Oscars: The Predicament of the M.I.A. Contender

Cooper Stone Gyllenhaal - H 2014
AP Images

Cooper Stone Gyllenhaal - H 2014

A version of this story first appeared in a special awards issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

One can quickly recall the names of acting Oscar nominees (Joaquin Phoenix for The Master, Rooney Mara for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Emmanuelle Riva for Amour) and winners (Christian Bale for The Fighter, Mo'Nique for Precious, Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight) who got where they got without doing any real campaigning — because they number so few.

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People might like to think that Oscar voting is solely about merit, but that’s naive and incorrect. Academy members are people, not machines, which means that they can be influenced. And when the prize at stake is one that carries as much prestige and potential for increased opportunity and earning as the Oscar does, well, of course contenders for it are going to try to influence the outcome by lobbying voters, in one form or another — participating in Q&As, granting interviews, taking out ads, making appearances, accepting tributes, etc.

This is not a new phenomenon. It goes back, in a sophisticated form, to Joan Crawford’s work with the publicist Henry Rogers in the '40s and, in a less nuanced manner, to Mary Pickford in the '20s — but it’s something that is as understood and practiced in the industry today as it ever has been. In short, it has become very clear to all who are paying attention that, with very few exceptions, a contender has to show that he or she wants an Oscar before the Academy will seriously consider handing one over.

Foreigners Marion Cotillard and Jean Dujardin only won their Oscars after essentially relocating to the U.S. The great Meryl Streep only snagged her third statuette, for The Iron Lady — decades after winning her first two — when she reminded voters that she wouldn’t mind another by beating the pavement a little, something that she hadn’t done when she had been up for comparably strong performances in preceding years. And Sandra Bullock broke the fourth wall and directly acknowledged the potential value of “working the crowd” when she opened her acceptance speech for The Blind Side by asking Academy members, “Did I really earn this, or did I just wear y’all down?”

Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that certain people have been more or less omnipresent over the last few months — doing everything but kissing babies — including The Theory of Everything’s Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, Wild’s Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, The Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum, Boyhood’s Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, Selma’s Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo, Foxcatcher’s Steve Carell, The Judge’s Robert Duvall, Cake’s Jennifer Aniston, Top Five’s Chris Rock and Black or White’s Kevin Costner, among others. Even the famously press-shy Bill Murray (St. Vincent) has been pretty visible! By all indications, they all really want an Oscar nomination — and wouldn’t you?

But, considering what a big deal was made of the case of the chickenpox that sidelined Angelina Jolie from doing promotion for Unbroken for just a few days — during which she did miss the film’s L.A. premiere and official Academy and DGA screenings, as well as a luncheon packed with Academy members — what is the outlook for the awards hopefuls who really haven’t really been as available lately to, well, remind people that they exist and would like some acknowledgment?

American Sniper’s Bradley Cooper, Birdman’s Emma Stone and Nightcrawler’s Jake Gyllenhaal have all been starring in eight shows a week on Broadway, which has kept them almost entirely bound to the East Coast and with little time for anything else. Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike wasn’t around due to her pregnancy (a son was born in December). The Imitation Game’s Benedict Cumberbatch and A Most Violent Year's Oscar Isaac have been filming television series for the BBC and HBO, respectively, which, as you’d imagine, is pretty all-consuming. Birdman’s Alejandro G. Inarritu and Michael Keaton were scarce for a chunk of time due to obligations to other movies that were in production. And Two Days, One Night’s Cotillard is (still) based overseas.

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These folks have had to be crafty about scraping together some exposure: Cooper, in addition to appearing on the cover of December’s Vanity Fair, participated in a post-Christmas Q&A in front of an audience in New York that was videotaped and piped in to a theater in L.A. (where most Academy members are based) in which its screenwriter joined in on the conversation, and also presented an award at the National Board of Review Awards late on the night of Jan. 6, after a performance of his show. (Isaac was also on hand at NBR to accept the best actor prize.) Gyllenhaal and Keaton managed to get away to L.A. to attend the Academy’s Governors Awards on Nov. 8 and the Hollywood Film Awards on Nov. 14; Gyllenhaal also presented an award at the Dec. 5 Gotham Awards and the Jan. 5 New York Film Critics Circle Awards (which were doable because they took place on Mondays, when most of Broadway is dark), while Keaton was at the NBR Awards (he tied with Isaac for best actor). In addition to making appearances at the Governors Awards and the Hollywood Film Awards and doing some interviews and Q&As around them (including a Daily Show sit-down), Cumberbatch landed the cover of Time’s Dec. 1 Genius Issue, which was seen everywhere, and accepted an honor at the Palm Springs Film Festival's awards gala on Jan. 3.

As for others who could but, for one reason or another, basically just refuse to play “the game” — among them Inherent Vice’s Phoenix and Paul Thomas Anderson, Gone Girl’s David Fincher, Interstellar’s Christopher Nolan, Foxcatcher’s Bennett Miller, Locke’s Tom Hardy and The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Wes Anderson — the climb to the Oscar podium is, perhaps, even steeper.

Nobody, least of all me, is saying that this whole charade — which The New York Times recently said was like parading “livestock before judges at a really fancy state fair” — is as it should be in a perfect world… rather, it's just taking a moment to note that it is in the world in which we live, just as it has been for as long as the Academy Awards have existed, and just as it likely and probably unavoidably will be for as long as they continue to hand out Oscars into the future.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg