What shall we tell Oscar?

Culture

30 Nov 2014

It’s close to midnight on a Saturday evening in September at the Hudson hotel in Manhattan and spirits at the party for the new movie Birdman are soaring. The film, which is directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu of 21 Grams and Babel fame and stars Michael Keaton as a washed-up superhero actor who cracks up while appearing in a Broadway play, had premiered earlier that day at the New York Film Festival. The response reinforced the perception that Birdman is a serious contender for glory at the Oscars.

Michael Keaton is catching up with his family while his co-star Edward Norton is bonding with fellow actor Bradley Cooper. A publicist for Birdman’s distributor Fox Searchlight I meet is beside herself. ‘The critics love Iñárritu’s twisted narrative on how life might have imitated art for Keaton,’ she proclaims. (Keaton played Batman twice, and declined a third go in 1991.)

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman
Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

As in business and media, storytelling becoming increasingly important for Oscar contenders — the public relations kind, not the on-screen kind. The hard sell is repeated over the course of a six-month million-dollar artistic arms race that revolves around a flurry of premières, parties, lunches and screenings to help sway voters’ decisions on who should get the golden statuettes come 22 February.

Bumble Ward, a leading British publicist in Hollywood whose Hive Collective consults on studio Oscar campaigns, testifies to the increasing importance of the Oscar narrative. ‘There is something charming or compelling about a nominee who doesn’t have a narrative and is genuinely happy to be there,’ she says. ‘But the narrative shapes the story and when repeated, it’s what people take away. In the cacophony of social media coverage, the most compelling story wins.’

Just as a dwindling band of voters read manifestos when they vote at a general election, reputedly a diminishing number of the 5,600 voting members of the Academy — their average age is 63 — see films in their entirety on the increasing number of DVD screeners they get sent. Therefore, how you act on the campaign trail is becoming as important as the performance that puts you in the running in the first place.

A Hollywood publicist illustrates British actors’s inferiority at selling themselves for Oscars with an example from last year. ‘Of course Chiwetel Ejiofor should have won Best Actor last year for 12 Years a Slave,’ she says. ‘But Matthew McConaughey had a compelling comeback story and endeared himself to voters when he did things like recreate his chest-thumping exploits from The Wolf of Wall Street at an Oscars lunch at the Monkey Bar. Matthew mapped out a winning personal journey while Chiwetel amiably discussed the quality of his film. That’s not enough to win.’

This time around, urbane Londoner Eddie Redmayne is a leading contender to succeed McConaughey as the Best Actor Oscar winner for his affecting performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

New York PR supremo Peggy Siegal, who has turned the Oscar promotional event into an art form, has organised a lunch for the film at the Upper East Side’s Lotos Club. Redmayne and Felicity Jones, who portrays Jane Hawking, are irreverently interviewed onstage by Stephen Daldry. Redmayne’s fiancée and parents are in attendance to hear him place a different gloss on stories about Hawking that I first heard him tell at the film’s world première at the Toronto Film Festival.

The relentless campaign is not boring him yet, Redmayne tells me afterwards: ‘What I love about this film is there are many different sides to talk about… Normally on film junkets you get bored after the first few interviews, but thus far it’s been an interesting one to talk about.’

Brits have been proudly doing things our own way throughout cinematic history. Initially, we were sniffy towards the Academy Awards. Tony Richardson refused to collect his Best Director Award for Tom Jones in 1964 on the grounds that he stopped attending prizegiving ceremonies at school. This was Frederic Raphael’s response to winning a Best Screenplay Oscar for Darling in 1966, as recorded in his diary Personal Terms: ‘Leslie Bricusse called from California, at seven in the morning, to tell me that I had won the Oscar for Darling. I had not lain awake wondering if I would and I was not all that delighted to be woken with the news.’

But since the early 1980s we have embraced the Oscars, epitomised by Colin Welland’s declaration that ‘The British are coming’ when he won the Best Screenplay Oscar for Chariots of Fire in 1982. Arrive we duly did with Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Daniel Day-Lewis, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Irons and Rachel Weisz among those winning Oscars in recent times. But could it have been even more? In the last three decades, for example, Brits have landed 32 Best Actress nominations, winning three times.

What accounts for the ratio not being higher? Our actors are more interesting, witty, unconventional and unpredictable on the promotional circuit. In other words they are themselves. As a campaign strategy, to be yourself is as admirable as it is awards-adverse. Take Kristin Scott Thomas’s response when she was once asked what she was wearing at an awards ceremony in 2009 while promoting a brilliant performance in I’ve Loved You So Long: ‘My skin.’

Or take Mike Leigh who is this year in the running, along with lead actor Timothy Spall, for his Mr. Turner. The academy has always rated Leigh, awarding him seven nominations, but were publicity-shy Leigh to act more the American way, he might have won an Oscar by now.

When I met Steve Coogan on the Oscars campaign trail last year for Philomena he was mindful of his conduct. ‘It’s like a political campaign,’ he said. ‘You go from place to place being told to shake hands with that person… It’s as much about not making mistakes and avoiding banana skins as anything else.’

Bumble Ward attributes our unease to national mores. ‘It’s still bad manners to be too proud of yourself,’ she says. ‘Brits have to be coaxed into it a little bit more — there’s a certain reticence and an idea that it’s somehow beneath us and distasteful to campaign.’ Across the pond it’s different. Another prominent publicist, speaking on condition of anonymity, notes, ‘If Sienna [Miller for her performance in American Sniper] and Matthew [Goode for The Imitation Game] don’t get nominated, it will be because a bomb goes off every time Sienna enters the room and Matthew says what he thinks which often gets him in trouble.’

‘It does seem absolutely appalling that if you don’t play the game, you don’t get rewarded,’ adds Ward. ‘I think it still is that way.’  Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch may generate acclaim in the next few months and boost their profiles blazing the Oscars campaign trail but, until our actors become better politicians, Britmen will continue losing to Birdmen.


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