MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

17 Days To Oscar: A Thin Line Between Win & Lose

This is the time of the season when things start lining up and one starts gathering perspective. As a result, I find myself endlessly pontificating about what could have been done, what should have been done, what would have been done had there been the money or the will.

And so, a few basic rules that are guaranteed to broken almost immediately.


Yes, there are exceptions… every year. But those exceptions are for the Sean Penns and Supporting Actors of the world.

Why are you suddenly seeing Brad Pitt everywhere? Because someone convinced him that he could win. Of course, he’s still only doing the A-list stuff and softball blue card safe stuff like Actor’s Studio… which is why he has no chance of winning.

George Clooney has been the frontrunner for months… again. And it’s looking like he will lose… again. Why? Similar to Pitt, Clooney breathes only in the rooms that Stan Rosenfeld can control completely. And God bless them, that’s their prerogative. But while no “lower” outlet availability is going to win George an Oscar, there has become a disconnect – much as we all love George and find him endlessly charming and bright – between the movie star and the people who might vote for him.

The exceptions this season look to be Viola Davis and Christopher Plummer. Ms. Davis has been around… but not really very accessible. But she is the rock around which The Help revolves. In a way, I don’t really think she is the lead of the film… but she may well win Best Actress for her muscular stoicism. And Chris Plummer, who is a very funny, charming guy, stayed out of the fray this year after getting himself nominated by dipping in for The Last Station. But he has been the frontrunning in Supporting for 5 months now and somehow, that category has a recent history of being cemented in early.

Of course, being present doesn’t guarantee anything. Ken Branagh was very generous with his time this year and isn’t going to win. Albert Brooks is a living legend who has never gotten his due from The Academy and made himself available this year… and didn’t even get nominated. Tilda stumped hard for her movie.

And who knows? Rules are made to be broken. Meryl Streep has been more present this year than in nomination years past… but she’s also remained hidden behind the coattails of 60 “We Don’t Ask Celebrities Real Questions” Minutes and more recently, Pete Hammond. When voters feel like they know a little something real about Meryl Streep is probably when she wins her next Oscar. In the meantime, it’s an honor to be nominated.


This is a biggie.

When an Academy member, just like any other kid in high school, tells their friends whom they voted for, they want to feel good about defending their choice. Fair or not, Melissa McCarthy is “the one who shit in the sink” this year. They may have laughed their colostomy bags off when they saw the film and most voters feel good about Ms McCarthy getting nominated. But when it comes down to bestowing the gold, shit in the pie in the name of dignity will win out over shit in the sink caused by bad Mexican food every time.

But it’s often more subtle than that. I can’t tell you how many Academy voters said out loud that they didn’t feel that Brokeback Mountain reflected the image The Academy should be presenting when it came to awarding the best of the year. (Others, to be fair, simply didn’t think it was the best film.)

When you hear the hum of “The Artist is a gimmick” or “Hugo’s just a kids film,” or “The Help is fluff,” the goal is not to make voters hate those films, but just to nudge them into wondering if The Academy is better off supporting something more serious. One of my favorite early-season Artist attacks was that by embracing the silent era, it diminishes the modern era and is therefore offensive. Uh huh.

There is no “the way they think” or “they are going to do X,” but if there is one thing I have consistently found with pretty much every Academy member I have ever spoken to, it’s that they want to feel proud of their vote and the winner. Critics play this “when we look back in 10 years” game. Academy voters do too. The only difference is that what critics love and what Academy members love are often two different things. They are not embarrassed about Driving Miss Daisy… and critics are not holding events to remember the genius of Born on the Fourth of July. Time’s a funny thing.


It is virtually impossible to define this line… yet it exists.

Dear Melissa Leo seemed to put her foot in it last year… but survived to take home the gold. Was it the late timing of those ads or the disinterest of Academy members in the petty sniping over them or did some people see them as a sign of how passionate this long-time jobbing actor was about her work?

Academy members are strung out over many voting groups, most of which allow all kinds of solicitation that The Academy does not. Does the $50 coffee table book make your case or turn people off? How many parties can you have before it looks like you are trying to buy people off? And how many parties does it take to buy people off?

It’s a funny game because so many of the same people are pushing the buttons at the different distribution companies year after year. Last year, there was bitching about Sony spending too much on events. This year, there’s bitching about Paramount spending too much on events. This year, there is talk about the team from The Artist being too available for too long. Last year, it was The King’s Speech. But who wasn’t available last year? Al of the directors who hadn’t directed The King’s Speech. Who wasn’t available this year? All of the directors who hadn’t directed The Artist.

Scorsese got his lifetime achievement award for the wonderful, commercial, star-studded The Departed. Will he win again this year without asking for it? Maybe. But probably not.

How did Demian Bichir get nominated for a little-seen film with a tiny awards marketing budget? I believe it was about is personality and his availability. He was ubiquitous… but his “aw shucks” (Mexican edition) charm never made people feel like he was desperate. And in the end, others were not there, he was… and one of the few true surprises of the season was the result.

Next year, we are looking at a frontrunner from now in Lincoln… directed by the oft-unavailable Steven Spielberg, starring the oft-unavailable Daniel Day-Lewis and the oft-impossible Tommy Lee Jones. Hmmm… Is the upset for Best Actor already in the cards because John Hawkes’ turn in The Surrogate is going to be a crowd favorite, includes a disability, and because Hawkes is accessible? (Hawkes, btw, is also in Lincoln.) Will there be a coronation for the ever-democratic Joseph Gordon-Levitt?


People get upset about Oscar talk in the spring or summer, but if you are going into the battle, you had better have your ducks in a row well before the Toronto International Film Festival. And the biggest duck is the theme of your film… what are you selling? If you don’t know, the voters – and journalists – won’t know. And you’re done.

The problem with this is that the Oscar push and the theatrical release often demand different kinds of pushes. And it’s hard – if not impossible – to switch perspectives midstream.

Perhaps it is one of the big open secrets of Harvey Weinstein’s Oscar efforts that his release campaign and his Oscar campaign are usually in lockstep. He’s selling the same idea from start to finish (with obvious fine-tuning variations). In cases of films that come out earlier in the year or are relying on a non-Academy audience for commercial success, by the time Oscar comes calling, either the distributor has stopped selling or has too much time to think about rejiggering the pitch.


In the end, for Best Picture at least, it still comes down to a romance with the film to which people will their vote. “We’re the best” and “Look at Rotten Tomatoes” or “Peter Travers says” is all bullshit. You need a love fest and if it doesn’t happen naturally, the job of the studios and consultants is to grease the wheels. They are The Multi-Millionaire Matchmakers.

People really like Moneyball. But converting for Oscar means giving people a way to love Moneyball. What is the theme that matters? I’m not saying that it’s not in the film. I think that’s what so many people connected with. But what, in the conscious mind, is it? Getting people to feel that way is the challenge.

And that’s my story…

There is still room for some minor shifts before all the votes are in… but we are pretty much at the end of the journey for this season. There could be some “surprises” this year… but not too many and not too surprising.

It’s been pretty painless this year. But that’s a whole different column…

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14 Responses to “17 Days To Oscar: A Thin Line Between Win & Lose”

  1. cadavra says:

    One reason the big stars avoid less than A-list events is because of the increasing dreadfulness of the hosts, who seem utterly ignorant of…well, everything. At a Q&A last month, Kenneth Branagh and Michelle Williams were asked if they’d met with Colin Clark before production began. The former turned ten shades of red and replied, “Well, sadly, Colin passed away about ten years ago.” Way to do your homework, lady! And this past Monday, the host mispronounced Max von Sydow’s name and then, with a nearly sixty-year career to draw on for inspiration, asked such probing questions as, “Who did you meet at the Oscar luncheon?” “How did you find out you were nominated?” “Was it hard playing a character who doesn’t speak?” Gaaahh!! I’m surprised she didn’t ask who he was wearing. If you were Clooney or Pitt, would you want to waste your time smiling at these numbskulls?

  2. Danny says:

    Not sure I share your assessment of Meryl Streep’s PR efforts. Meryl Streep gave a rather in depth detailed 40 minute interview on NPR’s Fresh Air for example. Maybe it is the exception, but that interview certainly made me feel like I was learning plenty real somethings about her.

    And that comment about Brokeback Mountain made my blood boil. I wonder if those very same Academy members realize now just how much they tarnished their “image” with that decision that year.

  3. movielocke says:

    Good point about Born on the Fourth of July vs Driving Miss Daisy. twenty years on, nobody who matters cares (the only people who care are self important mostly blind to the big picture so called cineastes, who are easy to dismiss because they’re so obnoxious), both are good movies.

    Moneyball had a great commercial on the nightly news last night, started off with the girl singing, and played out the whole audio of her song, set to scenes of the movie. It was brilliant. I immediately was reminded of just how tremendous the picture is and wanted to watch it again right away.

    I can tell you right now that Lincoln will not be winning any awards for Daniel Day Lewis. he’s already won recently and no actor has ever won for a Spielberg film (he’s only directed a dozen or so nominations, actually, and Hanks was his last in the leading category, iirc).

    All of this is just correlation, of course, there is not a trend in any sense of the word, just Spielberg actors with a lot of bad luck.

    So unless the Lincoln team wants to start a conversation NOW about the injustice of snubbing so many great Spielberg performances (Dreyfuss was vastly better in Close Encounters than Goodbye Girl) there is not a chance in hell that any actor from that production will be winning an oscar.

    On the other hand, pivoting off your comment about wanting to seem important, perhaps the best strategy for Team Lincoln right now is reminding the Academy that they DID NOT award Ralph Fiennes for Schindler’s List (and that is a FAR blacker mark than Driving Miss Daisy, imo). That they DID NOT award Whoopi Goldberg for Color Purple. That they DID NOT award Liam Neeson. Start talking about how badly the academy has missed the boat on Spielberg’s actors, particularly Schindler’s List, and you just might get DDL his third trophy.

    otoh, that may not even be necessary, if DDL pulls off an impossible magnetism ala The Queen then it quite simply will be undeniable.

    Otoh, Ralph Fiennes did just that in 1993, and he turned up empty handed so the Academy could atone to TLJ for JFK. meh.

  4. Jonny McFarlane says:

    Great article Mr Poland!

    Movielocke, you are so right about Ralph Fiennes in List. I had forgotten and I went on Wikipedia and checked out that category from 1993. Jones was the arguably the weakest performance nominated that year. That was a scandal, a true scandal. Can ANYONE think of a bigger oscar mishap? I doubt it.

  5. SHM says:

    Tommy Lee Jones won for The Fugitive, not JFK (which was two years prior). Fiennes defintely deserved that one still.

  6. Krillian says:

    Martin Landau for Ed Wood over Sam Jackson in Pulp Fiction used to seem like a travesty.

    But Jack Nicholson winning for As Good As It Gets over Robert Duvall in The Apostle was egregious.

  7. Danella Isaacs says:

    Right on, Cadavra. At some point, I think there are people who think “even an Oscar isn’t worth this s**t.” There really are a lot of Jiminy Glicks out there. (I feel angry for Von Sydow getting those kinds of questions. Please.)

  8. chris says:

    I can’t think of any way in which Davis could be described as the lead in “The Help,” not that that’s unprecedented for a winner.
    Oh, and it was bad Brazilian food, wasn’t it?

  9. Bennett says:

    Finally got around to seeing Hugo in 3D…Ummm…I don’t get all the hype. Yeah it was fine. But not one of the best pictures of the year…I wouldn’t even put it in Scorsese top ten.

    I think that this and The Artist is the Hollywood community fawning over itself and that many non industry people will be scratching their heads wondering what all the fuss is about.

    I think we might be looking at record low ratings for the Academy Awards this year.

  10. movielocke says:

    The argument that Davis is lead:

    The opening voice over is hers
    The first shot is of her
    The last shot is of her
    The closing voice over is hers
    Every single plot point depends on her character’s decisions, she is always central
    She is the only character who has a journey and transforms and changes over the course of the film–it is a story about her finding her voice, her independence, her agency and self-realization as a woman.
    She has the largest amount of screen time of all the characters in the movie

    The argument that Davis is Not the Lead
    She is black.

  11. David Poland says:

    Well, movielocke… a little harsh.

    Emma Stone’s character is, by many reasonable standards, the lead character in the film. She drives the story. There is no movie without her writing the book, giving “the help” a chance to speak. And most of the whining about the film is because it is told from the perspective of her generation of white girls.

    On the other hand, you are right that a lot of the weight is put on Abilene/Viola Davis.

    Screaming “racist” seems like an overreach.

  12. chris says:

    I have not clocked it but I find it very difficult to believe Davis is on-screen more than Stone. Stone, the fulcrum of the film (whether or not she should be) has relationships with (and screen time with) the following actors: Allison Janney, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Ahna O’Reilly, Chris Lowell, Leslie Jordan, Brian Kerwin, Mary Steenburgen, probably a few I’m missing . Davis is basically seen with Stone, Spencer, the child and O’Reilly.

  13. Joe says:

    Meryl has been robbed way to many times. This should be her year and if the academy members do not vote for her this year then this is really not a best actress category it should be the most popular one and it is just not fair. Just because Viola is black or more people watch the film should not be a reason why she should win over Meryl. I am so tired of the academy and this popular votes stuff…

  14. topsyturvy says:

    When you look at the list of people how have won Oscars and then slid into obscurity or bad career choices, you’ll see it’s very long. Streep is really in a league by herself, following up her win in SOPHIE’S CHOICE with a nomination the following year for SILKWOOD. Likewise, she’s been married to the same person for 30+ years and raised four seemingly normal kids, all the while turning in one remarkable performance after another. (Last year’s winner Natalie Portman was pregnant when she won and decided to take a year off. Streep was pregnant when she won for SOPHIE was was back the next year for SILKWOOD).

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon