Oscar nominees take a page from politics' script in stumping for awards votes

Mo'Nique, a Golden Globe winner for "Precious," was slow to play the game.
Mo'Nique, a Golden Globe winner for "Precious," was slow to play the game. (Lucy Nicholson - Reuters)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

(Photos of Mo'Nique and other stars walking the Red Carpet at the 2010 Oscars)

At last year's Sundance Film Festival, when the comedian-actress Mo'Nique was first seen as the shockingly violent mother in the drama "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," her performance immediately won praise as Oscar-worthy. But as "Precious" made its way along the festival circuit, Mo'Nique was a no-show, choosing not to join co-stars Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz in promotional appearances.

In November, on her late-night BET talk show, she dared to question, at a time when Hollywood marketing gurus have increasingly come to resemble campaign managers, why she should politic for an Oscar at all: "The performance is on the screen! At what point am I still trying to prove something?" she said. When she later declined to attend the New York Film Critics Circle awards dinner, observers began wondering whether Mo'Nique was risking her chance at an Oscar.

Since then, Mo'Nique (who grew up as Monique Imes in suburban Baltimore) has gone on to deliver heartfelt and humble remarks while picking up trophies for best supporting actress at the Broadcast Film Critics Association ceremony, the Golden Globes and SAG Awards. The actress now seems a shoo-in to be among the Academy Award nominees who will be announced Tuesday morning. And she seems to have grasped a fundamental film-world truth: The promotional is political.

"Only a fool would not recognize that there's a political process to Hollywood and to awards shows and to positioning and lobbying," says Michael Levine, a veteran Hollywood publicist. "You're naive to the point of foolishness if you don't recognize the political process. And I'll tell you who does recognize it: people who win."

If the big Oscars broadcast March 7 is akin to election night, the awards preceding it are the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses. Just as candidates in political primary season gather momentum and project inevitability, the four major acting awards appear to be, after many well-managed wins, locked-up: Jeff Bridges ("Crazy Heart") and Sandra Bullock ("The Blind Side") as favorites to win Best Actor and Actress, with Christoph Waltz ("Inglourious Basterds") and Mo'Nique as their counterparts in the supporting categories.

Refining her message

Bullock, an area native, clearly comprehends the red-carpet realpolitik. When she received a Critics' Choice award for best actress last month, sharing the honor with Meryl Streep, Bullock was visibly shocked. She engaged in a bit of feigned umbrage, planted a huge kiss on Streep's lips, and went on to say, "It is a great honor to be in the company of the extraordinary women I was so lucky to be nominated with, because this one here inspired me to do everything better."

The kiss, which quickly went viral online, was admittedly a little out there. But by the time Bullock won the Golden Globe two days later, she was more composed, graciously thanking the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for allowing her to "go over to the other side" from comedy to drama, thanking "The Blind Side's" director and crew (including the hair and make-up artists and costume designer), thanking her family -- in German and English, no less -- and finally, tearing up slightly, thanking her husband, whom she credited with making her work better in recent years.

A week later, when Bullock won the Screen Actors Guild award, she greeted her audience with a combination of humor ("If this were only not televised, so I could use the appropriate words I'm feeling right now") and solemnity ("I am Sandra Bullock, and I am an actor"), before humbly admitting that she decided to stop working six years ago "because I wasn't doing good work" and then thanking her fellow actors to allow her "to audition again." (Although Oscar nominations were finalized on the same day as the SAG awards, the guild recognition will still count in March; actors make up the largest voting block of the Motion Picture Academy.)

The target audience

Much like political candidates subtly tweaking their stump speeches to appeal to whatever constituency they happen to be addressing, Bullock, Mo'Nique and their colleagues must be attuned to each audience as they run the awards gauntlet.

"If you're speaking at the Globes, you're speaking to the international audience," said one studio publicist, who, like other Hollywood marketing specialists contacted for this article, declined to be identified in order to preserve relationships with his clients. "With SAG, you're speaking to your fellow actors. With the Broadcast Film Critics, you're speaking to the critics. And if you're speaking to the Academy, you're speaking to the greater film community."

In every instance, this publicist said, nominees and winners should never forget that they're part of a marketing campaign for the movie that got them there: "Staying on message is really key."

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