At their own risk, campaigns may want to alert voters that an actor has yet to win the big prize

Year after year, Oscar’s acting nominees seem to fall into three broad categories: the he’s-back-again perennials like Nicholson and Hanks; the he’s-new-and-exciting first-timers like Adrien Brody last year and the I-can’t-believe-he-hasn’t-won-by-now returnees who’ve missed the prize despite years of topnotch work.

After a while, a sympathy factor can come into play with actors in that third group, and this year there are a handful of actors who might qualify: Sean Penn (“21 Grams” and “Mystic River”), Jeff Bridges (“Seabiscuit”), Albert Finney (“Big Fish”), Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl”) and Bill Murray (“Lost in Translation”). Daily Variety asked studio publicists, Oscar consultants and film historians about the role sympathy plays in Acad voting. Can an actor who’s never won an Oscar really find strength in sympathy?

The consensus: possibly.

It depends on the actor, the competition and the year, even on what “sympathy” means. On an emotional level, observers are certain sentiment plays a role in the voting.

“I think there’s a certain standard you have to achieve to be considered for the Oscars, but after that so much of it is personal feelings and external influences,” says Damien Bona, author of “Inside Oscar.”

Sympathy is one of those feelings, of course, but true sympathy — that is, compassion for a nommed actor — only rarely plays a part in the voting, say the experts. “Elizabeth Taylor was one, where she gave a great performance in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ and didn’t win the Oscar,” says film historian and “Hot Ticket” co-host Leonard Maltin. “Then she underwent emergency surgery and got an Oscar for ‘Butterfield 8,’ a film nobody remembers.”

Personal feelings also can cut both ways. Actors who’ve misbehaved or who disdain awards don’t get much sympathy for not having won. “This is not a group that’s inclined to give it to you if you don’t want it,” says one veteran insider. That would hurt Murray, Depp and Finney, who don’t like to campaign. On the other hand, longtime bad boy Penn (said to be a longtime fave of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ actors branch) has been accessible this year, and that may put him back in the Acad’s good graces.

Some of what people call “sympathy” is more properly termed “respect” for a survivor. The same anonymous pro points to the late James Coburn’s win for “Affliction.” “They didn’t give it to Coburn because they had sympathy for him. He’d never been nominated before, and he was a warhorse.”

Nobody in this year’s race seems to qualify for that kind of support, though.

Then there’s the make-good, when the Academy voters honor a thesp they now believe should have won in a previous year. In 1936, Bette Davis snagged what is generally regarded as a make-good actress win for “Dangerous” after being overlooked the previous year for “Of Human Bondage.”

More recently, longtime Hollywood publicist Dale Olson recalls strategizing a make-good campaign for Robert Duvall in “Tender Mercies” after he was passed over for “The Great Santini” the prior year. “It was the combination of what he did in ‘The Great Santini’ and ‘Tender Mercies’ that made people think of Robert Duvall,” says Olson. “In a situation like that, you simply call attention in all the interviews, in all the appearances on television, to two films, not just one.”

This year, Finney might get some make-good support; some feel he should have won for “Erin Brockovich.” “He was robbed” is a high-risk strategy, however. “You have to keep it subtle,” advises Bona, who says this approach, applied clumsily, has generated a backlash in the past. “You need to remind people that someone hasn’t won without going so far as to say they should win now because of it.”

Finney and Bridges may get their biggest boost for being longtime pros with a long history of outstanding performances. It’s an open secret that some Oscars are essentially given as career achievement awards. That explains John Wayne’s win for “True Grit” and Al Pacino’s “Scent of a Woman” statuette. Neither role stands out among the thesp’s credits.

None of the studio publicists or Oscar strategists contacted for this story say they would directly mention an actor’s lack of wins in composing their campaigns. But then, they know they don’t have to. “This is the sort of thing that’s often taken up by a press hungry for angles on Oscar,” says Maltin. “We’re all looking for something original or provocative.”

A smart publicist finds a way to get an actor’s name out and make sure the press brings up that angle. By way of example, Olson offers some ideas on how he might campaign if he were promoting Finney this year. “I’d try to get a retrospective of Albert Finney at a theater like the Music Hall in L.A. Or I’d get TNT to do a month of Albert Finney at the right time. And Robert Osborne (on Turner Classic Movies) would say that he’d never won.”

Which just might generate a little sympathy.

The following actors have never taken home an Oscar.

Richard Burton (7 noms)
Montgomery Clift (4 noms)
James Dean (2 noms)
Douglas Fairbanks (0 noms)
Glenn Ford (0 noms)
Bob Hope (0 noms)
Rock Hudson (1 nom)
Marcello Mastroianni (3 noms)
James Mason (3 noms)
Steve McQueen (1 nom)
Robert Mitchum (1 nom)
Peter O’Toole (7 noms)
William Powell (3 noms)
Edward G. Robinson (0 noms)
Peter Sellers (3 noms)

Note: List does include honorary Oscars

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