Peter Bart Column: The Surprises & Setbacks Of Oscar Season Might Be Dulled By Rules Of The Zoomsday Scenario

Zoom Fatigue

With nominations now announced, voters are curious — and skeptical — about how this year’s Zoomsday scenario will play out. The face-to-face encounters that enlivened awards seasons in the past always produced unexpected heroes or heavies by now, but will virtual sessions resonate as effectively?

Consider the unexpected stars of past seasons: Michel Hazanavicius was neither understandable nor pronounceable in 2011 when he arrived to pitch The Artist, but the French director charmed the town to win Best Picture. In 1997, Hollywood thought Roberto Benigni was a pizza parlor until his lively presence persuaded voters that “life is beautiful.”

An ingratiating and professorial Guillermo del Toro helped voters discover a structure in the inscrutable Shape of Water in 2017. And, surprisingly, the haunting non-presence of Roman Polanski in 1993 stirred voter support and a standing ovation for The Piano.

And then, of course, there’s always Tom Hanks, who promised to improve his diction after Forrest Gump and increase his weight after Philadelphia (1993) and Castaway (2000). His perennial mastery of Q&A rituals even convinced voters that he would stop chain smoking after Saving Mr. Banks in 2013 (he played Walt Disney, who didn’t.) But Hanks wasn’t relevant this year.

So the question is: Can charisma survive either the Zoom or the cameo? The glimpses into celebrity homes at the Golden Globes seemed awkward, if not downright embarrassing. Inebriated superstars are fun to spy on when they’re prowling a ballroom, not nodding off in their dens.

The Oscar show next month, based at downtown L.A.’s Union Station, might try to re-invent the celebrity cameo, but should the stars throw themselves into the awkwardness of Zoomsday rather than retreating into their self-protective zone of silence? For that matter, should they bother to hype their films when they can’t even confirm their release dates?

Just as movies have their auteurs, so do Oscar campaigns, ranging from Lisa Taback back to Harvey (printing his last name is unpolitic). But, again, the rules are changing: The festivals, when they existed, were the ideal mechanisms for promotion of both films and talent. So were the post-nomination screenings and dinners.

Sone celebrities perform skillfully in face-to-face encounters with voters: Press agents praise Laura Dern, Helen Mirren and Charlize Theron or actors such as Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman or, of course, Hanks — all of whom demonstrate savoir faire on the campaign circuit.

Still some personalities are visibly discomfited by one-on-one encounters: Sean Penn can become instantly argumentative, as can Russell Crowe, while James Cameron’s “king of the world” routine during his Titanic days was off-putting to the media. Daniel Day Lewis disappears into his cocoon during media encounters, while Jack Nicholson shakes hands only during Lakers games. All surely will feel relieved now that awards candidates remain distanced from their constituents.

The responsibility of managing stardom was tactically challenging even in the best of times, and these are the worst, George Clooney observed recently. Always savvy about the media, Clooney, at 60, Zoomed an interview with AARP The Magazine confiding that the combination of arthritis, a bike accident and small children were making careers even more complex.

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A year after winning an Oscar and Globe for starring in Amadeus (1984), F. Murray Abraham told me that the rituals and hand-shaking of awards season brought him misery in his personal life and didn’t even earn him a pay raise. “I wish I’d stayed with my Scarface movies.”

Zoomsday 2021 might lack the “big surprise,” but it still will represent a step ahead of Doomsday. That was last year.

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