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Newcomers Battle Veterans in Oscar Acting Races

This year, the Oscar actor races are shaping up into a battle that pits newcomers versus veterans in terms of grabbing voters’ attention. In one corner, there are Meryl Streep (64 years old and 18 Oscar noms), Judi Dench (79, seven noms) and Bruce Dern (77, two noms.) In the other, there are Lupita Nyong’o, June Squibb, Sally Hawkins, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Barkhad Abdi — all first-time nominees. And while “Nebraska’s” Squibb, 84, is a theater vet who also appeared in Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt,” Nyong’o and Abdi are making their film debuts in, respectively, “12 Years a Slave” and “Captain Phillips.” Indeed, Abdi, 28, a Somali living in Minneapolis, was working as a limo driver when director Paul Greengrass cast him opposite Tom Hanks as the fearsome pirate leader.Notes one campaign insider, “That’s such a great ‘discovery’ story, and you know it’s an interesting year when (Tom) Hanks and (Robert) Redford — who gave wonderful, acclaimed performances — didn’t even make the cut, while a lot of first-time nominees did.”

So how do media consultants and campaign experts deal with such raw new talent, and, at the same time, go about the business of drumming up support for such seasoned performers as Streep, Dern and Dench? Says David Carr, media columnist and cultural reporter at the New York Times, “The newbies and fresh faces have an advantage in that, unlike all the cynicism that’s often been embedded in the vets, they’re actually excited to play dress-up and campaign and hit the red carpet. They’re not jaded about talking to the press and doing endless rounds of interviews about their films.”

And Carr stresses that “new blood” is good for everyone in the industry, “because it makes it fun and you can experience (the Oscar excitement) through their eyes. And all the rest of us old crusty people standing around talking about the Kabuki of it can see someone really come into themselves for the very first time, and be celebrated for it.”

Positioning vets can be trickier. “They’re like that comfortable old sofa,” says a publicist. “You know their work, and it’s easy to take it for granted. So I think it was a shrewd move for an actor like Bruce Dern, who’s been around so long, to campaign for best actor instead of supporting. He got the supporting nomination back in the ’70s, so it’s been a long time, and this got people’s attention.”

“Meryl’s perfected the art of campaigning without campaigning,” notes Carr, “and she’s incredibly gracious and good at helping everyone through the process, which is fundamentally an unseemly thing. It’s a beauty pageant.”

For Joey Berlin, president of the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., it’s a “typical year” for the beauty pageant, where most of the campaigners — “Meryl, Leonardo, Julia, Sandra Bullock, Amy Adams, Judi Dench and so on” — are all very familiar names. “And there’s always a small slice available to exciting newcomers like Lupita and Barkhad. Last year it was Quvenzhane Wallis.”

Some actors “are just so instinctual” about campaigning, sums up Carr. “Look at Jennifer Lawrence. She’s able to wear her fame as a loose garment and make it fun. Others have to learn. When Amy Adams was first campaigning for ‘Junebug’ in ’05, she was terrified of the whole process. Now, five nominations later, she’s a veteran herself.”

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