I recently wrote a piece pondering which performers in superhero films are likeliest to garner an Oscar nomination. Robert Downey Jr. was the first name on my 10-strong list for his performance in “Captain America: Civil War.” Those who wish to pick up a little gold man, and sit him in their bathroom for house guests to practice their own Oscar speeches, have to mount a campaign. Depending on the role, one has to campaign with various vigorousness, with Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln” being on the more relaxed side of things. The relatively unknown (at the time) Marion Cotillard, however, had to campaign much harder for her nomination, and win, for “La Vie en Rose.” It’s not hard to guess where Downey Jr. falls on that spectrum. He is going to have to campaign HARD. But I believe it can be done. And here’s how:
What Robert Downey Jr. Needs To Do
It’s not hard to imagine him on the campaign trail, where his natural charm and charisma will prove a smash hit on the talk-show circuit and at the many events an Oscar hopeful has to attend. Downey Jr.’s charm, likability and ability to schmooze will probably be his biggest strength, his USP. If I were on his campaign team, I’d encourage his charm and humor with each talk show, each luncheon and each party. Look at Eddie Redmayne’s winning campaign for ‘The Theory of Everything” – he was a constant, smiling presence.
Downey Jr. will also have to stay humble, however. We saw Leonardo DiCaprio last year, endlessly praising all of the work and commitment that went into “The Revenant.” Likewise, Downey Jr. will have to do that constantly. He can talk about the Marvel Cinema Universe (MCU) as a whole, touting the various directors with whom he has worked and the other actors. Downey Jr. has received a lot of praise for his performance, and he should accept that with a smile, but he should also deflect it onto his co-stars: ‘Oh, it was much easier to be good in this film because every other actor I worked with, from Chris Evans to Daniel Bruhl, was at the top of their game and it brought mine up to” – that’s the angle he should take. Humility and recognizing the collective work that goes into a film and performance, as we saw from DiCaprio, goes a long way.
However, while he should talk about the MCU as a larger entity, which will show unity and a sense of vision which voters will appreciate, it should always be brought back to “Civil War.” Avoid any possible confusion and make sure they know exactly what film you want them to vote for, not a vague collection of sequels. Clarity is essential. This will be helped by screeners, of course, which I shall discuss later.
Moving on, Downey Jr. has no films being released this Oscar season, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, he is completely free to play the crowd and totter along the campaign trail. On the other, it means he will only be in the public’s eye while campaigning, which runs the risk of appearing too eager. He should consider a short run in a play in New York or London.
Bradley Cooper and Mark Rylance have both seen the benefits of that. Cooper, while campaigning for “American Sniper,” was appearing in “The Elephant Man” on Broadway to great critical acclaim. No prosthetics were used; rather he employed facial expressions to convey the physical deformities of the character. It brought attention to Cooper’s passion for the craft, as well as his talent. The same happened with Rylance. This three-time Tony Awards champ barely campaigned last year. However, he headlined two plays (“Farinelli and the King” and “Nice Fish,” the latter of which he actually co-wrote) which gave him the image of ‘an actor’s actor.’
If Downey Jr. participated in a play this awards season (not necessarily a big, flashy play – by all means, a smaller, personal play could be more effective), it would paint him in the same light as Rylance and Cooper. He would be seen by voters less as Robert Downey Jr. the movie star and more as Robert Downey Jr. the actor.
It also shows good range, to go from a huge blockbuster like “Civil War” to a small play in a theatre and will help showcase his acting ability, just as Cooper did. It would be even more effective if he could get one of his cast mates to join him in the play, perhaps Mark Ruffalo or Paul Bettany or, best of all, Chris Evans (given his and Downey Jr.’s characters in “Civil War”). This would show how much Downey Jr. loved working with that group of people, bringing a familial feel and a sense of community to his campaign. Michael Keaton made it known how much of a great experience he had when making “Birdman,” which helped get him a nomination.
What Kevin Feige Needs To Do
First things first, Downey Jr. HAS to be campaigned in supporting. Lead will just be too big a step for voters, it’s Oscar’s big big award and academy voters like giving it to serious roles. With the supporting categories, they have shown a willingness to be a little more playful, nominating stars in turns that are a little quirkier and far less serious. And Downey Jr.’s fame will help in that category; they will want to reward him for a long career’s work and a supporting statuette will be easy for them to give him.
Kevin Feige, producer supremo of the MCU, should use Harvey Weinstein as a role model. He campaigns aggressively, with plenty of ads and constant screeners being sent out to all voters. This really should not be a problem for Feige and Marvel Studios, they have the money in abundance, but they should be sure to send out plenty of screeners well in advance of any major awards group, such as SAG. If they haven’t seen the film, they can’t vote for it, as Weinstein says.
Marvel Studios have built up a lot of friends over their 13 films, so it would be a good idea if Feige decided to hold a cocktail party with those friends, including Oscar winners Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Benicio Del Toro, Tommy Lee Jones, Michael Douglas, Ben Kingsley, Jeff Bridges, Anthony Hopkins, and Tilda Swinton. Invite all of those names (and many more, of course) and hold an ‘MCU celebration’ party, celebrating the achievements of the franchise and the work that all of these people have put in.
Voters like to be made to feel special so once you get everyone in that room, make a speech and say “We have come a long way since the first “Iron Man” and it is thanks to you guys that we are now holding an Oscar campaign for one of our actors. Without your talent and hard work, we wouldn’t be here.” Make them feel important, a crucial part of the franchise as a whole. It will make them feel as if they are voting for themselves as well as Downey Jr. and that will only help. They will be able to say that they have been part of a hugely financially successful, critically acclaimed and Oscar nominated (in a big category) franchise. That will make them feel great.
Voters get tired of all of the serious, hard hitting films and sometimes like to reward more fun, popcorn-flicky fare (“Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Martian” are last year’s examples). If Feige can instill a fun-factor about choosing Downey Jr. (much like his last nominated role, in “Tropic Thunder”), voters may turn to that option as a change of pace after opting for much heavier material in other categories. I mean, as good as “Manchester By The Sea” and “Silence” look, there can’t be many laughs going on there.
The Film Itself
I do think voters may find it hard to vote for a comic-book movie, however. This can be combatted by minute details, however, such as referring to the film as “Civil War” and not “Captain America: Civil War.” The former sounds much more serious and mature. Likewise, I would only use ‘Tony Stark,’ never ‘Iron Man,’ when talking about Downey Jr.’s role. Tony Stark is a name, a person. Iron Man is a superhero. It’ll be easier for voters to take them seriously if they aren’t reminded they are voting for a superhero every two minutes.
It would also help to remind voters that they have gone for similar material in the past. They gave Heath Ledger a win as The Joker in “The Dark Knight,” they nominated Matt Damon in popcorn-flick “The Martian,” they nominated Ian Mckellen for a fantasy in “The Fellowship of the Ring” and, as I’ve mentioned, they’ve already shown a capacity to vote for Downey Jr. in a fun role prior to this, with “Tropic Thunder.” Remind them of all of these things. It will break down that wall of ‘Oh, I’m not sure about voting for this, I usually go for serious stuff’ if they think they’ve already voted for something similar.
And speaking of “The Lord of the Rings,” we need to dispel this myth that the academy aren’t a fan of franchises or sequels. “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy won 17 (!) Oscars in total, “The Godfather” trilogy won nine, “Mad Max: Fury Road” (part of a big, action film franchise) won six last year. The film just needs to be angled right.
And Feige, Downey Jr. and company can do that by comparing themselves to these great, Oscar-winning films: “‘The Godfather’ was an inspiration for us because it’s a huge ensemble cast where everyone shines and turns in a great performance, we wanted to reproduce that” and “‘The Lord of the Rings’ inspired us as it proved fantasy films could be serious and brilliant and be great stories as well” — these are the sort of statements Marvel Studios should be churning out.
Although that aforementioned ‘fun-factor’ will be crucial here, it is also important to strike a balance. Damon was funny in “The Martian” but was facing a life-threatening situation. Likewise Ledger, although playing a comic book character, actually had quite a serious role in “The Dark Knight.” The same goes here. “Civil War” is a great comic book movie, but at the heart of it is a very personal story: two friends fighting over the best way to protect people while mourning losses both world-wide and personal. It’s a hard-hitting story when it comes down to it. Show voters that the film is both fun and exciting, human and personal. Highlight those action pieces like the airport battle or tunnel chase, but also highlight T’Challa’s touching relationship with his father and Tony’s desperation to make up for past mistakes and keep his friends together.
It won’t be hard to strike this balance of fun and seriousness with Downey Jr.’s role. Put together a ‘Robert Downey Jr. featurette,’ put it on the screener to show how he created his performance. Show the work he put into the role, include outtakes and unused film. And then make a reel showing his best moments in the film, from his facial expressions and line readings, to his dogged desperation and his chemistry with Tom Holland’s Peter Parker.
We’ve seen time and time again that a lack of narrative in an Oscar campaign can be detrimental. Michael Keaton repeatedly refused all of those comparisons with Riggan Thomson, his “Birdman” character, and thus denied his narrative of ‘the comeback star,’ which ended his Oscar chances.
A strong narrative needs to be in place and needs to be embraced. There are a fair few options for Downey Jr. here. He’s a Hollywood veteran who has been around for ages, worked with everyone and never won. He’s also in a role that has got a time limit on it so there is the narrative of ‘reward him now, while you still can.’ That could also work as he has played an iconic, beloved character and really made it his own with each film. The role, his work and the films would certainly be worthy of a reward to recognize the success, talent and importance of all three.