Last year's upset win for 'The Pianist' thesp leaves hope for a new crop of Oscar underdogs

While it was surprising when Adrien Brody planted a big wet kiss on Halle Berry at last year’s Oscarcast, maybe it was more stunning that Brody was at the winner’s podium in the first place.

Not that he didn’t deserve to be there. His performance as Polish prodigy Wladyslaw Szpilman in “The Pianist” was critically applauded and reaction to his win at the Kodak Theater was greeted with enthusiastic applause.

But when the Oscar campaign started, Brody’s name wasn’t at the top of any best actor cheat sheet. The Queens, N.Y., native had hardly had any true breakout roles at that point — Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” and Barry Levinson’s “Liberty Heights” were probably his most noteworthy perfs.

And he was up against some true Hollywood heavyweights.

Longtime Academy faves Michael Caine (“The Quiet American”) and 12-time nominee Jack Nicholson (“About Schmidt”) were in contention, as was “Gangs of New York” star Daniel Day-Lewis.

Which leads us to the 2004 Oscars. Does Brody’s win give the non A-list actors a reason to be optimistic? Can history repeat itself?

So far, the names of the moment, among others, include Sean Penn for his performances in “Mystic River” and “21 Grams,” Ben Kingsley for “House of Sand and Fog” and three-time nominee Russell Crowe in “Master and Commander.”

And then, as in so many Oscar campaigns, there’s Nicholson.

It’s the Paul Giamattis, Chiwetel Ejiofors and Peter Dinklages who draw hope from Brody’s win.

HBO head of theatrical releasing Dennis O’Connor is helping to navigate the Oscar campaign for Giamatti in “American Splendor.”

“No. 1, you have to recognize he’s an underdog,” he says. “We have to rely on the critics, and we realize their support is huge. In terms of star power, we know he’s not Tom Cruise or Russell Crowe, but we think his performance is equal to those.”

“American Splendor” was one of the most well-reviewed films of the year and Giamatti, in particular, was labeled a standout for his portrayal of curmudgeonly cartoonist Harvey Pekar.

So many believe Giamatti deserves consideration in the race. All except, maybe, Giamatti.

“It’s certainly flattering but I hardly see it (an Oscar win or nom) as a reality at all,” says the actor who has made a nice career in supporting roles. “It’s absurd to me and I can’t really take it seriously.”

While Giamatti says he’s more than happy to support the film by doing Q&As, screenings and anything else Fine Line or HBO might ask of him, it’s really up to the aforementioned studio and network — both, coincidentally, fall under parent company Time Warner — to help gain Oscar voters’ attention.

There have been numerous trade ads promoting the film and Giamatti. Screeners, available for the Acad, certainly help since the small film was released among the tentpole-laden summer.

The little-seen “Dirty Pretty Things” is similar to “Splendor” in that it may have been overlooked by auds, but Miramax has an even more difficult campaign challenge.

Not only do they need to make voters aware of lead Chiwetel Ejiofor, but, and maybe more importantly, they have to teach them how to pronounce it. Even Miramax folks refer to him as Chewy.

“The name is a particular challenge,” says Cynthia Swartz, exec VP of publicity. “We have to be constantly reminding people.”

Ejiofor, a London native, is more of a known commodity in Europe. He’s been nominated for several European kudos and has already won actor at the British Independent Film Awards.

Peter Dinklage is also under the Miramax campaign watch. He plays a train enthusiast in “The Station Agent.”

The pic recently got a boost from the National Board of Review as its third favorite film of the year.

Brody is certainly far from the first underdog to receive an Oscar. Humphrey Bogart’s win in 1952 for his part in “The African Queen” over Marlon Brando for “A Streetcar Named Desire” turned a few heads. And one of the most surprising results came in 1975 when Art Carney (“Harry and Tonto”) defeated Nicholson (“Chinatown”), Al Pacino (“The Godfather: Part II) and Dustin Hoffman (“Lenny”).

Studio execs say the most important aspect of getting an actor noticed isn’t so much about ad spending as about drawing eyeballs to the film.

“The primary thing, in any campaign, is just getting your movie seen,” says Nancy Utley, Fox Searchlight’s marketing prexy.

It might seem simple but in a crowded marketplace — especially from November-January — it’s not always easy.

That’s why the indies were so thrilled when the MPAA’s screener ban was slowly rescinded, first by allowing Acad voters to receive them and then when New York District Judge Michael Mukasey reversed the ruling entirely, allowing a much wider screener release.

But even among the indies, there’s a bit of infighting.

Lions Gate president Tom Ortenberg says that the campaign for his actors is more difficult than for indies associated with big studios.

“We don’t have a corporate parent,” Ortenberg explains. “Fox Searchlight has a big studio to back them up. They’ve done inserts (including a pocket schedule of screenings) that we could never afford.”

Ortenberg is also quick to recognize that few kudos are ever won in March (or now February, with an abbreviated Oscar calendar). Like any presidential campaign that takes shape in New Hampshire and Iowa more than a year before voters head to the polls, the actor race begins at least six months before the stars align at the Kodak Theater.

“I don’t know if it’s a new lesson but it’s one you always need to remember: The awards season is a marathon and not a sprint,” Ortenberg says. “You need to lay the groundwork early and you need to have the goods to back it up.”

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