woodard in Cross Creek (1983)

Shailene Woodley in The Descendants
A woman who is young and rebellious.

  • Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce (1945)
  • Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed (1956)
  • Susan Kohner in Imitation of Life (1959)
  • Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit (2010)
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