(NOTE: This is an updated version of a column I ran last year before the Oscars. CLICK HERE to read that piece.)
As the saying goes, there are two things you never want to see get made, laws and sausages. Whether that’s true or not I won’t speculate, but if I could add one thing to the expression, it would be Academy Awards. Now I know what you must be thinking, “You can’t see how the Oscars are made!” Ah, but you’re wrong. Of all the awards, positions and accolades given out by a body of people, the Academy Awards are easily the most transparent. Even the Mtv Movie Awards have more suspense these days (How could Jennifer Carpenter in The Exorcism of Emily Rose beat Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds? I can’t believe Spielberg didn’t rig this. Or that Dakota and her preternatural precociousness didn’t have Carpenter killed so as to blunt the awards glut of arch rival Abigail Breslin. No joke guys, I’m afraid of Dakota Fanning.)
The problem isn’t with the nominees, who more often that not are right on the mark. The problem is that the winners are so pre-ordained that if you don’t win your office Oscar pool every year, you just aren’t paying attention. This isn’t like the NCAA tournament where the weird girl from the smelly cubicle can randomly throw darts on her bracket, picks George Mason over Connecticut, and steals your money. For the Oscars, there are real ways to determine who will win. For example, merely keeping an eye out to the state of affairs in Hollywood will cue you in on the Best Picture race.
(The Departed will win because Hollywood is actively shifting back into a period of BIG, story driven movies. After successive years of divisive, small-in-scope, actor-driven winners, the last thing the Academy needs is for the depressing, manipulative Crash-wannabe Babel to take Scorsese’s glory. They want Marty on that wall. They NEED him on that wall!)
The directing Oscar generally matches the Best Picture, and the two writing Oscars are determined mostly from the WGA, and thus are beyond obvious come Oscar night. And absolutely no one cares about the technical awards. Even the costume designers don’t care about their category. The eight awards given to civilians are very much like throwing darts at a bracket, they don’t affect the Oscars in any real historical way, and besides, doesn’t John Williams win every year anyway? For all the arm-chair critics that decry the Oscars for being too long, how about making it like the Golden Globes and only give out awards where the winner is someone we recognize.
So that covers pretty much the entire show, except for the acting. And that’s what this column is going to cover. Over the next 2000 words or so, depending on how many “Little Miss Sunshine, Really?” tangents I go on, I will teach you how to predict the acting Oscar winners. There is a proven formula that I will share with you today.
Some think that the acting categories are merely a popularity contest, the High School student-body president race of the Oscars. Those people are wrong. I know this, the Academy knows this, and most importantly, actors know this. Actors are well aware that there are ways of manipulating the Academy into giving you an Oscar. Ever heard the phrase “Oscar bait” when someone is talking about one of those pretentious December movies that Miramax used to put out? Career decisions are often made not by money, but by how it will affect their relationship with the Academy. It’s a dance, you see. Some are good at it, and dip their way into Oscar gold before their feet even hurt. Others take so long to learn the steps that when they finally figure it out, they can barely do a box-step waltz. But make no mistake, every actor knows the way, and now you will to.
There are six ways to absolutely guarantee an Academy Award for acting. Any one way on its own gives you the edge in your category; any combination of the six will give you front-runner and likely winner-status. Any three put together, and the other four nominees shouldn’t waste their time writing one of those “I’m so humble about all this” speeches that Kate Winslet cries herself to sleep with. Now there are exceptions to this rule, as there are for anything, but these six ways are tried and true.
The Six Ways to Win an Academy Award for Acting
1. Be Fat (a.k.a. Completely Screw Up Your Body)
There is just something so endearing about pretty people gaining weight. It doesn’t even really matter sometimes if you were any good, so long as we can read those charming stories of you stuffing your face with spaghetti. Oh, you are so much like normal people! The Academy loves to reward the heavies (and I don’t mean bad guys). From Charlize in Monster, to De Niro in Raging Bull, gaining weight is one of the best ways to win an Oscar. Here are some recent weight-y winners:
- Charlize Theron – Monster
- Kevin Spacey – American Beauty
- Adrien Brody – The Pianist (For losing a grip of weight, instead of gaining it. Must love the starving ones. Which is odd because, wouldn’t they have looked this way anyway?
- Frances McDormand – Fargo
- Ben Kingsley – Gandhi (Another skinny one)
- George Clooney – Syrianna (last year’s winner)
No one gained a ton of weight this year, so this rule does not apply.
2. Be Challenged (Mentally or Physically, it doesn’t much matter)
Playing “retarded” is the Academy-equivalent of playing drunk. Everyone wants to do it, it’s exponentially more interesting to watch than if you were playing normal or sober, and it gives the (fake) impression that you have compassion for whatever illness you are character has contracted. I don’t know why the Academy likes it so much, but I think it has to do with giving Hollywood the impression that it cares about people, and not just about explosions. I mean it’s gotten to the point that if you have Lupus it’s a guaranteed nomination. The apex of this was 1994, when Tom Hanks won for being “stupid” and Jessica Lange won for being “crazy”. I wonder if somewhere in a talent agency in Beverly Hills there’s not a slew of up and coming actors screaming at their agents to get them roles where they play people oppressed by their ADHD. Oscars, here they come.
A list of recent winners who played “challenged”:
- Angelina Jolie – girl, interrupted
- Jamie Foxx – Ray
- Geoffrey Rush – Shine
- Tom Hanks – Forrest Gump
- Jessica Lange – Blue Sky
- Dustin Hoffman – Rain Man
This would seemingly help Rinko Kikuchi’s chances (she’s deaf in Babel), but I doubt it.
3. Be Old (Dying also helps. As does being near death. Mr O’Toole, take note of this.)
We love young actors because they’re pretty. But we love old actors because they are wise. They get slack for sub-par performances, especially the debonair ones, because they make us remember how great they once were. The Academy (who is still mostly made up of old white guys) loves seeing older actors wipe the floor with younger ones. It makes them feel like they are in control, like they have stopped the wave of time from rolling through and passing them over. These days, if you are over 60 and have at least one good scene in a movie, chances are good you can go ahead and rent a nice dress or a smart-looking tux the first Sunday in March (Gloria Stuart from Titanic is a perfect example of this). And if you’ve never won an Oscar before… congratulations, the statue’s finally yours. Like I said before, it doesn’t much matter if you are the most deserving, people will vote for you because they are worried you will die before you get a chance to win.
Here is a list of recent oldies (but goodies):
- Morgan Freeman – Million Dollar Baby
- Michael Caine – The Cider House Rules
- James Coburn – Affliction (This was a post-mortem win. Or what I like to call a “guaranteed coffin souvenir”.)
- Judi Dench – Shakespeare in Love
- Martin Landau – Ed Wood
- Jack Palance – City Slickers
- Jessica Tandy – Driving Miss Daisy (The ultimate Be Old winner)
I would not be at all surprised if Peter O’Toole steals Forest Whitaker’s thunder. If there’s one thing the Academy likes more than old people, it’s old British people. I’m rooting for this solely to see how drunk he is when he gets up on stage. This could be a trainwreck of head-shaving proportions.
4. Be Ugly
This is somewhat of an offshoot of the Be Fat category, as the same rules apply here. Only, the rules are heightened when you get ugly for an award. Slap a bad nose on, loose some teeth, dress as a boy, have a glorious head wound, anything you can do to de-pretty yourself for the camera. It’s no wonder that Charlize won for Monster, she got fat and she got ugly. The Oscar was hers from day one.
Some recent unpretty winners:
- Charlize Theron – Monster
- Nicole Kidman – The Hours
- Chris Cooper – Adaptation
- Hilary Swank – Boys Don’t Cry
- Nicolas Cage – Leaving Las Vegas
- Daniel Day-Lewis – My Left Foot
- George Clooney – Syrianna (though some would argue he wasn’t that ugly)
Will Smith is really the only actor that modified his normal look, but I don’t think that qualifies. Jackie Earl Healy really does look like that, so he gets no points for him being coincidentally awful on the eyes. Abigail Breslin wore a pudgy stomach suit but was still the cutest thing since a litter full of golden retriever puppies wrestled with a pile of rainbows. Helen Mirren didn’t have to do THAT much to look like the Queen, though the fact that a lot of people are getting into her octogenarian-ish good looks and surprisingly perky décolletage may work in her favor yet.
5. Be Owed / Be Needed
Nothing trumps the snub. Oscar voters have snubbed countless fantastic actors, but if they come back and give a fine performance, the Academy will trip over themselves to correct their mistake. Similarly, some actors “need” to win. It’s like in sports, the best players need to win a championship so that their sport can say the best have won. The Oscars are no different. Why do you think Julia Roberts won for Erin Brockovich? That wasn’t nearly the best female performance of the year, yet the Academy practically rushed her on stage so that they could finally say that America’s Sweetheart is an Oscar winner (This is unfortunately why Reese Witherspoon and George Clooney won last year). Sometimes the marketers have more say over the voters. It’s too important for marketers to be able to say “Academy Award Winner Julia Roberts” in trailers, for her not to win. So if you don’t think Eddie Murphy is winning this year, you’re insane. He’s made too much money for too many people for him to not get the award. Hell, Jeffrey Katzenberg practically owes Dreamworks Animation to the former-Axel Foley. Me thinks a favor or two will be called in come Oscar night. Plus, an Eddie Murphy Oscar win makes the existence of Norbit that much more head-scratchingly bad of a career choice. I’d love to see Pluto Nash win an Oscar, if only to so that I can see it used to promote such wonderful pieces of cinematic greatness as Daddy Day Care 2: Daddy Day Camp, The Nuttiest Professor, Showtime 2: Cinemax, and worst of all, Shrek the Third.
Hollywood needs certain actors to have the award, because if a great actor doesn’t have an Oscar it says something negative about how the industry works. Think about the best actors currently alive who don’t have Oscars. The list is pretty small. And lately the Academy has been doing their part to knock people off the list. Morgan Freeman finally got his due, and he was probably the biggest Oscar slight. Julia got hers; Al Pacino finally got his in the early 90’s. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins recently cleared their shelves. As did Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Rachel Weisz. And Renee Zellweger received her Best Supporting apology for losing out in Chicago and Bridget Jones. It’s very simple; the best actors need to be given their proper dues. So if you think the Academy is going to pass up a chance to give Oscars to Helen Mirren, widely considered to be one of the greatest actors working today, well then hell, we might as well just give any random actor an Oscar. Why not Best Supporting Actress Sarah Michelle Gellar? Why not Best Actor Kiefer Sutherland? Actually, that would be kind of cool. Jack Bauer could torture an Arab terrorists whilst thanking his agent.
The final way to guarantee Oscars is a surprisingly obvious, yet at the same time, an unsurprising way to win an acting Oscar. It’s a way that few often go to get their glory, but is, in my mind, the best way to do it.
6. Give the Undisputed Best Performance of the Year
This trumps all five other rules. It doesn’t matter if you are a fat, crazy, old actor who has been nominated five previous times. If you’re competition gave the absolute, no questions asked, best performance of the year, then you don’t have a chance in the world. However this doesn’t happen very often, mostly because Hollywood is the most jealous place on earth and is so stingy with the compliments they’d probably hesitate to give props to Humphrey Bogart if he rose from the dead to cameo in a studio flick. But once in a while, an actor gives a performance that is so good, so right, so legendary, that it is criminal not to award them for it. It would be like Michael Jordan never winning an NBA championship. Or like Albert Einstein never getting a Nobel Prize. The historical performances must get due historical respect. Winning this way is hard, but critics usually make the difference. Roger Ebert said this about Charlize Theron in Monster: “This is one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.” When the top critics say this about you, and all the critics groups are giving you their awards, than you have achieved Rule Six. I wish we had one every year, but we don’t. We can’t. But I’m always on the lookout for them; those once in a blue moon performances that changes everything.
Here in my mind, are the recent Undisputed Best Performances of the Year:
- Charlize Theron – Monster (If you noticed, she also satisfied Be Fat and Be Ugly. There was nothing more she could do to help her chances. Not even dying.)
- Tom Hanks – Forrest Gump
- Anthony Hopkins – Silence of the Lambs
- Robert De Niro – Raging Bull
- Marlon Brando – The Godfather
- Jack Nicholson – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
You’ll notice too that these are always Best Actor performances, not Best Supporting. Also, don’t jump to the conclusion that Forest Whitaker is a lock just because he’s won all the awards lately. He did not give the undisputed best performance of the year. That goes to Helen Mirren. When even Meryl Streep says you’re gonna win, trust the 14-time Oscar nominee in Prada.
So those are the six golden rules for manipulating your way to Oscar gold. Here are five lesser-known rules that sometimes will guarantee you Oscar gold:
1. Be British
2. Be A Kooky Choice For Best Supporting Actor
3. Be in the Best Picture of the Year
4. Be A Real Person
5. Be Jack Nicholson
* We might also be close to a sixth rule of “Be Black”, but since I don’t want Rev. Jesse Jackson as an enemy, we’ll hold off until a Wayans Brother collects a golden boy.
If you use the six major rules to choose the winners on your Oscar ballot, and keep in mind the five lesser rules, you can’t go wrong.
Based on my theory, here are the likely Oscar winners:
– Best Actor: Peter O’Toole (Be Old, Be Snubbed, Be British)
– Best Actress: Helen Mirren (Be The Undisputed Best of the Year, Be British, Be Old),
– Best Supporting Actor: Eddie Murphy (Be Owed, Be Needed)
– Best Supporting Actress: Abigail Breslin (never underestimate the “Be A Kooky Choice For Best Supporting Actor”)