Real-life grounding a recurring theme for this season's hopefuls

Now that the red-carpet season has reached its zenith, the stars and their myriad consultants have all zeroed in on their key talking points.

The rules of engagement on the red carpets are rigorous: Appear relaxed but never flippant. Smile even when an interviewer is rude. Never stray from message, no matter what the question (no one ever notices a non-answer anyway).

And, of course, one longstanding rule at the Golden Globes: Always fortify oneself with at least one shot.

I was pondering the combat-ready attitude toward the awards season a few days ago when I was enjoying the relative peace and calm of the Palm Springs fest, an event that has become a mandatory first stop on the awards circuit. As such, it provides an excellent opportunity to try out one’s talking points.

At Palm Springs, the emphasis clearly was on reality. Ben Affleck acknowledged that he was going for both humor and suspense in “Argo,” but he was eager to remind audiences (and voters) that his film was based on real events and real characters. In a similar vein, David O. Russell’s determination to make “Silver Linings Playbook” stemmed from his experience with his own son’s bipolar swings and their impact on his family.

Helen Hunt in “The Sessions” and Naomi Watts in “The Impossible” were both eager to describe the real people on whom their characters were based — people they grew not only to emulate but also venerate. Kathryn Bigelow has to be more circumspect in describing the real-life characters she depicted in “Zero Dark Thirty,” but composites reflect reality, too.

Then there is “Lincoln.” Steven Spielberg has proven adept at explaining his appetite for historical veracity. And few (if any) filmmakers can match Tom Hooper’s dissertation on Victor Hugo.

To be sure, this is the season when some stars and star directors resent the fact that they are cast as public spokesmen for their own films, works that ideally should speak for themselves. Many embrace the position of Woody Allen, who argues that the need to choose a “No. 1″ is counterproductive.

Still everyone covets the “best” slot and the rewards that go with it. And that means nailing down those “talking points” and sticking to them … especially in a year when there is no clear frontrunner.

Problems with preems

Two recent television premieres produced impressive ratings but still disappointed some fans and critics.

Blasting his way into the latenight domain long dominated by those geriatric giants, Leno and Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel proved that his younger audience was responsive to his numbingly familiar format. ABC is eager to promote Kimmel’s impact with the younger demo in anticipation of NBC’s prospective plan to install Jimmy Fallon, 38, as Leno’s successor (Kimmel is 45).

The mechanics of Kimmel’s shift to the 11:35 slot seemed downright torpid compared with the melodrama surrounding NBC’s former efforts to update “The Tonight Show.” That’s when Leno seemed to outmaneuver Letterman for the Johnny Carson throne only to be flummoxed by NBC’s decision to tap Conan O’Brien to succeed Leno. Conan was then ousted and Leno restored. (I hope you’ve got all that straight, because I never understood it.)

Kimmel may be younger than Leno or Letterman but his format seemed musty, as did his reliance on Kardashian and Honey Boo Boo jokes. His producers clearly sought to connect him to the social media but his routine of having celebrities like Simon Cowell and Dr. Phil read insulting tweets seemed more discomfitting than amusing.

Meanwhile the advent of “Downton Abbey,” season three, produced surreal ratings for the world of “Masterpiece Theater,” but Shirley MacLaine seemed oddly ill at ease in her much heralded role on the costume drama. MacLaine is renowned for her insistence on relighting and redesigning every set that she descends upon, but the camera did not love her in the Abbey, nor did she seem to love her lines.

“Downton” may not have needed MacLaine’s star power, and insiders say MacLaine may not even appear in subsequent episodes.

At last, a list we can all get behind

The various film critics have now filed their 10 Best lists, but no one seems to create a 10 Best for the lists themselves.

Most critics’ lists seem designed to remind non-critics that we civilians have missed the best movies — we’ve never even heard of them. We are the non-cogniscenti, after all.

With this in mind, I feel plaudits should go to Karina Longworth of L.A. Weekly, whose 10 Best included “Holy Motors,” a German fantasy starring Edith Scob (Longworth called it “the most film of the year”) plus “Attenberg,” a coming-of-age film from Greece directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari, and finally a movie with my favorite title: “This Is Not a Film.” The latter is indeed a documentary film from Iran directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.

I hope all of Longworth’s cast of characters find their way to the Oscars someday.

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