Actors not often given top billing make most of vertical marquee move

In a typical Oscar campaign, character actors David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels, Joaquin Phoenix, Terrence Howard and Philip Seymour Hoffman would be vying for supporting noms.

This year those supporting players might very well be moving to the front of the class. Whether it means anything significant is open to debate — Better roles? Casting directors opening their minds? — but with stellar above-the-line performances, these actors are on the cusp on realizing the big time. Howard in “Hustle & Flow,” Daniels in “The Squid and the Whale,” Hoffman as “Capote,” Phoenix as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line” and Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck” are all receiving raves.

“It’s the most complex I’ve been offered since … well, forever,” Daniels says of his role as Bernard Berkman in Noah Baumbach’s “Squid and the Whale.” “And I didn’t have a clue about how I was going to approach it. But my agent said, ‘If you meet with Noah I think you can nail this down.’ We were on the same page from the first day.”

Phoenix says that the requirements of playing Cash in “Walk the Line” went well beyond anything he’d done before. “Without a doubt it’s the most I’ve ever worked on a film, the most time put in — six months of rehearsal — and yet it didn’t feel like it was enough to me. But there’s been a progression on the last few films I’ve made, where I’ve been insisting on more and more prep time. And it feels in some sense, when I got to this one, that that the others had all been training for this, that I was developing a new way of working and this put it all to the test.”

What’s also undergoing a test is the marketing ability of the mini-majors, who are now emphasizing the “V” word — no, not “vision,” “visibility.”

“It’s about getting the voting committees to see us,” says Howard, whose character is a pimp-turned-musician in Paramount’s “Hustle & Flow.” “You don’t want them tainted by the original ad campaign, which was aimed at an urban market. Even when I first heard about it, I wasn’t interested in it, until I saw the script and realized the film was about my character escaping the ugly reality of his life. The story was actually about killing the stereotypes and the glamorization and romanticizing of this kind of character.

“So we’re just inviting people. Paramount is providing a lot of screenings, sending it out to the awards committees. It’s about getting awareness.”

“There’s so much noise generated by the big studios, you have to strain to make yourself heard,” says Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn, which distributed “Squid and the Whale.” “It’s no good if you have a good plan and don’t execute it properly. But we’ve asked Jeff to do press and he’s been very good about it. We use consultants and contract with outside agencies. But in the end we have full confidence that the performance is Oscarworthy.”

Laura Kim, exec VP of marketing and publicity at Warner Independent (“Good Night, and Good Luck”) reiterates the importance of visibility. “That’s the most crucial thing,” she says. “David’s not fond of being out there; he just wants to act. He’s so lovely, but incredibly modest and a little uncomfortable being in this kind of position. But we had a meeting when it all began, walked him through it. We’ve tried to make it as painless as possible.”

The reviews have been excellent for ‘Good Night,’” Kim says, “and that’s the primary motivator for getting people to see the film. You can invite and invite, but if the word isn’t good. …

“A lot of movies are a harder sell,” she says, “but a black-and-white film about Edward R. Murrow isn’t the easiest either.”

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