Is your mantelpiece missing that special statuette?
A guide to how to win an academy award in our current climate*
By Fiona, a contributor to The Stub.
*as deduced from the best actor/actress (both leading and supporting) and best picture winners of academy awards during the 90’s and noughties.
Oscar time is just around the corner..(yes, March is four months away but if you haven’t already made a film/acted in a film this year, then there’s not much time left). While you might scorn the choices made in the past by the academy awards panel of judges, there’s no avoiding the fact that a certain little golden man makes great dinner conversation (and I’m not referring to Midas). Something shiny will always catch the eye far better than a glowing reputation in the film world. And if you possess both, then you’ll certainly be more financially bankable. Every smart actor/actress and/or director should try and make at least one film which makes a stab at winning an oscar. If you do the research, it’s not as difficult as it might appear. Having had a bit of spare time, I took a look at the winnings of the past 15 or so years..and offer you a concise guide on how to win an oscar.
In order to win best actor/actress in a leading or supporting role:
1. Death – Always a winner
Play someone who dies at the end of the film. Remember to act decently so that the audience actually care that you’re dead. It doesn’t matter so much whether you die at the hands of another or just as a result of more accidental circumstances: either way is good.
e.g. Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine), Kevin Spacey (American Beauty), Martin Landau (Ed Wood), Tom Hanks (Philadelphia), Gene Hackman (Unforgiven), Kathy Bates (Misery), Denzel Washington (Glory).
Alternatively play someone who dies at the start but be careful to insure you get enough screen-time via flashbacks. If the film is of the horror/thriller persuasion then beware and be mindful of the following rhyme*:
Don’t jump to play the part
Of one who’s head departs
Their body and sheds ligaments
Within six short shoddy minutes
Of the crappy film’s start.
* used as a guide of sorts by many great actors/actress, like your wan in psycho who got killed at the start.
Directors and casting directors will generally cast one of two types of actors/actresses to play the character who dies early in a film: 1. an actor with previous credits in top notch movies 2. a low level C list celebrity or actor scraped off the scrummy crust of an underbudgeted television series. The former has a chance of a supporting actor oscar. The latter has a chance of playing a similar part again, possibly in a sequel if lady luck is in the vicinity.
e.g. Racheal Weiz (The Constant Gardener), Jack Palance (City Slickers).
A new strategy is also available. You can try to die at the start and at the end for added effect. It worked for Kevin Spacey (American Beauty). Admittedly it’s hard to find a script providing the opportunity for this. American Beauty 2 anyone?
If you don’t feel up to keeling over why not try playing someone who knows someone else who dies, and then you can spend the film dealing with the grief and/or trying to find out who killed them. Plenty of great acting is required to exhibit coming to terms with death.
e.g. Sean Penn (Mystic River), Halle Berry (Monsters Ball), Kevin Spacey (American Beauty), Technically Kevin Spacey wasn’t but, well…he was trying to find out who killed himself, or at least find out for the audience’s sake.
It’s important if you’re going to attempt this type of role to include a scene where one has an emotional breakdown and goes a little mad and screams. Nothing showcases talent quite like going temporarily nuts. See the plate throwing scene from Spacey, and Halle Berry going to bits in the hospital after her son dies. There’s a reason why they gave it their all.
2. A Political win
Play a political leader, ideally someone who isn’t much liked. If you find yourself playing a favourably portrayed politician then you’re probably in a celebratory documentary or a political party broadcast. And you won’t be winning anything. Well, except maybe an election.
e.g. Forrest Whitaker (Last King Of Scotland), Helen Mirren (The Queen), Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) also playing a queen.
3. Join the fringes of society.
Playing someone eccentric, odd, different is a very good choice of role…nobody wins an oscar for playing an ordinary guy or girl. The more personal affectations the better.
e.g. Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), Russell Crowe (Gladiator).
What? If a gladiator was around nowadays he would be so eccentric. An example of a possible exchange:
Random Observer: Hey man nice breastplate, I’d say people take a real shine to you-hey what the hell, that’s my arm, my freaking arm you cut off my arm! You’re crazy man, you should be locked up! I mean who does that!?”
Further e.g. Kevin Spacey (American Beauty): he was a bit unusual now, albeit mostly for being highly sarcastic and a little manic at times. Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry). Jack Nicholson (As Good as it gets): a bad case of OCD. Geoffrey Rush (Shine). Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspect): he had an adopted limp and a palsied hand. Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump). Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of The Lambs): he was er..a cannibal? Enough said. Kathy Bates (Misery): psycho. Joe Pesci (Goodfellas): Sociopath.
Play someone ill/disabled who must face the challenges this brings e.g. Tom Hanks (Philadelphia), Daniel Day Lewis (My Left Foot).
4. Ordinary – But a life less ordinary.
If you’re going to play a fairly ordinary character you have to be careful. Be someone who helps someone less than ordinary.
e.g. Morgan Freeman (Million dollar baby), Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting), Juliette Binoche (The English Patient).
You get bonus points if you’re married/attached/related to the extraordinary person.
e.g. Jim Broadbent (Iris), Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock), Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King), Brenda Fricker (My Left Foot).
If you not only hook up with them, but you inspire them too that’s even better
e.g. Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love).
Or if you inspire them to change
e.g. Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets)
Offering similar success is the role of a carer for someone who is ill (physically or mentally)
e.g. Juliette Binoche, Helen Hunt, Jennifer Connelly, Jim Broadbent, Marica Gay Harden as in all of the above. And… Kathy Bates (Misery).Granted she was the cause of her patient being footless, but…er..she meant well.
You can play an ordinary person independently but this is subject to certain criteria:
You must be funny and have an authentic, possibly amusing accent
e.g. Frances McDormand (Fargo). Jodie Foster (The Silence of The Lambs):Yeah, her country hick accent was fairly hilarious.
Or try to be a cop.
e.g. Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive), Frances McDormand (Fargo), Jodie Foster
(The Silence of The Lambs)
5. Fight for your right…to win!
Ah everyone loves a fighter. Possibly more so when they don’t hit people but either way is good. Play someone fighting against all the odds, and smack that bitch (or bastard…lets be PC about it now) up.
e.g. Hillary Swank. (Million Dollar Baby), Russell Crowe (Gladiator).
Or try fighting, ahem, “metaphorically” for the truth and for justice.
e.g. Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich), Frances McDormand (Fargo), Tom Hanks (Philadelphia), Jeremy Irons (Reversal of Fortune).
Or even just fighting for a house might work
e.g. Emma Thompson (Howards End).
There is an important thing to notice here about Julia Roberts’ win. She spent years playing the girlfriend/wife, the typical female support roles..nothing too taxing and parts which involved over use of her high watt smile. And then she played a feisty and strong willed, opinionated woman. A sudden change in role type can propel oneself into the running for an oscar faster than years of consistently gritty roles. Or consistently revered films (see Martin Scorsese and his long road to success).
6. It don’t matter if you’re good or bad, but it helps to be mad.
Have questionable morals i.e. be that character that some people in the room will be feeling sorry for or alternatively in awe of, while others are muttering under their breath “god what a f**king bastard”. Mix it up a bit y’know.
e.g. Michael Caine (The Cider House Rules), Jack Nicholson (As Good As It Gets), Gene Hackman (Unforgiven), Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of The Lambs), Joe Pesci, (Goodfellas).
Or have absolutely reality-defying, wonderful morals
e.g. Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful), Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump).
If you’re a lady, playing it a little (or very!) uneven keel will go down well. Be annoying, be very annoying.
e.g. Angelina Jolie (Girl, Interrupted), Jessica Lange (Blue Sky), Kathy Bates (Misery).
Important to remember – make sure to cause problems for your man
e.g. Jessica Lange (Blue Sky), Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny), Kathy Bates (Misery). She cut off his foot! He can’t walk!
If you’re a man, and can’t find any decent parts, well just try to play an annoying bastard.
e.g. Jack Nicholson (AGAIG), Al Pacino (The Scent of a Woman).
Or a corrupt cop of a bastard
e.g. Denzel Washington (Training Day).
Or a slightly wayward cop
e.g. Benicio Del Toro (Traffic).
7. Play the fame game.
Trick everyone and play the role of a famous and renowed actress/actor.
e.g. Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn (The Aviator).
Or play the role of someone making a living from looking like a famous actress (deep!).
e.g. Kim Basinger, (L.A. Confidential) looking like Veronica Lake.
Or just…play…an actress.
e.g. Dianne Wiest (Bullets Over Broadway).
8. Take music to heart.
Be unheard of and then do something most Hollywood actors attempt at some stage in their career i.e. sing passably well.
e.g. Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls).
Or even if you’re heard of (even if it just for moderate to awful roles)…just sing
e.g. Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line), Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful).
Try a double whammy -sing and dance.
e.g. Catherine Zeta Jones (Chicago)
Or….sing and play the piano.
e.g Jamie Foxx (Ray)
Don’t feel up to singing? Ah it’s not important. Just play the piano.
e.g. Adrian Brody (The Pianist), Jack Nicholson (AGAIG), Geoffrey Rush (Shine), Holly Hunter (The Piano).
9. Some successful professions to play.
A writer. But you have to struggle at least a little.
e.g. Chris Cooper (Adaptation), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), Jack Nicholson (AGAIG), Nicholas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas), Daniel Day Lewis (My Left Foot).
Or play a prostitute.
e.g. Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential), Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite).
10. Dress down for the occasion
Make yourself ugly and violent (works best if you’re a woman….)
e.g. Charlize Theron (Monster).
Make yourself ugly and get in a lot of scenes with someone who couldn’t be bothered to go to the effort of uglifing themselves.
e.g. Renée Zellweger (Cold Mountain).
Note to Renée: “uglifying” oneself doesn’t work in all films based on books unless they are gritty books set in unforgiving landscapes. Bridget Jones’ London is not unforgiving. The critics were though.
It’s hard to go the whole hog..but even making yourself a little bit ugly can prove a winning tactic.
e.g. Nicole Kidman (The Hours): That nose didn’t do much for her face. Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry): She played a guy, when she was actually a girl..talk about hiding ones figure. Holly Hunter (The Piano): One wooden finger equals one golden statuette.
And if all else fails…
Get caught up in the whole World War II, fascist regime thing
e.g. Adrian Brody, Roberto Benigni.
Just starting out in the acting world? Why not have a stab at playing the child of the person who wins best actor.
e.g. Anna Paquin (The Piano)
Or turn up in a film directed by Martin Scorsese or Clint Eastwood
So to give yourself the best possible chance of winning you should play an ex-cop who is now a poorly, eccentric, writer who plays the piano and cares for an ill relative who dies at the start of the film. Insert obligatory going crazy scene here. The resulting spiral into depression fuels a change in career and our character descends into the world of prostitution where s/he carves out a new life for her/himself, becomes annoying and opinionated, albeit somewhat less depressed. In fact, s/he becomes sufficiently un-depressed enough to be able to fight for the rights of piano-playing prostitutes, via a high profile boxing match followed by a protest march. After the resultant brief spell as a self publicised political figure, our character dies. During world war II. And even though the film is set in modern times, s/he did not, I repeat, did not travel back in time via a time machine in order to take part in world war II. Because sci-fi or any of that jazz doesn’t win Oscars.
Strange wins which don’t seem to fit the bill include Cuba Gooding Jnr..How did he win for playing a sports star?
Susan Sarandon playing a nun in Dead Man Walking
Whoopi Goldberg playing a ghost in Ghost.
And Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy.
In order to win best picture:
It goes without saying that a film which features some of the characters mentioned above will certainly be on the right track. But don’t overload your film. Mix and match some of the themes/characters/props prone to appearing in award winning films. This is important so as to avoid accusations of “re-hashing” and even “re-heating” old classics. These remarks will be usually vented by directors who unintentionally made a film about a snail called Derek, played by Adam Sandler and decided it would be more interesting not to use special effects but rather, some old socks instead. They’re just upset because they won’t win anything. Don’t let them drag you down. Read on for success!
A. Make sure your film showcases some authentic accents. Proper ones like those in The Departed, Chicago…and Lord Of The Rings – Return of The King.
Who would dare argue that it wasn’t authentic Orc-speak? Everyone knows Hobbits and Wizards are British and that some Elves hail from the U.S.A.
Other films flaunting an array of accents include Braveheart. Most of them had Scottish accents, and there was a French one in there too..kudos!. And lastly, Unforgiven.
B. Make a film about someone eccentric and, if possible, famous. With an unusual or recognisable accent. e.g. A Beautiful Mind, Shakespeare in Love, Forrest Gump, The Silence of The Lambs.
C. Everyone knows it’s a challenge to get everyone singing and dancing in time. Do this (without having to admit to any of your cast that they are, in fact, not the love child of Ginger Rogers and Pavorotti – urgh), and success is on its way e.g. Chicago.
D. Make sure you include plenty of different social classes e.g. lower class, upper class (Titantic, Crash) or even Hobbits, Trolls, Elves. Or Emperors, slaves..er..gladiators. Increase the likelihood of such variation by having several interweaving stories e.g Crash, LOTR, American Beauty. Throw a couple of cops in with the mix (they form a class of their own). Or sprinkle on the Orcs…the corrupt cops of Middle Earth.
E. Make a film with a fight in it, and then the build up to the fight can fill up the rest of the film. e.g. Million Dollar Baby, LOTR, Gladiator, Braveheart, Unforgiven, Dances with Wolves.
F. For safety include some of the following:
1)drugs e.g. American Beauty. LOTR (Lembas bread? a strange bread that gives strength to those who eat it..hah..).
2) swords e.g. LOTR, Braveheart, Gladiator, Shakespeare in Love
3) cops as main characters e.g. Crash, The Departed, American Beauty.
G. A dysfunctional family is always a good choice of central theme e.g. American Beauty.
H. Have your main character get killed at the end e.g. Gladiator, American Beauty, The Departed (all of them..oh dear), Titanic. Specifically, try and see can you kill off Leonardo Di Caprio at the end. It worked for Scorsese and Cameron. Guess Hollywood wants him dead.
I. Have one of your main characters get naked e.g. American Beauty, Titanic. But be careful. This must a bearing-of-ones-soul via nakedness type of affair. Not just regular nakedness. If everyone gets naked but for the purpose of illustrating that they are poor and don’t have clothes, then that might be ok. If the nakedness involves the displaying of less than attractive bumpy/hairy bits, then you’re entering art-house territory (sorry, but it won’t win any academy awards..although maybe if you try getting naked in a different language you’ll have a chance in the “film in a foreign language” section). If there is just entering in general and strategic underwear, then you might be back on track for winning an award. But maybe not in the most revered category. But, how bad.
J. Base your film around World War II e.g. The English Patient, Schlinders List. Or any war might work e.g. Forrest Gump. Dances with Wolves. Get a war in there somewhere.
K. Base your film on a book. Wait, not just any book. A good book. e.g. The English Patient, LOTR, A Beautiful Mind, Forrest Gump, Schlinders List, The Silence of The Lambs, Dances with Wolves.
In theory therefore, in order to win an oscar for best picture you need to make a film about an eccentric character coming from a dysfunctional family who never seemed to quite fit in anywhere. They find their purpose in life by leading a band of other characters (from different social backgrounds and with a range of exciting accents), into battle against…ahem, well it’s not really important. The important thing is that after winning the battle, the main character expresses his/her joy at victory by stripping off and “baring their soul”. And having bonded through the hardships of battle, the characters decide to form a cabaret group which performs on Tuesday nights. They acquire moderate fame and there is some controversial “taking of drugs”. Eventually the main character, who is definitely played by Leonardo DiCaprio, dies as a result of an ambitious drug fuelled dance routine which required him to dance on a spinning plate balanced precariously on a stick. This film has almost 100% chance of winning. Especially if it is described as “gritty” and “moving” by several respected critics.
Alright so, you have the guidelines. There’s no excuse for failure. But for all the rules there are exceptions. For example, Blood Diamond as a film nodded in all the right directions. It killed Leo at the end, included a fight for justice and fairness and there were some cops in there too. There was an abundance of drug taking, fractured families and physical warfare. The mistake it made was not including any dance routines and nudity. But it’s hard to get it exactly right isn’t it? Good luck and see you at the Oscars in March!