Buzz can build for thesps who make critics, auds take notice

The nominations race can be changed by a late-inning, full-press surge. As one awards consultant says, “When a film opens late, you can sort of burst on the scene.”

Oscar watchers point to the recent triumphs of Sandra Bullock (who bested Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan, among others, with the late November pic “The Blind Side”) and Jeff Bridges, in December limited release “Crazy Heart,” nabbed a trophy many had thought would go to George Clooney for “Up in the Air.”

Among this year’s late bursters, ironically, is Bridges again, this time for the Coen brothers oater “True Grit.” The film didn’t open until Dec. 22 and many were waiting to see if it might be an awards contender. The answer is a definite maybe.

Bridges is only one of two “True Grit” thesps earning notices. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is also getting buzz for supporting actress (although, to be fair, she’s clearly the lead actress in the film).

Other thesps on the radar with films that had recent openings include Paul Giamatti for “Barney’s Version,” Kevin Spacey for “Casino Jack” and Halle Berry for “Frankie & Alice.” All three were nominated for a Golden Globe.

But is that the most typical “late surge?” According to one expert, “There are always the end-of-year arrivals, but every year there are performances that don’t emerge out of a crowded field until all these critics’ groups start to vote.” A few early kudos can set off and accelerate a robust campaign.

Although Jennifer Lawrence has been widely hailed for her starring turn in “Winter’s Bone,” several critics have acknowledged the work of John Hawkes. The actor, who made a name for himself in HBO’s remarkable western series “Deadwood,” has a strong supporting turn in the Debra Granik indie.

In 2006, recognition by the National Board of Review and the Washington, D.C., and Florida critics boosted the profile of Terrence Howard’s work in “Hustle & Flow,” putting bigger prizes seemingly within reach.

“It had opened in the summer, sold as an urban film,” remembers Cynthia Swartz, co-head of 42West’s Entertainment Marketing Division. “We had to recalibrate the movie as an awards contender, with carefully chosen screenings and Q&A, and carefully chosen advertising that was sort of beautiful; a little less gritty than the film itself.”

Howard walked off with a lead actor nomination, which must inspire those boosting the campaign of supporting actress contender Jacki Weaver, the murderous matriarch of “Animal Kingdom.”

“Isn’t that something?” remarks one consultant.”I still haven’t seen it. It’s been on my stack for a month.”

But the Golden Globe nod and attention from critics groups will surely move that disc higher in many stacks.

The latest surge of all, because it doesn’t reveal itself until the morning Oscar nominations are announced, benefits the “wild card,” a stealth performance no one sees coming — one receiving no critics’ attention or SAG or Hollywood Foreign Press recognition.

Says one consultant, “There’s always tons of times when things are drifting someone’s way but there was no campaign at all: Tommy Lee Jones for ‘In the Valley of Elah,’ or Paul Scofield in ‘Quiz Show,’ or Albert Finney in ‘Erin Brockovich.’ Sometimes the performances just speak for themselves.”

Another insider suggests, “When you start screening for the guilds, these are the peers. The pundits are important, but you don’t know as much till you get to the peers.” The fact that an Academy nomination can appear out of nowhere heartens the likes of “All Good Things” helmer Andrew Jarecki, who says “I’m willing to work as hard as I can to get Kirsten (Dunst) recognized. We don’t want people to feel we’re haranguing them about Oscar season, but it’d be a huge distinction for her. … We’re coming somewhat late to the game but we don’t want to be forgotten.”

So more than a little true grit is needed as the awards year winds down. And luck and perseverance, too.

As one expert puts it, “If you’re in it to run a campaign for an Oscar nomination, you can’t give up. You’re either going for it or not.”

Casting directors follow instinct | Latecomers can change kudos race
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