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The Red Carpet Campaign

Inside the singular hysteria of the Academy Awards race.


Quentin Tarantino being interviewed before the Critics' Choice Awards, in L.A.  

Portfolio by Brigitte Lacombe

The crowd inside Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on January 9 is awaiting what is being billed as “An Evening With Jeff Bridges.” And officially, that’s how things are going to unfold: A brief set of highlights from the actor’s 40-year career will unspool, after which Bridges will take the stage for a Q&A, to be followed by a screening of his 1971 breakthrough, The Last Picture Show. It’s all been skillfully designed to permit film buffs to pretend that they are not participating in an Oscar campaign. The only problem is, nobody’s buying it, least of all the audience, which fills the air with gossip about the Academy Awards chances of Bridges’s new film, Crazy Heart.

“This is all part of his Oscars push,” the woman behind me tells her friend. “If Jeff Bridges weren’t in the running, I would be all for Colin Firth for A Single Man. But it’s Jeff’s turn.”

“Did you see Brothers?” her friend ventures. “Tobey Maguire in that movie made me cry.”

“It’s not his turn.”

“But he was wonderful!”

“It’s not his turn.”

“Is that the way it works?”

“In my mind it works that way.”

It would be fun to report that the nominations for this year’s Academy Awards, which were announced February 2, were the result of brilliant maneuvering or diabolically clever stratagems, of masterstrokes and counterthrusts carefully planned in studio war rooms. But despite often justifiable skepticism about the process, Oscar nominations—one of which, of course, went to Bridges—can’t be bought. Not exactly, anyway. There is a reason why they call the run-up period to the Academy Awards the “Oscar campaign.” It is, to use a familiar analogy, like an election, with an electorate of 5,777 people (the size of McKenzie County, North Dakota), unwilling to be influenced by anything but their own opinions, yet still, perhaps, more swayable than they’d like to admit. There is no war room, per se, but there are early front-runners that fade, grassroots insurgencies, even primaries. Ultimately, most of the nominees emerge from a combination of good planning, good movies, and good luck: Crazy Heart’s distributor, Fox Searchlight, had the smarts first to acquire the film in July, and then, when it sensed an opening in this year’s Best Actor field, to accelerate its release from the spring of 2010 to December. The gambit was shrewd; writer-director Scott Cooper’s small-scale debut, in which Bridges plays a country singer seeking redemption, opened to strong reviews just as some of Bridges’s potential competitors (Nine’s Daniel Day-Lewis and The Lovely Bones’ Mark Wahlberg) were cratering with critics.

That Bridges gives a beautifully lived-in, eminently praiseworthy performance in Crazy Heart wasn’t just important; it was crucial. But it’s also not enough. And that’s where an Oscar campaign comes in. No effort or expense can make any of the Academy’s members vote for an actor, director, or screenplay they don’t like. But what a smart Oscar campaign (like a successful political campaign) can do is to make someone or something part of a larger story, and Crazy Heart had a good one to tell: Bridges, a well-liked frequent nominee who just turned 60, has never won an Oscar. In other words, it’s his turn.

A good Oscar narrative makes voters feel that, by writing a name on a ballot, they’re completing a satisfying plotline. Only a few of these stories are effective, and every campaign season, movies scramble to own them. The best are reused year after year: for example, The Little Movie That Could, the tale of a low-budget indie, a David among studio Goliaths, that often appeals to voters who hate Hollywood’s bigger-is-better aesthetic. Searchlight (which, as an arm of 20th Century Fox, hardly qualifies as an underdog) has worked this for years—first with Little Miss Sunshine, then Juno, then last year’s Slumdog Millionaire. This year, however, that story line was grabbed early by Lionsgate for Lee Daniels’s Precious, which also claimed an appealing narrative for acting contenders, The Cinderella Story, thanks to its first-time star, Gabourey Sidibe.

It’s no accident that all the movies that lead this year’s newly expanded ten-film Best Picture race have seized other, equally useful Oscar-season story lines. There’s always a tussle over The Movie That Speaks to This Moment: Last year, Milk had it from the day Proposition 8 passed in California, and this year, Jason Reitman’s layoff-era tragicomedy Up in the Air edged out both The Hurt Locker (Look! Finally, an Iraq War movie that works!) and Avatar (Look! It’s antiwar and pro-environment!) for that label. Each of those movies also boasts an Oscar narrative: Kathryn Bigelow could be the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar, giving The Hurt Locker The Chance to Make History, while Avatar gets to be The Big Gamble That Paid Off as well as, of course, The Popular Favorite.

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