The 10 step plan to achieving the big Oscar

By Matthew Sweet
Sunday 03 February 2002 01:00

Vivien Leigh used hers for propping open the lav door, but that was not the worst thing said about her. George C Scott refused one, and stayed at home to watch the hockey. In 1984, a sheepdog nearly trotted off with one, for best screenplay. These acts of contempt, however, are the exceptions. When it comes to clamping their hands around the cold little torso of an Oscar, there are few indignities to which studio bosses, actors and directors are unwilling to stoop.

The awards were besmirched with scandal from the year of their inception. They were founded in 1929, to add respectability to an industry that had earned a reputation for being staffed by maniacs, mediocrities and orgiasts. On the eve of the first ceremony, Mary Pickford invited the panel of judges to tea at her home. They came, they saw, they enjoyed her muffins, they agreed that her performance in Coquette was the best thing they'd seen all year, and Mary got her gold-plated conversation piece. These days, however, with the electorate now enlarged to approximately 5,500 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, more subtle methods have to be employed. So here – compiled with the help of those who have, or might soon, stand at that glittery podium – are 10 ways to bag yourself a 24-carat doorstop. This year's nominees are announced on 12 February, incidentally.

1. Vote For Yourself

Let's begin with a simple one. If you're a former winner or nominee, you immediately become part of the Academy's constituency – which, over the years, has given many the opportunity of putting a cross next to their own name. "It was very important to win, very important," insists Olivia de Havilland, who houses her two Oscars – for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949) in a room of her Paris home. "But you have to be disciplined when it comes to voting in your category." In 1942, she and her sister Joan Fontaine were nominated for Best Actress. "You think: I cannot vote for myself – that really is too ignoble. So I voted for Barbara Stanwyck. I thought she deserved it and should get it. And I thought my sister would have the same reasoning." As it turned out, it was Joan who swooped up to the platform, to receive an award for Hitchcock's Suspicion. She won by one vote. Whose, we wonder?

2. Party With Harvey

The best step for anyone who's seriously randy for the golden little man: get schmoozy with Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax, the most Oscar-laden outfit in Hollywood. Harvey is a reassuringly old-fashioned movie mogul: cigar, triple chin, likes the f-word, collects leading actors – Gwynnie, Minnie, Roberto Begnini – like Pokémon cards. Most importantly, he's discovered the secret formula that best appeals to the conservative tastes of Academy members – a starry adaptation of a prizewinning literary novel in which someone undergoes a moral transformation in a picturesque setting: Chocolat, Cider House Rules, The English Patient, The Shipping News. Watch out for his temper, though: "These all suck, and you're morons for designing them," he once raged at his team of ad designers. So ask one of his people first if you want to buy him a drink.

3. Win Something Else First, But Be Humble

Success inculcates success. Just take a look at the mantelpiece of Julian Fellowes, the screenwriter of Robert Altman's new film, Gosford Park. Akiva Goldsman's script for A Beautiful Mind might have pipped him to a Golden Globe, but gongs from the American Film Institute and the New York Critics Circle, and two Bafta nominations (for best screenplay and best newcomer) may already have generated enough critical mass to ensure him a ticket to the 2002 Oscars. "I love the idea of being a best newcomer, this porky old baldy who's been slogging away for 30 years," he reflects. "Overnight success is a pretty Arctic night. And now the shadow of the big one looms." Even if it all stops on Bafta night, however, he'll be content. "It was odd enough being part of the Golden Globes: being in the middle of something you're used to seeing in a crumpled old Hello! at the dentist, meeting Harrison Ford and Andi McDowell and the cast of Sex in the City in the lift. But the Oscars – I cannot imagine what it must be like to be summoned as a participant for that great ceremony in the sky." Good for you, Julian – that sort of humility will get you everywhere.

4. Remember the Three Ds

Essential advice for any actor who dreams of standing at Billy Crystal's elbow, breathing his or her teary gratitude at the dinner-dressed auditorium. When you're choosing a script, look for the following: Disability, Deficit and Disadvantage. Remember that scene in Being John Malkovich, in which a man walks up to the actor and gushes, "You're really great in that movie where you play that retard"? Well, Academy members are a bit like that. They gave one to Tom Hanks for doing his idiot savant schtick in Forrest Gump, to Geoffrey Rush in Shine for his skittishness and his burbling, to Al Pacino for not bumping into the furniture in Scent of a Woman, and to Dustin Hoffmann for aping autism in Rain Man. Russell Crowe is a favourite this year, for his performance in A Beautiful Mind as schizophrenic mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. Any mention of Nash's bisexuality, however, has been carefully scooped from the movie: it's possible for Academicians to feel sentimentally disposed towards the delusionary, but not to Muscle Beach toilet traders.

5. Bum A Ride On Other People's Tragedies

The Three Ds are most effective when you're playing a character based on a real-life veteran of adversity, especially if they can be wheeled on to give their approval: this way, the Academy can feel that it's somehow offering restitution for past injustice. How much of Geoffrey Rush's Oscar was won by David Helfgott? Or Julia Roberts's by the real Erin Brokovich? Also works on a grand scale: viz Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List.

6. Compose A Crummy Song For A Disney Movie

The Academy never hands out the big prizes to kids' movies: that would be below their dignity, wouldn't it? But they do like to toss them a bone, in the form of a statuette for something inane and meaningless warbled in an animated movie, preferably by Sir Tim or Sir Elton. Like that one from Aladdin. Just feel the badness: "I can open your eyes/Take you wonder by wonder/Over, sideways and under/On a magic carpet ride."

7. Look Nice On Videotape

Most members of the Academy are far too busy – or far too immobile – to go to the cinema. So friendly production companies like Miramax are only too happy to bombard them with VHS copies and glossy press packs and – um – tokens. That's tokens, not bribes. Which means that if you're an actor, you should refuse to participate in all long shots: the voters'll never clock you.

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8. Don't Agree To Read Anything Out

If you've been chosen to announce one of the winners, you can forget about going home with anything but an empty golden envelope. Like Brendan Fraser, star of The Mummy and Gods and Monsters, who handed over the best short film Oscar in 1999. "Presenting an Oscar is a lot less difficult than it looks," he declares, with a mock solemnity that might yet win him one. "You walk down the stairs. You try not to fall over the lectern. You open the envelope. You read out the name." Is there any significance in the award that they allocate you to announce? "Oh, yes. I think the Academy were trying to make some kind of witty observation about my height."

9. Cast Judi Dench

As she proved in Shakespeare in Love, Dame Judi has only to walk in during the last eight minutes wearing a funny hat for awards to be pelted her way. Which is why both movies she's made in the past 18 months – Iris and The Shipping News – are being released now, during the crucial nomination season in which all serious Oscar pictures find their way into cinemas (any earlier, and Academicians would forget that they existed).

10. Be Judi Dench

Not a course of action available to everyone, but if you manage it, you should start reinforcing your MDF display cabinet immediately.

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