In 1964, having delivered what might have been the best performances of their illustrious careers, Peter
O’Toole and Richard Burton found themselves facing off as lead actor nominees for “Beckett.”
The winner? Rex Harrison for “My Fair Lady.”
The ’64 returns represent a much-discussed Oscar nightmare: Match your co-star’s titanic performance so that you both earn nominations in the same category, only to see someone else walk away with the award because of a split vote.
It’s not always the case, though. Other categories offer some reassuring moments: Dianne Weist beat out “Bullets Over Broadway” co-star Jennifer Tilly for her supporting turn in 1994; on the director side, Steven Soderbergh bested himself when he took the director prize for “Traffic” in 2000 when he was also nominated for “Erin Brockovich.”
Still, this year’s crop of contenders has a significant quarry of potential actors who may get noms starring in the same movie, and the possibility of vote-canceling haunts the electoral process.
There are Albert Finney and Ethan Hawke in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” in supporting slots, for instance, and Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson in “The Bucket List” as co-leads. And then there’s “3:10 to Yuma,” which features Russell Crowe and Christian Bale as competing leads and Ben Foster and Peter Fonda as supporting players.
“Our awards-season philosophy, whether for the films or a particular performance, has always been, ‘Let the performance speak for itself; let the pictures speak for themselves,'” says Tom Ortenberg of “3:10” distributor Lionsgate, who doesn’t seem too concerned about vote-splitting. “We always believed that if we have performances in a film that are award-caliber, then first and foremost our job is to make sure those performances are seen by everybody who needs to see them. And if we do that part of our job right, the rest of it will usually take care of itself.
“It’s not intended,” Ortenberg continues, “but I think the jockeying, positioning and award-season marketing can be seen inadvertently as a bit of an insult: If I take out enough ads for this actor, then you’ll vote for him or her, but if I don’t, you’re not smart enough to remember how good this person was? So, specifically with Christian and Russell, our mission was making sure each voter sees the film and to let them judge for themselves.”
Historically, there’s plenty of evidence for vote-splitting in the lead actor category: Clark Gable and Charlesand Charles Laughton were both nominated for 1935 pic “Mutiny on the Bounty” — with neither winning. In 1956, James Dean and Rock Hudson were nominated for “Giant,” and Yul Brynner got the award for “The King and I.” But in 1961’s “Judgment at Nuremberg,” Maximilian Schell took home the lead actor Oscar, despite having to go up against co-star Spencer Tracy.
The Sidney Lumet thriller “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is receiving terrific reviews, with the actors all getting top marks and awards buzz. Hawke, a nominee for “Training Day,” and Albert Finney, a five-time nominee who’s yet to win, could square off in the supporting category.
That wouldn’t be the worse thing in the world, according to Mark Urman, president of “Devil’s” distributor, ThinkFilm
“It’s what they call a high-class problem,” he says. “To have a surplus of excellence is not a bad thing. At the end of the day, what one does to campaign is maximize the opportunity that people have to actually see the film, whoever it is, for whatever it is you’re going after. Everything else that people do — advertising, publicity, prayer, smoke signals — it’s all about getting people to see the film. You’re never really influencing the vote. You’re influencing the exposure.”
With supporting performances that are all nearly equal in screen time, it’s almost impossible to say who will receive noms and who won’t. Look no further than Matt Dillon in “Crash,” who co-starred in the best picture winner with Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton, among others.
Why Dillon was tabbed by voters is anyone’s guess.
“With ‘Crash,’ there wasn’t really a lead performance,” Ortenberg says. “But for some reason, Matt was the only one singled out among the various voters. He won a Spirit Award, was nominated for a Globe and the Oscar. And as thrilled as we were for the recognition he got, we were disappointed that everybody else didn’t.
“Sometimes,” he concludes, “there’s this sense among the voters that it’s simply this person’s turn.”