Monday 11 December 2017

Oscars victory often down to who runs sharpest campaign

Behind the hopes and the headlines, political-style crusades strive in the background to push films, writes Meadhbh McGrath

BLAH-BLAH LAND: If ‘La La Land’ sweeps the boards at tonight’s Academy Awards, it could mean a tedious run of repetitive speeches, so we’ll be hoping for some surprises. Photo: Dale Robinette
BLAH-BLAH LAND: If ‘La La Land’ sweeps the boards at tonight’s Academy Awards, it could mean a tedious run of repetitive speeches, so we’ll be hoping for some surprises. Photo: Dale Robinette

Meadhbh McGrath

Heading into tonight's Academy Awards, the biggest question is: how big will La La Land be? Up for 14 prizes, can it beat Titanic, Ben-Hur and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which each won 11, to become the greatest Oscar victor ever?

It's possible Damien Chazelle's musical could set an Oscars record, but it won't be an easy ride. Sadly, it's all but guaranteed to triumph over the Irish nominees - Emma Stone is a lock for Best Actress over Ruth Negga; Consolata Boyle's costume designs for Florence Foster Jenkins are likely to lose out to that yellow dress; and the stunningly ambitious screenplay for The Lobster doesn't stand a chance against the behemoth.

La La Land may be dwarfing the competition, but the other contenders aren't giving up without a fight. The Oscar race is notoriously competitive - who wins often comes down not to who gave the best performance, but who ran the best campaign, something we're all more familiar with after the US Presidential election.

Donald Trump's rise showed the power of political storytelling: he was able to craft snappy "Make America Great Again" and "America First" slogans that stuck with voters in a way Hillary Clinton was never able to master.

In both contests, a successful campaign is one that whittles down the entire narrative to a punchy phrase that will lodge in voters' minds. Last year, Leonardo DiCaprio's team ensured "it's time" was echoing all over Hollywood to secure his Best Actor prize, while The King's Speech urged voters to "find your voice" back in 2011, helping the film find its way to Best Picture, Actor, Director and Screenplay.

This year more than ever, real-world events have bled into the Oscar race, as publicists scramble to affix real world resonance to their films. Since awards season kicked off in September, La La Land, a romantic souffle of a musical, has evolved into a statement about what it means to struggle as an artist. Arrival, initially a cool, thinking-person's sci-fi film, is now an emotional drama about the pain of losing a child.

Most spectacularly, Lion, the tale of a lost boy who survives alone in India and seeks out his birth mother years later, has been repositioned as an attack on anti-immigration policy. Producer Harvey Weinstein, the master of Oscar campaigning, has put out ads noting the efforts it took to bring eight-year-old star Sunny Pawar from Mumbai to LA for the ceremony ("next year, that might not be an option," the ad reads), and enlisted support from Madeleine Albright and Salman Rushdie. He's even come up with a catchy slogan: "Remember where you came from".

The implicit message is that a vote for Lion is a vote against Trump's travel ban, and, as cynical as it sounds, it's given Dev Patel a real boost in Best Supporting Actor, where he could topple the favourite, Moonlight's Mahershala Ali.

In Best Supporting Actress, a long-overdue win for Viola Davis is certain, and the Fences star is sure to deliver a fantastic speech on the night. Best Actor looked to be Casey Affleck's to lose, but he lost momentum as the Manchester by the Sea team failed to build a strong narrative. The early campaign focused on his "outsider" status (a bit of a reach, considering his Oscar-winning brother), but was compromised by the resurfacing of sexual harassment allegations from 2010. Affleck denied the claims, and the lawsuits were settled, yet the very mention of them revealed privileges that overturned his 'outsider' narrative. It leaves him vulnerable to an upset from Denzel Washington, whose win for Fences could make him the first black person to win three acting Oscars.

A La La Land sweep means a tedious run of repetitive speeches, so we'll be hoping for some surprises (a shock Best Picture/Director win for Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea would do the trick) to keep us on the edge of our seats.

Sunday Independent

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