Oscar nominations 2011: The red-carpet road to stardom

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011; 10:54 PM

When the Academy Award nominations for Best Actress and Best Actor are announced on Tuesday, chances are good they will include an assortment of bona fide celebrities (Natalie Portman! Come on down!) and barely known ingenues (who's Jennifer Lawrence again?).

But whether the nominees are household names or virtual unknowns, one thing is certain: The Oscar ceremony, as well as the months-long campaign trail leading up to it, is likely to cement the stardom of those actors far more firmly than the movies themselves.

Consider: The 10 highest-grossing movies of 2010 were either animated family films such as "Toy Story 3" and "How to Train Your Dragon" or franchise tent poles such as "Twilight: Eclipse" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" - none of them driven by or dependent on stars to lure filmgoers.

Even movies with stars - "Iron Man 2," "Alice in Wonderland" - arguably made their millions not from the presence of Robert Downey Jr. or Johnny Depp alone but thanks to their pre-sold stories and special effects. "Inception" wasn't a Leonardo DiCaprio movie as much as a trippy mind journey by the guy who directed "The Dark Knight."

Meanwhile, such mainstream star vehicles as "The Tourist," "How Do You Know" and the Russell Crowe movies "Robin Hood" and "The Next Three Days" underperformed at the box office, proving like "Duplicity" and "State of Play" before them that stars can no longer be counted on to put tushies in seats simply by virtue of their high-wattage presence.

Chances are fair to certain that no one from those movies will hear their names called Tuesday morning. Instead, if and when Portman is nominated, it will be for "Black Swan," a lurid, visually stunning backstage melodrama-cum-horror film. Should Annette Bening receive a nod, it will be for the small-scale family comedy "The Kids Are All Right." Lawrence, widely favored to be this year's newcomer pick, will be recognized for her assured breakout performance in the tiny "Winter's Bone." If Christian Bale receives his first-ever nomination, it will not be for playing Batman, but for playing a scrappy crack addict in the equally lean and mean drama "The Fighter." If Nicole Kidman receives her third invitation to the big dance, it won't be for an animated film like her biggest box-office hit ("Happy Feet") or the budget-busting extravaganza "Australia," but for the character-driven domestic drama "Rabbit Hole."

All of these movies had modest budgets, and most are well on their way to recouping those budgets in multiples at the box office. Still, compared to the "Despicable Me's" and "Avatars" of the world, a relatively small number of people will have seen them even if they do make money.

With fewer people actually watching them in movies, stars are increasingly deploying their fame, glamour and mass appeal not on-screen but during awards season, the culmination of which is the Academy Awards ceremony itself. For the past few months, Portman, Bale, Michelle Williams and Colin Firth have dutifully shown up at critics' dinners, guild events, Academy lunches and even the ad hoc Friars Club Roast that was this year's Golden Globes, looking their best, giving gracious speeches and exuding the kind of star power that, in movies at least, seems to be on the wane. By the time the Oscars roll around, they've enjoyed months of visibility and press attention that solidify their importance in an entertainment culture increasingly oriented toward special effects, animation and un-star-driven franchises.

And, as this year's crop of likely nominees aptly illustrates, stars are still important, at least to the small films that leverage awards season to gain traction in a crowded market. "Repeat after me," Variety executive editor Steven Gaydos recently commented in the online column Hollywood Elsewhere. "Awards season exists to give movies that don't cost $200 million to make and $100 million to market a chance to recoup, so more of the movies that don't cost $200 million to make and $100 million to market can get made. It's called 'specialty film marketing.' "

Such likely Oscar nominees as "Black Swan," "The Fighter," "The King's Speech," "True Grit" and "The Kids Are All Right" - as well as outliers such as "Rabbit Hole" and "Blue Valentine" - were all made for budgets well south of $100 million. And all have earned back - and sometimes multiplied - their modest-to-minuscule budgets, largely thanks to their stars' game attendance at a succession of press interviews and awards ceremonies. In return, the actors get to do challenging work in substantive movies - and show Hollywood and fans at home that they still matter.

That exchange has led more actors to consider doing the kind of small, low-budget movies they once would have struggled to leave behind them like bad waitressing jobs. "Where historically it's been a challenge to get people to read for indie movies with newer directors, now there's a real willingness," UTA talent agent David Flynn recently told the Hollywood Reporter. Actors see the kind of leverage Lawrence gets from "Winter's Bone" or Williams and Ryan Gosling get from "Blue Valentine," and "more than ever actors are telling [their agents], 'I want to do that,' " he said.

Gaydos points to "The Town" as precisely the kind of film that illustrates how awards season can help mint a star or reinvent a working actor as one. "Jeremy Renner spent a dozen years toiling in forgettable movies and on TV," he says. "Then he did a little specialty film called 'The Hurt Locker' [for which he was nominated for an Oscar] and backed it up with 'The Town.' Now he's doing 'Mission: Impossible.' " Similarly, Lawrence has already signed on to play Mystique in the upcoming "X-Men: First Class," and recent indie "it" girl Greta Gerwig can currently be seen in the mainstream comedy "No Strings Attached" alongside Ashton Kutcher.

"I think actors have got to do both, if they're smart," says Bob Berney, president of distribution for the studio FilmDistrict and a longtime specialty film marketer. With studios making fewer films and hiring fewer stars in the ones they do make, he says, "there's not the constant, continuing [trend of a] bigger and bigger payday. You've got to alternate."

If this year's favorite to win the Supporting Actor Oscar winds up with a statue in hand on Feb. 27, that approach can hereafter be known as the Christian Bale Career Plan.

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