Stars campaign on the sly

Behind red-carpet romps is a stealth Oscar pursuit

“If wanting to win and acting like you do were the prerequisite, I’m afraid there would be 300 nominees every year.”

That’s how one veteran Oscar consultant describes the temptation for self-promotion that every actor faces in deciding just how hard to push personal appearances at post-screening Q&As, luncheons and other celebrations.

Such face time is an awards-season staple, but not everyone plays the game. Some stars, including Eddie Murphy and Judi Dench, come out to support their films during the initial publicity run, then retreat into seclusion for the rest of the season, even if it could cost them the win.

Others appear to be everywhere, attending premieres and red-carpet events, even for other people’s movies. Sienna Miller and Jackie Earle Haley showed up to the Golden Globes even though they weren’t nominated and worked the after-parties.

In Haley’s case, all the campaigning might have helped — Oscar rewarded him with a supporting actor nom for “Little Children.”

It’s a delicate balance, Oscar strategists agree, first because “no one wants to look like they’re chasing it,” but also because the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences has strict rules on the subject.

“Receptions, lunches, dinners or other events to which Academy members are invited that are specifically designed to promote a film or achievement for Academy Awards consideration are expressly forbidden,” the Academy rules state.

But the Oscars are hardly the only game in town, and other guilds and awards-giving groups take for granted the receptions and Q&As frowned upon by the Academy.

Leonardo DiCaprio fielded questions from the Screen Actors Guild on both coasts for “The Departed” and “Blood Diamond,” as did “Half Nelson” star Ryan Gosling, who also participated in sessions for Variety and the National Board of Review.

Such screenings offer actors a chance to explain their craft — or, in Sacha Baron Cohen’s case, an avenue to extend the myth of his onscreen character Borat.

The personal touch matters. It flatters voters while humanizing movie stars in the process.

“It’s all just a way to get people who vote to see someone in a normal light instead of as an actor in a magazine. If you can go up and talk to them yourself, now you have that personal connection,” says an Oscar-season publicist who can take partial credit for nominations in all four acting categories.

Some events target small pockets of voters. “It’s the policy that every single vote counts,” an insider explains. Throw an event in San Francisco or on “the Bel-Air circuit” with a star in tow, and an entire contingent of Acad members is sure to show. “When something’s wide open, 50 votes make a difference.”

Reaching one such niche, Jennifer Hudson sang at a Broadway-themed fund-raiser benefiting the Motion Picture Home.

Last year, a trip to Los Angeles helped Brit Rachel Weisz resuscitate her Oscar campaign, says MovieCityNews.com editor David Poland. “‘The Constant Gardener’ and she were pretty much dead in terms of the awards season, and then Rachel came to town for two or three weeks in December, and people just absolutely fell in love with her.”

“Elegantly absent” except for a few Gotham talkshow appearances, Peter O’Toole is scheduled to attend an Acad lunch in Los Angeles today.

In the same category, Forest Whitaker has been one of the most visible contenders, accepting an award from Clint Eastwood at the Hollywood Film Festival, then returning the favor by introducing Eastwood’s Britannia award from BAFTA/LA.

“A lot of these appearances can be packaged and disguised as film festival awards,” says Pete Hammond, who writes a weekly Oscar column for HollywoodWiretap.com. “They enable these stars to make these appearances without blatantly looking like they’re campaigning.”

In many cases, it is the publicists, not the festival programmers, who suggest the most appropriate prizes.

Reclusive Robert De Niro showed up for the Hollywood Film Fest, “Volver” star Penelope Cruz appeared at an American Film Institute tribute, Miller presented Jessica Biel with a Rising Star Award in Palm Springs, Helen Mirren flew back from the London set of her next pic to attend an American Cinematheque tribute, and Will Smith, busy shooting “I Am Legend,” found time to be feted in Santa Barbara.

From the strategy side, deciding when to get a contender out in front of crowds depends on who’s absolutely new and who’s established. Personal appearances vary from actor to actor, movie to movie, and it’s easier (and more necessary) to convince an up-and-comer to publicize his or her movie than an A-list star.

That’s why Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza of “Babel” have been “in town for the last six to eight weeks, going to every party, going to every opening,” says Poland. “The movie is important, but if you’re not a known quantity they’re used to giving awards to, you have to convince them that you’re someone they want to give an award to.”

According to Katie Martin Kelly, VP of national publicity for Paramount Vantage, the dedication of those two foreign actresses — who both learned English to promote the film — helped boost “Babel’s” profile.

“They’ve really carried a lot of the publicity for this film on their back because Brad (Pitt) and Cate (Blanchett) are very busy, so they don’t have time to do a lot of things,” Kelly says. “Rinko and Adriana really stepped up in a meaningful way as ambassadors for the film.”

On the flip side, Meryl Streep does not campaign. This year, she showed up at just two awards-season events — a Women in Entertainment breakfast and a special party thrown in her honor by Fox topper Tom Rothman — invitations she arguably could not refuse.

And yet the guest list for the Rothman soiree included Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. members (not to mention other Fox contenders, including Whitaker, Greg Kinnear and Blanchett), who determine the Golden Globes.

It seems no matter who you are, showing up for events thrown “to celebrate the work” now may yield greater cause for celebration down the road.

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