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Awards: Don’t scratch the backstory

A good yarn is a crucial part of every H'wood campaign

Everybody loves a good story. That’s what movies are all about, and that’s what awards campaigns are all about.

Mickey Rourke’s performance in “The Wrestler” paralleled his own life — a star who fell from his heights in the 1980s but is still plugging away. That angle became a key part of his campaign last year.

Kate Winslet’s story for “The Reader”: After all these years and all these nominations, she still hasn’t ever won a gosh-darn thing!

In truth, Winslet’s always-the-bridesmaid status (five Oscar noms) was nowhere near another contender in her category, Meryl Streep, who at that point had 11 consecutive Oscar noms without a win. But that’s the thing about a good tale: It hooks you in, and you don’t stop to question it.

And with the Oscar process now in Phase Two, post-nominations, the backstories have shifted into high gear.

Do Oscar voters buy into this? Let’s put it this way: Winslet won, Rourke didn’t. I honestly believe voters cast ballots for the work they liked most, not for best yarn. But a good backstory doesn’t hurt.

And in campaigns, the story can be helpful beyond luring votes. As the dazed contender is dragged around to endless Q&A sessions, cocktail parties, interviews and press conferences, the backstory (or, as Mark Harris labels it in an excellent New York magazine piece, the Oscar Narrative) is a great ice-breaker. It’s rare for nominees to bring it up, but when the interviewer or party guest mentions it, contenders can wax eloquently on the topic and avoid questions about their sex life.

Perhaps most important, backstories keep the public involved. When there are multiple nominees in so many categories — 176 in this year’s race — a gripping story can help personalize the entire awards process. And they help the consumer media, who always like to reduce the Oscar race to one-on-one faceoffs: Will the directing prize go to the never-won-before veteran Martin Scorsese for “Gangs of New York,” or to the razzle-dazzle film newcomer Rob Marshall? (In truth, it went to Roman Polanski for “The Pianist.”)

For years, Scorsese had the same narrative: Doesn’t anyone in Hollywood appreciate this guy? (In a happy Hollywood ending, he won with his sixth directing bid, “The Departed.”) However, some yarns change. After Winslet’s double wins at the Golden Globes, her SAG Award and her BAFTA prize, the story changed to “Yes, it’s been a great year, but that’s no guarantee I will land the Big One.”

Many backstories evolve naturally, like Keisha Castle-Hughes of “Whale Rider” (a schoolgirl with no acting experience!). Otherwise, strategists spin a tale, which is “fun. It’s one of the creative parts of the job,” according to one respected kudos veteran.

Recent Governors Award winner Lauren Bacall had a dandy angle with the 1996 “The Mirror Has Two Faces”: Her first Academy Award nomination in a 50-year career! Who could resist? Apparently voters, because the Oscar went to Juliette Binoche, who wasn’t well-known but was terrific — which isn’t a very interesting story, but there ya go.

This is not a new phenomenon, going back to the early days of awards, and including at least one legendary example, Elizabeth Taylor’s near-death experience before her Oscar win for the 1960 “Butterfield 8.” There have been endless stories since, some resulting in wins, but some not.

The idea of marketing an individual sounds cynical, but it’s long been a staple of political campaigns. In 2004, President Bush’s story was “Ever since 9/11, I’m the guy who has kept you safe from terrorists.” It worked. The 2008 election got a little harried because virtually every candidate had the same story: “You need a change from Bush, and I’m it!”

I suspect that some of this year’s nominees are not entirely comfortable with the stories that have been invented for them, and probably dislike the questionable one-to-one matchups that have been manufactured. But to all you contenders, I give a big congrats, and I suggest you either embrace your backstory, or try to ignore it. With awards campaigns, that’s just the way the story goes.

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