Quvenzhane Wallis never found herself caught up in Oscar’s luminous glow. As a matter of fact, she wasn’t aware of Oscar at all.
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“She really had no idea,” says “Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin of his star and lead actress nominee on the heated competition for the Academy Awards. “When people first started mentioning it, she probably thought they meant Oscar the Grouch. But once we explained it, she came around to calling it the ‘golden man.’ ”
Zeitlin says Wallis’ astonishing achievement, much like “Beasts” journey from its break out at Sundance last year to four Oscar nominations, has been a decathlon.
“There are so many different moments it could have stopped and just when we thought this is it, it would blast through again. But I never seriously thought we ever had a chance to be nominated,” he says. “We just continued to promote the film as much as we could, traveled to 20 cities around the world, did screenings, interviews, whatever we could to get the word out.”
It also helps to have a buoyant young lead who charms on and off the screen. In interviews, red carpets, awards and even on a New Orleans Mardi Gras float this week, Wallis shines with an infectious confidence and joy.
“She is really just having fun. We are getting to live this surreal existence for a while,” says Zeitlin.
Like 9-year-old Wallis, fellow lead actress Emmanuelle Riva — the Academy’s oldest nominee at 85 — has had a long road since her movie premiered. Her searing portrayal as a former music teacher confronting mortality in Michael Haneke’s “Amour” was considered by many a standout perforance.
“This is an extremely rich year with a lot of big studio films in contention,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker. “That’s why we knew we had to get in very early with ‘Amour.’ ”
They began screening the film to Academy members soon after it scored a major kick-starter winning the Palme d’Or in May at Cannes, and made sure screeners were out by early November.
“We knew we had a shot at the major categories so we started screening it immediately to Academy members,” Barker says. “We couldn’t leave our campaign until late December when the film opened. We wouldn’t be able to compete with the high-profile films going out then. We wanted them to discover it early and we were confident that word-of-mouth would sustain it.”
Legacy was also a factor that helped boost directer and actress nods for Haneke and Riva, respectively. Neither have been around much to stump and they will only arrive in Hollywood the day before the Oscar ceremony.
“We positioned the film that this was really their moment for recognition,” says Barker. Still revered for her role in 1959’s “Hiroshima, mon amour” and winning key critics awards such L.A. Film Critics helped keep Riva in the mind of voters.
“You have to put her performance out there but not necessarily have her tout her performance,” Barker says.
Getting in early also helped “Les Miserables” thesps Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway score Oscar noms, according to producer Debra Hayward.
“When we started looking at the first frames of footage, we knew we had something special,” she says.
By widely releasing a behind-the-scenes featurette long before the film debuted in December, they touted the actors’ mastery of live singing (not to mention an early look at the emaciated transformations of Jackman and Hathaway).
“It went out so widely and it was a real gear change after that,” she says. “The live singing was such an achievement and (the featurette) was a great way to convey that.”
But starting late in the game boosted Jessica Chastain’s chances of a lead actress nomination for “Zero Dark Thirty,” per Dave Karger, Oscar watcher and chief correspondent for Fandango.
“If you look at back to September and October when we were putting together our lists of who could be nominated, she wasn’t really on anyone’s radar,” Karger says. “The movie was something of a mystery and no one really understood the character of Maya and how strong her performance was. I think she is the one person that went from zero to 60 in the shortest amount of time in the awards seasons.”
But it’s often about perception and not just performance that can get an actor over the hump.
“The benefit of such an extensive awards season is that actors are so visible, and they get their chance on stage long before Oscar night,” says Awards Daily blogger Sasha Stone. “It’s not just about receiving their awards, it’s often how well they play when they accept them.”
“Someone like Daniel Day-Lewis has been so gracious,” she says. “You don’t get the feeling that he needs to do the dance to win another Oscar, but he recognizes that ‘Lincoln’ is a tough sell and they all worked so hard for the film and he is there to support the movie.”
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