Peddle to the medal

Marketing strategies matter in tight actor, actress races

It’s easy to tell when awards time rolls around. Actors are everywhere pushing their projects, and not just on the talkshow circuit but in personal appearances at the guilds, the Variety screening series and numerous other screenings around town, talking the talk voting thesps love to hear.

“It’s almost like they are setting up camp at the ArcLight,” joked one awards consultant who has several actors working the circuit this season.

Most marketing execs believe the personal touch is a key ingredient for success.

“We love having talent you can parade to Q&A’s, guild screenings and whatnot. You want to be top of mind. You want to be fresh, whether it’s talent in the room shaking people’s hands or getting Golden Globe nominations,” says Gary Faber, the Weinstein Co.’s newly minted exec VP of marketing. “The whole thing is about building momentum and I think having an actor who can go out there and do that is great. Ultimately, though, it’s all going to be about the performance.”

Unlike last year, when Jamie Foxx seemed to have a headlock on the competish once “Ray” unspooled, this year’s actor race looks much more wide open.

Now it’s up to the marketers, publicists and studios to make sure their best bets are seen by both critics and voters.

The list of performers receiving plenty of Academy buzz include Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” David Strathairn as newsman Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain,” Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in “Match Point,” Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Capote,” Jake Gyllenhaal as U.S. Marine Anthony Swofford in “Jarhead,” Nathan Lane reprising his Broadway role in “The Producers,” Russell Crowe as prizefighter Jim Braddock in “Cinderella Man,” Colin Farrell as Capt. John Smith in “The New World,” Eric Bana as the leader of an Israeli assassination squad looking for retribution for the 1972 Olympics in “Munich,” Johnny Depp going for his third nom in a row as the Earl of Rochester in “The Libertine” and past winner Anthony Hopkins, in one of the richest roles of his career as land speed world record-holder Burt Munro in the sleeper entry “The World’s Fastest Indian.”

Lead actresses are jumping in as well, with Reese Witherspoon as June Carter in “Walk the Line,” Ziyi Zhang in director Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” Judi Dench as the woman who ran a theater featuring naked girls in “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” 15-year-old Q’Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas in “The New World,” Felicity Huffman as a woman undegoing a phyisal in “Transamerica,” Renee Zellweger as Mae Braddock in “Cinderella Man” and Charlize Theron playing sexual harassment crusader Lois Jensen (with the fictionalized name Josie Aimes) in “North Country.”

“Entertainment Tonight” film critic and historian Leonard Maltin says there’s there’s no shortage of standout performances.

“It is impressive to voters when someone portrays a celebrated person the public is aware of — like Truman Capote, Johnny Cash or Edward R. Murrow — because then the actor has achieved two things: a persuasive illusion of that figure while giving a good performance as well,” he says. “It does raise the bar in terms of people’s appreciation and awareness of the performance.”

Maltin points to plenty of actors he would like to see nominated for creating wholly original characters.

“I love Terrence Howard’s work in ‘Hustle & Flow.’ It opens with this absolutely riveting monologue that might be worthy of an award even if there weren’t a movie attached to it. It’s a character who reveals himself in layers,” he contends.

Maltin also points out the perf of never-nominated Jeff Daniels in the indie “The Squid and the Whale” as deserving of a nod. Other non-bioperf actor contenders include Cannes winner Tommy Lee Jones as a man searching for honor in “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” Cillian Murphy’s transvestite in Neil Jordan’s “Breakfast on Pluto,” George Clooney in “Syriana,” Viggo Mortensen in “A History of Violence” and Ralph Fiennes, who worked on six films this year but made his greatest impression in “The Constant Gardener.”

Similarly, there also seem to be an unusually large bevy of possibilities for leading actress in addition to the previously mentioned bioperfs. They include Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow’s stage-to-screen transition in “Proof,” Julianne Moore in “The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio,” Claire Danes as a Saks saleswoman in “Shopgirl,” Keira Knightley in the Jane Austen adaptation “Pride & Prejudice” and, if she’s not completely forgotten, three-time nominee Joan Allen for her work in “The Upside of Anger.” Fox plans on campaigning Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette, who both got career-best notices for “In Her Shoes,” but the disappointing box office may have zapped some of their momentum.

Diaz and Collette could turn up in the musical or comedy Golden Globe category, however, along with “Prime’s” Meryl Streep, “The Family Stone’s” Sarah Jessica Parker and even Globe favorite Jane Fonda for her hit comebacker, “Monster-in-Law.” All of whom would appear to be much longer shots for the five Academy slots but, certainly, a Globe nom might propel them for an Oscar nom.

In a wide-open year like this, one expect surprises.

“I’ve given up second-guessing what the voters look for. I don’t think anyone really knows,” laments Maltin. “There certainly is no formula and I don’t think there are any rules if there ever were.”

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