How to nab an Oscar nomination

A look at recent trends in catching kudos

It’s often hard to predict award winners, but sometimes you just know. A decade ago, when I was watching “As Good As It Gets,” I thought Helen Hunt would probably get an Oscar nomination. But there was a moment when she was overwhelmed by bad news, trying not to cry — and then she suddenly gazed heavenward. At that moment, I knew she was going to win.

For actors, there are certain factors that can lead to the winner’s circle, and that moment of seeking Divine Guidance in the midst of tears has been surefire at least since Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront.”

Every year, entertainment reporters rattle off the type of roles that are usually Oscar bait: Alcoholics-druggies, people with mental or physical afflictions, etc. (Tom Wilkinson’s nomination for “Michael Clayton” reiterated the truism that you can’t go wrong playing a nut job, particularly a nut job who turns out to be the sanest person around.)

But the last decades have offered proof that there are subtler things that can help steer actors into a surefire nomination, and maybe even a win.

  • Talk funny. Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood” was a prime example of a long, proud tradition of speaking in a strange voice, using eccentric rhythms and speech patterns and — this is important — doing it while squinting. The glorious roster includes everyone from Billy Bob Thornton in “Sling Blade” to Renee Zellweger in “Cold Mountain.” (Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs” and Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump” managed Oscar wins without the squint, which is remarkable.) Here’s the rule of thumb: If a standup comic can do an impression of your performance that’s immediately recognizable, you’re in.

  • Have a distinctive haircut. Kate Winslet in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada,” Saoirse Ronan in “Atonement,” all great. If at least three men dress up as your character in the West Hollywood Halloween parade, Oscar voters will remember you.

  • Be threatening and playful. When Forest Whitaker encounters James McAvoy in “Last King of Scotland,” he terrorizes him then pretends he was joking. Same thing for Joe Pesci with Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas.” It’s part of the “He’s scary!/Oh, he’s kidding!/No, he’s really scary!” school of drama.

  • Kill somebody. 2007 was a banner year, thanks to performances from Johnny Depp and Casey Affleck, but recent winners include Catherine Zeta-Jones, Charlize Theron, Denzel Washington, Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. Other noms include William Hurt (“A History of Violence”), Mark Wahlberg (“The Departed”), Ben Kingsley (“Sexy Beast”) and Paul Newman (“Road to Perdition”).

Obviously, there is one big winner here: Javier Bardem. He has the all-time great haircut, he toys with his victims, he kills a bunch of people (I’ve seen “No Country for Old Men” twice and I’m still confused over exactly how many). Plus, he’s got the distinctive speech pattern. And somehow, he makes his eyes both dead and piercing at the same time. It’s better than a squint!

So all of you acting hopefuls this year and in years to come: Forget the idea of playing alcoholics or druggies. Just remember that Anton Chigurh holds the key. And for you awards pundits, remember these tips and you can call it, Friendo.

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