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How to win an Oscar

They may not exactly land you the golden baldie, but they help. 10 ways to impress the Academy.

entertainment Updated: Mar 06, 2010 23:22 IST
Rajeev Masand

It’s no secret. Oscars love the disabled. But there are rules to how far you can go.

In the uproarious comedy Tropic Thunder, respected method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) explains the code for playing disabled to action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) who complains about being left out of the Oscar party despite playing a mentally challenged ‘Simple Jack’.

Lazarus explains: “Everybody knows you never go full retard. Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man — look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump, slow yes, had braces on his legs, but charmed the pants off Nixon, and he won a ping-pong competition, that ain’t retarded. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard.”

The Academy’s weakness for certain kinds of films and roles is legendary. With tongue firmly in cheek, here’s a how-to guide to winning an Oscar.

Feature the disabled

Look down the annals of Oscar history and it’s a ‘who’s-got-what-handicap’ that always seems to make the cut. Past winners include Jamie Foxx (blind in Ray), Jack Nicholson (OCD in As Good As It Gets), Geoffrey Rush (mental illness in Shine), Al Pacino (blind in Scent of a Woman), Daniel Day Lewis (cerebral palsy in My Left Foot) and Cliff Robertson (mentally challenged in Charly).

Showy performances always score over the subtle. Case in point: The flak the Academy got for overlooking Tom Cruise’s simmering performance as the ‘normal’ brother in Rain Man, and rewarding Dustin Hoffman’s attention-grabbing turn instead.

Just play gay
When Sean Penn won the Oscar for playing slain gay senator Harvey Milk in 2009, he opened his acceptance speech by jokingly addressing the Academy as “You commie homo-loving sons-of-guns”.

That may have been a reference to the Academy’s recent affection for gay characters in film. Although Tom Hanks (in Philadelphia) was the only high-profile star before Penn to win an Oscar for his portrayal of an openly gay character, nominations have been aplenty.

Ian McKellan was nominated for playing a troubled filmmaker lusting after his gardener in 1998’s Gods & Monsters. Javier Bardem got a nod for his portrayal of gay Cuban poet Renaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls (2000).

This year, Colin Firth makes it to this list for his part as a lonely gay professor dealing with the death of his longtime companion in A Single Man.

And in 2005, both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal received nominations (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor respectively) for playing separated gay cowboys in Brokeback Mountain. Best Actor that year went to Philip Seymour Hoffman for his performance in Capote, as the legendary author Truman Capote — who, by the way, also happened to be openly gay.

Playing a person of another gender always grabs Oscar eyeballs.

In 2006, Felicity Huffman was nominated for her role as a transsexual on a road trip with her long-lost son in Transamerica. Hillary Swank even made the cut in 1999 when she nabbed Best Actress for playing out the real-life, gut-wrenching story of the murdered transgender man Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry.

Relive the holocaust
In an episode of the British TV comedy series Extras, Kate Winslet, playing a mock version of herself reveals why actors grab roles in Holocaust dramas: “I’ve noticed if you do a film about the Holocaust, you’re guaranteed an Oscar.”

The actress, ironically, won her first Oscar two years later for playing — yes, a Nazi guard in The Reader.

Steven Spielberg directed more than 15 successful films (including ET, Jaws, The Color Purple and Jurassic Park) before he finally won Best Director for Schindler’s List.

Ditto for the brilliant Roman Polanski, who, in a career spanning 55 years, won Best Director only once for The Pianist in 2003.

Even the ‘until-then-unknown-to-Hollywood’ Italian actor-director Roberto Benigni took home three Oscars in 1998 — including Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film — for his bittersweet Holocaust-themed film, Life Is Beautiful.

Acquire gravitas
When top-billed rom-com leads ditch the mush for some serious histrionics, the Academy is only too happy to respond.

America’s Sweetheart Julia Roberts scooped Best Actress in 2000 for her performance as a single mother of three who single-handedly brings down a power company accused of polluting a city’s water in Erin Brockovich.

Reese Witherspoon repeated the achievement in 2005 when the Legally Blonde star snagged the award for her solid performance as June Carter, the supportive wife of country musician Johnny Cash in Walk The Line.

This year, more than likely Sandra Bullock will prove that theory right when she wins for playing a well-intentioned Texan mom who adopts a homeless black teenager and turns him into a football star in The Blind Side.

Romantic comedies may set the cash registers ringing in a way that few films can, but when it comes to street-cred, the ladies have to prove they can do more than just flutter their lashes.

Get a body makeover
When Denzel Washington opened the envelope to announce the Best Actress in 2003, he said, “The winner, by a nose, is Nicole Kidman.”

Washington was referring to the prosthetic snout that made Kidman near-unrecognisable in her role as Virginia Woolf in The Hours and gave, what many Oscar pundits feel, the edge over that year’s favourite Renee Zellweger in Chicago.

Ditch the make-up and the Oscar jury will take notice.

Charlize Theron was any man’s pin-up girl, perfect in every way. Monster changed that. Theron had stringy blonde hair, piled on the pounds and wore prosthetic teeth for her role as bisexual serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

Halle Berry was stripped clean as a Plain Jane waitress who loses her son in Monster’s Ball.

Javier Bardem’s stare and drawl set him apart as a hit man in No Country For Old Men, but everyone remembers his ugly mullet.

When Bardem first saw himself in the hairdo for the movie, he reportedly remarked, “I’m not going to get laid for the next three months.” It got him the Oscar though.

Get personal and real
Bio-pics are fascinating. Everyone wants to see if the actor has succeeded in nailing the real-life person or not.

Right since Ben Kingsley took the Oscar for Gandhi in 1982 to this year’s nomination for Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus, the Academy has always leaned towards performances based on real-life politicians, royalty, authors, even serial killers.

Forrest Whitaker as Idi Amin (Last King Of Scotland), Meryl Streep as Julia Child (Julie & Julia), Will Smith as Mohammed Ali (Ali), Denzel Washington as Malcolm X (Malcolm X), Robert Downey Jr as Charles Chaplin (Chaplin), Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) and Anthony Hopkins (Nixon) both as ex-Prez Richard Nixon, Woody Harrelson as Larry Flynt (People Vs Larry Flynt), Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles (Ray), Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote (Capote) — we could go on and on.

The Oscars bow and scrape to the queens too — look at Judi Dench as Queen Victoria (Mrs Brown) and Lizzie the First (Shakespeare In Love), Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I (Elizabeth), and Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II (The Queen).

Rise from the ashes
Alcohol. Check. Drugs. Check. Spiral downwards. Check.

The Academy likes a loser, whether he’s the kind to rise above his weaknesses like a phoenix (Joaquin Phoenix in Walk The Line) or succumb to his vices (Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas).

Mickey Rourke had a comeback of sorts last year, playing Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson in The Wrestler, a fading star past his prime who decides, despite a heart attack, to get back into the ring. Randy’s efforts to reach out to his estranged daughter echo in this year’s hot nominee for Best Actor, Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. Blake too tries to make contact with his son, and where Randy’s relationship with a stripper gives him hope, Blake’s love affair with a journalist makes him reassess his career as a country singer.

Keep that laughter muffled
At the 79th Academy Awards, Will Ferrell, Jack Black and John C Reilly did a musical parody on how the Academy always seems to turn its nose up at comedy.

Ferrell sang: “A comedian at the Oscars, the saddest man of all/Your movie may make millions, but your name they’ll never call/ I guess you don’t like laughter, and a smile brings you down/A comedian at the Oscars is the saddest, bitterest, alcoholic clown.”

The Oscars don’t care for comedy.

Even though the Academy has expanded its Best Picture shortlist to 10 films this year, it found no love for one of 2009’s biggest hits and best-voted comedies ever, The Hangover. Even nominations for funny people come few and far between. The odd ones like Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie), Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Diary) and Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) stand out, but you can be sure they never make it to the finish line.

Throw in a professor
The Academy has always been a sucker for films about education and learning. Throw in a professor with an unorthodox way of teaching, or an educator who turns around the lives of a bunch of drifters and you have the Academy sitting up.

Robin Williams may have only received a nomination for playing the teacher who stands on top of his desk and addresses his class in Dead Poets Society, but he did take home the Oscar for inspiring Matt Damon’s Will to mathematical glory in Good Will Hunting.

Richard Dreyfuss and Ryan Gosling made it to the nominations with Dr Holland’s Opus and Half Nelson respectively, but Robert Donat was named Best Actor for his turn as the much-loved teacher in Goodbye Mr Chips.

And despite Eliza Dolittle singing “Just you wait Henry Higgins”, Rex Harrison received his only Academy Award for his performance as the arrogant, snotty Professor Henry Higgins who flushes out Eliza’s Cockney accent in My Fair Lady.

If everything else fails, take your clothes off
What’s common between Gwenyth Paltrow in Shakespeare In Love, Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Diane Lane in Unfaithful, Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler, Kate Winslet in The Reader, and good God, even Judi Dench in Iris?

They all took their kit off and landed either a nomination or the big prize itself.

“I like exposing myself. There’s not an awful lot that embarrasses me. I’m the kind of actress that absolutely believes in exposing myself,” Winslet has said about her nude turns in Titanic, Little Children, Iris and The Reader, all performances which the Academy took due notice of.

Nudies — they always score the goal.

Occasionally, taking their clothes off works for the men too — Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves (1990) and Viggo Mortenson for Eastern Promises (2007), being cases in point.

Celebrated filmmaker Christopher Nolan made light of it last year when he responded to Oscar’s snub of The Dark Knight.

Although the film was a multi-million dollar-grosser and one of the best reviewed films of the year, it was left out of the Best Picture and Best Director race. Nolan cheekily remarked that perhaps next time it might be a good idea to make Batman gay, and an alcoholic, and to set the film against a Holocaust backdrop.

If you still don’t win Mr Nolan, you could always get Batman to flash.

Rajeev Masand is Entertainment Editor and Film Critic at CNN-IBN