Oscar 'Bullsh*t': Is campaigning out of control?
There's a growing litany of Hollywood artists fed up with the parade of glad-handing that has come to define the fall-to-winter awards season, which begins in earnest at the Toronto Film Festival and proceeds through countless events, appearances, and receptions on the way to Hollywood's biggest night, the Oscars, where a lucky few reap the rewards of their efforts.
But not David Cronenberg. "Every year I try to be as disconnected as possible," he told Movieline. "The people who are releasing the movie get excited, they want you to do more, and you understand it because the awards can maybe get more people to see the film … However, it is all bullshit, it is all annoying and it is all very problematical."
One might argue the Canadian director's complaints are just sour grapes. He's never been nominated for an Oscar, and few of his films have been on the Academy's radar; "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises" received acting nominations, while "The Fly" won for its makeup. His latest film, "Cosmopolis," is unlikely to receive a nod in any category this year.
But Joaquin Phoenix has nothing to be sour about. He's a two-time nominee, but nevertheless told Interview magazine, "I think it's total, utter bullshit, and I don't want to be a part of it … 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."
Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins called the process "disgusting" when asked by the Huffington Post: "You know, I've been around … and having to be nice to people and to be charming and flirting with them … That's always been against my nature."
When we talked with Matt Damon in December about his latest film, "Promised Land," we asked him how awards campaigning has changed since his victory lap 15 years ago for "Good Will Hunting" (he won Best Original Screenplay with friend and co-star Ben Affleck), and he said, "It's ridiculous … We had Harvey Weinstein with us for 'Good Will Hunting,' and he's the guy who really sees the matrix when it comes to this stuff and I think we did a cocktail party. That was it … It's been really shocking to me to see what's happened [since], and not all good."
Watch our entire interview with Damon here.
When Phoenix made his comments, people wondered whether he had shot himself in the foot, biting the hand that might have fed him a third Oscar nomination, this time for "The Master." And maybe he did. According to our racetrack odds, he's now on the outside looking into the Best Actor race, though that probably has more to do with tepid response to the film than with anything he said; even his co-stars, Oscar darlings Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, don't seem quite as safe for nominations as they once did.
But the question of whether he hurt his chances by speaking his mind pretty well makes his point for him. Should a perceived public gaffe, having nothing to do with the content or quality of his performance, have any influence on whether he is nominated?
You don't always have to go along to get along. Woody Allen steers clear of awards campaigning but still won his fourth Oscar last year, for writing "Midnight in Paris." Two years earlier, Mo'Nique chose to focus on her self-titled talk show rather than hit the campaign trail for "Precious," but that didn't stop her from winning every award in sight, Oscar included.
Which begs the question: How much campaigning is really necessary to win an Oscar? Jockeying for position amidst a glut of possible contenders in the crowded fall months, it's difficult to stand out, so the most important factor of any campaign is just to be seen. Academy members won't nominate a film they don't know about, so if your campaign is successful yours will be one of the films they make sure to watch before marking their ballots. Beyond that, to paraphrase Bonnie Raitt, you can't make them love you if they don't.
But how many films need such an intensive campaign to get on the Academy's radar? If you're, say, an historical biopic by three-time winner Steven Spielberg, starring two-time winners Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field, and written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner, how much encouragement do voters really need to pop in that screener? Same goes for an epic musical from recent Oscar-winner Tom Hooper, with an all-star cast singing tragic arias from one of the most beloved song scores in musical theater history.
The films that really do benefit from an aggressive Oscar push are small independents, and that is where campaigning can improve the awards season. For instance, "Beasts of the Southern Wild," a drama about poverty with unknown actors and an unestablished director, probably wouldn't have gotten off the ground without the strong support of Fox Searchlight.
Without that support it might have ended up more like "Compliance," which has mostly fallen through the cracks, though its star Ann Dowd has picked up surprising traction in the race for Best Supporting Actress, winning the National Board of Review and earning nominations from the Spirit Awards and Critics' Choice. But, as revealed recently by the Hollywood Reporter, Magnolia Pictures was not willing to pay for screeners for the financially disappointing film, so the actress went out of pocket to pay for her own. If resources were available to better promote the film to awards voters, might the critically acclaimed film (89% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) be a contender even beyond Dowd's performance? And might audiences then be more inclined to seek it out?
The prevalence of campaigns distinguishes the Oscars from other media awards, and sometimes it's for the better. Consider the Grammys, where acclaimed indie acts are seldom recognized; the top races are usually reserved for the best-selling songs and artists, and big hits with tepid reviews are frequently recognized in marquee categories.
But past the point where voters know who you are and what you have to offer, how much are your odds improved by kissing babies on the campaign trail? Some contenders may be well advised to follow the examples of Woody Allen and Mo'Nique: stay home, and let your work speak for itself.