How To Win The Oscar

While Oscar-winning roles are meant to honor distinguished, high-quality acting, a closer look shows that certain film genres and screen roles are more likely than others to earn nominations and awards.

Showbiz reigns supreme among Academy voters: Actors playing actors have the best chances to win an Oscar nod. James Cagney stepped outside of his specialty-the crime-gangster genre-and portrayed patriotic song-and-dance man George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with Oscar-winning results. This year, actors playing actors include Dianne Wiest’s comically self-absorbed diva in “Bullets Over Broadway” and Martin Landau’s loving reincarnation of a very eccentric Bela Lugosi in “Ed Wood.”

Oscar has rewarded Shakespearean actors (Ronald Colman, “A Double Life”); hopeful ingenues (Katharine Hepburn, “Morning Glory” and Liza Minnelli, “Cabaret”); ambitious troupers (Richard Dreyfuss, “The Goodbye Girl”); soap-opera stars (Jessica Lange, “Tootsie”); and, of course, aging and boozy performers (Maggie Smith, “California Suite”).

Screen prostitutes, with or without a heart of gold, have been the second-most enduring Oscar roles for women. From New York call girls (Elizabeth Taylor, “Butterfield 8”; and Jane Fonda, “Klute”), to brothel madams (Jo Van Fleet, “East of Eden”), to faded torch singers (Claire Trevor, “Key Largo”), the world’s oldest profession has been a favorite on Oscar night.

To win Oscars, actresses typecast as sincere, wholesome girls have had to deviate from their screen images, such as Anne Baxter’s win for her dipsomaniac prostitute in “The Razor’s Edge” or Donna Reed’s “hostess” in “From Here to Eternity.”

“I am sick of portraying ingenues with sunny dispositions, high necklines and puff sleeves,” Shirley Jones is reported to have once said. When she took the role of a hooker in “Elmer Gantry, ” she carried home an Oscar.

Though relatively few biopictures are made, they are overrepresented and overestimated in the Oscar sweepstakes. About one-fifth of all winning roles have been inspired by real-life personalities. Buoyed by the cache of “truth,” biographical roles bring performers both prestige and a chance to stretch their skills.

Reflecting their position in society, female winners have been more limited than men in their range of real-life persona. Predictably, most have been showbiz personalities: Luise Rainer as Florenz Ziegfeld’s first wife in “The Great Ziegfeld”; Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl”; Sissy Spacek as country singer Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

By contrast, men have had more success in the halls of power, playing the gamut of authority figures from soldiers and sheriffs to politicians and kings: Gary Cooper in “Sergeant York”; George C. Scott in “Patton”; Charles Laughton in “The Private Life of Henry VIII”; Paul Scofield in “A Man for All Seasons”; George Arliss in “Disraeli”; Ben Kingsley in “Gandhi.”

Like Cagney, Paul Muni won Oscars not for his gangsters but for “important” historical figures: the French scientist in “The Story of Louis Pasteur” or the polemic writer in “The Life of Emile Zola.”

The more showy and conspicuous the perfs, the better the chances for an Oscar. Eccentricity is paramount. Strong accents-especially if they sound authentic-might help, as evidenced by the nominated work of Peter Sellers (“Dr. Strangelove, ” “Being There”), or Meryl Streep (“Sophie’s Choice, ” “Out of Africa”). It certainly helped Jeremy Irons’ vivid interpretation of Claus von Bulow in “Reversal of Fortune.” Huge noses (Jose Ferrer, “Cyrano De Bergerac”), hunches (Laurence Olivier, “Richard III”) and eye patches (John Wayne, “True Grit”) also have enhanced their actors’ chances to grab the coveted statuette. Lee Marvin doubled his chances in “Cat Ballou” by playing both a silver-nosed villain and a whiskey-soaked gunfighter.

Judging by Academy noms, one might think alcoholism runs rampant in America. This year Meg Ryan (“When a Man Loves a Woman”) may join a long list of celebrated dipsomaniacs: Lionel Barrymore (“A Free Soul”), Wallace Beery (“The Champ”), Thomas Mitchell (“Stagecoach”), Van Heflin (“Johnny Eager”), James Dunn (“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”), Ray Milland (“The Lost Weekend”), Claire Trevor (“Key Largo”) and Elizabeth Taylor (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”). They have all won Oscars for playing booze-laden characters.

A veritable dictionary of mental illnesses and physical disabilities can be gleaned from the Oscar roster, including amnesia (Ronald Colman, “Random Harvest”; Ingrid Bergman, “Anastasia”), autism (Dustin Hoffman, “Rain Man”) and blindness (Patty Duke, “The Miracle Worker” and Al Pacino, “Scent of a Woman”). Last year, Holly Hunter’s mute heroine in “The Piano” joined the honorable company of Jane Wyman (“Johnny Belinda”) and Marlee Matlin (“Children of a Lesser God”).

The Academy’s greatest accolades seem to be reserved for the grand enactment of psychological problems, be it mental breakdown (Vivien Leigh, “A Streetcar Named Desire”; Jack Nicholson, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”; Christopher Walken, ‘ The Deer Hunter), mental retardation (Cliff Richardson, “Charly”), or multiple personality (Fredric March, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”; Ronald Colman, “A Double Life”; Joanne Woodward, “The Three Faces of Eve”).

While eccentricity has characterized both male and female roles, anguish and victimization have been almost exclusively women’s domain.

Women have suffered a disproportionate number of disasters and catastrophes, both natural and man-made.

Misery in a family context has created some of the most enduring screen stereotypes-and Oscar roles: Adulteresses-mistresses (Simone Signoret, “A Room at the Top”; Gloria Grahame, “The Bad and the Beautiful”), sacrificing mothers (Joan Crawford, “Mildred Pierce”; Olivia De Havilland, “To Each His Own”), long-suffering wives (Luise Rainer, “The Good Earth”; Joan Fontaine, “Suspicion”; Ingrid Bergman, “Gaslight”), oppressed daughters (Olivia De Havilland, “The Heiress”). Even more conspicuous are roles involving sexual abuse, such as rape victims (Sophia Loren, ‘ Two Women”; Jodie Foster, “The Accused”).

While these trends apply to all actors, British performers seem to have an edge simply by being British. In ‘ 92, Anthony Hopkins (“The Silence of the Lambs”) became the third Briton in a row to win an Oscar for best actor.

Albeit a great performance, the fact that Hopkins played an eccentric, diabolical psychiatrist-turned-cannibal certainly helped, in the same way that the gifted Daniel Day-Lewis (“My Left Foot”) was given a leg up for playing feisty artist-writer Christy Brown, born with cerebral palsy.

Did we mention that Tom Cruise’s first and only nomination was for impersonating paraplegic Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s biopic “Born on the Fourth of July”?

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