Final Notes On The Season column of 2015-16: The postmortems are winding down on the just-finished awards season as winning campaigns pat themselves on the back, while losing campaigns hold meetings to figure out what went wrong. There was one Oscar handed out Sunday night, however, that was about as pure as you can get in this era of hand-shaking lunches, brunches, dinners, receptions and Q&As, in which campaigning for Oscars is virtually indistinguishable from running for office. Could that lone example be a game changer and show you really can win Oscar gold on the strength of the movie alone?
Take the case of the four acting winners. Best Actor Leonardo DiCaprio was very visible on the campaign circuit, with Q&As, specially targeted screenings and meet-and-greets with the likes of Oscar voters including Barbra Streisand. He even had a highly publicized meeting with the Pope. Best Actress Brie Larson did not let the fact that she was shooting overseas on Kong: Skull Island for most of the campaign season keep her from making quick one- or two-day trips back to L.A. for lunches, Q&As and awards shows (she won lots of them and got to give speeches). When Larson came in forthe Oscar Nominees Lunch on February 8, she told me she already had made four trips from Hawaii, two from Vietnam and two from Australia this season. After squeezing in a Jimmy Kimmel appearance, she even had to be Skyped in to a Santa Barbara Film Festival tribute or risk missing her plane back to Sydney that night (and the day after the Oscars she was on a plane back to Vietnam).
And despite Alicia Vikander’s own shooting schedule, Focus managed to make the Best Supporting Actress winner very visible on the Q&A and reception circuit while, like Larson, hitting awards shows to make speeches and presentations in order to be constantly visible. It’s a very long season, and by the end of it most winners and nominees have been through the wringer. They are so tired of talking about their work they practically have to crawl to the Dolby for one last round.
Mark Rylance was almost invisible the entire season, missing from all the usual things we expect serious contenders to do. Get this, Oscar cynics: You can win if voters just see the movie. Imagine that…In these days of Oscar being under siege from all corners, it’s nice to see you can win just on the power of the work.
But not Bridge Of Spies’ Best Supporting Actor winner Mark Rylance, who was almost invisible the entire season, missing from all the usual things we expect serious contenders to do. Get this, Oscar cynics: You can win if voters just see the movie. Imagine that. Rylance didn’t attend any campaign events on his behalf. In other words, no lunch was thrown for him to mingle with either East or West Coast voters. No tributes were arranged to get photo ops showing him holding an award, any award. He didn’t go to Palm Springs or Santa Barbara. When he won the New York Film Critics Circle Best Supporting Actor award (announced several weeks in advance of the actual awards ceremony), he was the only acting winner not there to accept in person and reap valuable publicity as Oscar voting was still going on for several more days. The three other acting winners — Michael Keaton, Kristin Stewart and Saoirse Ronan — did show up and give a speech. In the end, only Ronan went on to get an Oscar nom, but, unlike the absent Rylance, no win. When Disney had a massive screening and Q&A for the film with director Steven Spielberg, star Tom Hanks and several other key creatives on the film at the Village in Westwood on November 4, the most glaring absence was that of, you guessed it, Mark Rylance. And unlike countless other hopefuls, Rylance was not seen shaking hands at November’s Governors Awards, increasingly a key campaign stop to be seen in a room full of Academy voters. Nor did he even attend the Oscar Nominees Lunch just days before final ballots went out. He and fellow nominee Tom Hardy, who was making a film, were the only Supporting Actor contenders missing. He was nominated for a SAG Award but also didn’t make that ceremony, nor did he show at the Critics’ Choice Awards. He actually won BAFTA’s Best Supporting Actor prize February 14, but it was picked up on his behalf by Spielberg, so he missed the opportunity of making a speech in front of hundreds of Oscar voters in that room while Oscar balloting was still in motion.
Disney took out several ads for the DreamWorks film, in some of which Rylance was pictured with Hanks, but there weren’t any single ads taken specifically for him or any other category on the film. They did do a “making of ” featurette that had one sequence focusing on him, but that couldn’t be sent directly to Academy members due to stringent rules. And while many nominees found a way to be seen during voting by running around presenting at the endless guild awards events, Rylance wasn’t ever one of them. As for the obligatory appearances on Fallon, Kimmel, Colbert, Ellen, Kelly & Michael or even Inside the Actors Studio? Not a single talk show to his credit this season.
So during the entire season — other than the New York Film Festival on the occasion of the actual premiere of the film — the 56-year-old English thesp was seen only at the Golden Globes on January 1o, where he was nominated for both Bridge Of Spies and his TV miniseries Wolf Hall, and at last Sunday’s Oscars, where I ran into him before the show was starting. He told me he was only there because the producers gave him the day off of his new off-Broadway show, Nice Fish. He even seemed surprised about that because as he said normally he would be doing two shows that day, but was certainly happy to be at the Dolby and have a chance to say thanks in person, should he be so lucky. Always thinking of the impact of the work, he even asked Spielberg afterward at the Governors Ball if his Oscar would help the film financially.
The fact is, Rylance isn’t a Hollywood guy. He is a dedicated stage actor, perhaps our finest, and he has been steadily working on the boards since the season began in September where he began an engagement in London starring in Farinelli And The King, for which he was just nominated for an Olivier Award this week. That ran through December. He then went to Boston in January to begin Nice Fish, which he is currently performing eight shows a week in Brooklyn. The fact that he is a working actor, an actor’s actor, ultimately might have played in his favor. He wouldn’t dream of missing a performance if he could help it — even during Hollywood’s high holy awards season.
It used to be common for actors not to actively campaign, except perhaps by way of trade ads. Today’s modern Oscar campaigns usually require much more effort. Often many actors didn’t even show up at the Oscars to collect one, and nobody thought anything of it. If work got in the way, so be it. Now they move mountains to get nominees there. Katharine Hepburn was nominated 12 times and won four Best Actress statuettes, beginning in 1933, but never set foot at any of those ceremonies. Meryl Streep, on the other hand, has been present for each of her 19 nominations. In recent years, it is increasingly rare to win without hitting the “circuit” in some way. Even Streep, who was famously shy about “campaigning,” saw the benefits of getting out there (at the urging of master campaigner Harvey Weinstein) when she finally won her third Oscar for The Iron Lady 29 years after her second.
Most pundits, including this one, thought Sylvester Stallone was a shoo-in to win Supporting Actor for Creed. After all, it was an irresistible story: Sly coming back to the Oscars nearly 40 years after first being nominated for playing Rocky Balboa. And he was great in the movie. But Oscar voters did resist somehow, despite a highly visible campaign that included near-daily full-page trade and newspaper ads touting his performance, several tributes including one I moderated at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and then another for American Cinematheque. There were lunches, Q&As, appearances winning awards at the Globes and Critics’ Choice shows. Add sentiment into the mix, and how can you lose? On the other hand, miss almost every opportunity to make yourself visible, as Rylance did, and how can you win?
In these days of Oscar being under siege from all corners, it is nice to see you can win just on the power of the work. Disney and DreamWorks just did what they needed to do to get the movie, which was nominated for a total of six Oscars including Best Picture, seen. What a revolutionary idea in a campaign season that can easily swirl out of control. Rylance perhaps is proof positive that you can’t buy an Academy Award. As one rep who worked on the film told me, “We tried to keep the movie in the conversation, which I believe we did, but ultimately people just liked it. It has renewed my faith in the Oscars. People voted for the performance.”