The Pajiba Guide on How To Win An Oscar
We’re coming in on the home stretch of that never-ending joy/agony that is awards season. We love it, we hate it, we’re addicted but we kind of want to burn it all into the ground. This is a year that has immense potential to change the game and create a paradigm shift of what viewers, critics and the industry see as ‘prestige cinema’. It also comes with the chance that we may just end up doing what we always do and picking the ‘meh’ film as a weak consensus vote. You know, democracy and all that. Yet we’re not quite finished with this dog and pony show. The biggest precursor awards have been handed out and we seem to have our major front-runners - Gary Oldman’s got Oscar polish on standby and Guillermo del Toro’s looking for shelf space next to all his jars of wolfman foetuses — but, as William Goldman once said, nobody knows anything.
Well, that’s not entirely true. We know that there are specific ways people work in order to have the best chance of winning one of these things. We have a long, sordid and cringe-worthy history of classy begging, dirty tactics, and flushing money down the toilet in the hopes that the majority of 6000 or so voters will like you the most. Awards season and its campaigning isn’t just a year-round full-time job: It’s practically a way of life. It has to be for an industry that’s suffered severe downturns in audience attendances, under-performing tentpole blockbusters, and the questionable reliability of international box offices. A film like The Shape of Water or Lady Bird isn’t going to break the top 10 highest grossing movies of the year any time soon. But mighty indie success, bolstered by awards prestige, gives studios enough confidence to keep telling stories that aren’t part of a 16-movie expanded franchise superhero saga.
We at Pajiba love and appreciate our commenters, and we’re sure a few of you are on the way to Oscar success in the future. We may have the next Tom Hooper, Eddie Redmayne or Three-Six Mafia in our midst. With that in mind, we’ve decided to offer you a few tongue-in-cheek tips on how you can secure that much coveted little gold man who’s holding a sword and not something dirty, you perverts. It’ll be a long, hard road, but we believe in you.
STEP ONE: PICK THE RIGHT PROJECT
There’s a reason we think of certain movies as ‘Oscar bait’. It’s an unfair term and one that’s used more dismissively than positively, but it does highlight a certain mindset we have about awards and what gets to be prestigious in those cinematic terms. The Academy loves stories of adversity being overcome, preferably set to John Williams music; They love splashy costume dramas where you can practically smell the money coming off the intricately sewn gowns; They love boxing movies, especially if they’re based on real life sportsmen; They especially adore stories about Hollywood and acting and how art makes everything better. Don’t go too experimental because that’s confusing and those jackass ‘brutally honest Oscar voters’ won’t get it. Find a nice, solid British director who doesn’t go in for all that auteur flair. Make sure you have a chance to truly show off. Speaking of showing off…
STEP TWO: DO ALL OF YOUR ACTING
Subtle performances can win you an Oscar. It is possible to be restrained and quiet and have the skill that requires be appreciated by the Academy. But do you really want to risk your chances on that? Go big or stay home and watch Eddie Redmayne win from your couch. Get those big, show-stopping speeches, scream and shout and do all your snotty crying, and make sure everyone knows about that one body movement class you took in college. Doing big, Oscar-beloved performances ties back to step one and picking the right project: If you’re in that boxing drama, make sure you do all your own boxing; don’t allow a dance double to take credit for your hard work in that razzle dazzle musical; and never have your singing voice dubbed over, even if you suck, because you can claim that gritty realism was the whole point. Eat that bison liver, dammit! For all that, you’ll need a role that offers a full deck of capital A-Acting. That brings us to…
STEP THREE: BE A PRIVILEGED PERSON WHO PLAYS A MARGINALIZED MINORITY OR WHITE SAVIOUR
You know what Hollywood loves more than stories of overcoming oppression? Stories of overcoming oppression where the hero is a white dude. I wouldn’t say the entertainment industry is any more blatantly bigoted than the rest of society, but their visibility helps to magnify the systemic issues at the heart of our world. When Driving Miss Daisy wins Best Picture in the year Do the Right Thing didn’t even get nominated, that tells us exactly how a system run mostly by old white dudes wants to view itself. This can also manifest in other ways, like stories of disabled people where actors without disabilities get to show off how ‘brave and skilled’ they are for using a wheelchair for 90 minutes. A transgender actor has never been nominated for an Oscar, but plenty of cisgender people have donned dresses or bound their breasts to play trans and cashed in glorious results for it. It’s all about that transformation. As we said in step two, nothing makes the Academy more excited than when they can see every iota of your acting. That involves physical transformations too. Anything that allows you to talk at length on Hollywood Reporter round-tables about how hard you worked and how difficult it was for you to embody those poor minorities, but it’s all okay because it made you a stronger person.
STEP FOUR: BE WHITE
I mean, let’s be honest, the Academy is racist. That is changing somewhat, with plans to have gender and racial parity in their membership by 2020, but progress in Hollywood has always been maddeningly incremental. When actors of colour actually win Oscars, it tends to be for roles that are limited in scope by how the industry prefers to see them. Think of how black actors win for playing slaves, maids, jezebels or ‘thugs’. Denzel Washington doesn’t win for Malcolm X because that’s a film that forces white people to deal with their own racist culpability and to watch the story of a man who doesn’t meet their smudged image of how civil rights leaders should act. He does win for Glory and Training Day (generally speaking, your chances are also far better if your film is written and directed by white people).
STEP FIVE: GET A DECEMBER RELEASE DATE
This one is not as set in stone as it used to be, praise be, but it’s still the preferred tactic for any distributor hoping to bait the Academy voters. The origins of this release date shuffle can be found in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, a film that’s brilliant but often impossibly brutal to watch. Cimino went over schedule and over budget, making things even harder for Universal Pictures. The producers knew they had a tough sell on their hands, so they decided to use the Oscars as a promotional vehicle for the film rather than an endgame after months in cinemas. So they screened it for a brief period in New York and Los Angeles at the tail end of the year, catering specifically to the Academy, and it worked. Cue a Best Picture and Best Director sweep, and suddenly the film is on the tip of everyone’s tongues. This tactic was perfected in the 90s thanks to accused serial rapist Harvey Weinstein and Miramax, but basically every studio followed suit once they saw how effective it was.
STEP SIX: CAMPAIGN
There are actors and such who have won Oscars without having to go through all the seemingly required hoop jumping. Mark Rylance didn’t do a drop of campaigning for Bridge of Spies and he managed to snatch Best Supporting Actor up from Sylvester Stallone, the apparent front-runner who mounted a major campaign to win. However, these instances are rare. Being a good actor isn’t enough. Hell, sometimes you don’t even need to be a good actor, you just need the illusion of greatness. The Academy has incredibly skewed notions of supposed gratefulness, and they like to be pandered to on that front. So you’d better attend every party and make sure people know how much you want to win that award. Climb every mountain, kiss every arse. Get your agent to hustle so hard that you land every magazine cover, every round-table spot, every prestigious interview where you talk about what an honour it is to be an actor. Make sure you’re really good at giving speeches too. The Academy love to celebrate that.
But here’s the thing: You have to want it, but you can’t actually say you want it. The Academy want you to be grateful, not desperate, and naked ambition is such a turn-off for some reason. You need to walk that weird line between playing it cool and being the most frenetic dancing monkey this side of the Moscow State Circus. Everyone needs to know you want an Oscar, but you also have to keep insisting that you’re just honoured to be nominated. Really, it doesn’t matter if I win, I’m just thrilled to be among such incredible company, and it’s more about the craft of acting than the awards.
STEP SEVEN: IF YOU’VE BEEN ACCUSED OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT, GET YOUR PRODUCERS TO KEEP THAT QUIET AND MAKE SURE NO MAJOR PUBLICATION ASKS ABOUT IT OR PAINTS YOU AS A BAD GUY, THEN WHEN YOU WIN, MAKE SURE YOU DON’T TURN UP THE FOLLOWING YEAR TO PRESENT THE BEST ACTRESS AWARD IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BIGGEST MOVEMENT AGAINST GENDER INEQUALITY HOLLYWOOD HAS EVER SEEN
Now, you can go forth and make sure people like you, they really really like you. And you’d better thank us all in your speech or we’ll drag you to Kingdom come.