Rajeev Masand – movies that matter : from bollywood, hollywood and everywhere else

February 20, 2011

How to win an Oscar!

Filed under: What's new — Rajeev @ 10:48 pm


It’s no secret. Oscars love the handicapped. But there are rules to how far you can go. In the uproarious comedy Tropic Thunder, respected method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) explains the code for playing disabled to action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) who complains about being left out of the Oscar party despite playing a mentally challenged ‘Simple Jack’. Lazarus explains: “Everybody knows you never go full retard. Check it out: Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man – look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump, slow yes, retarded maybe, had braces on his legs but charmed the pants off Nixon, and he won a ping-pong competition, that ain’t retarded. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard.”

Think about it. How often have you watched a performance in a film and gone: “Now that will get him an Oscar”? The Academy’s weakness for certain kinds of films and roles is legendary. It’s inspired spoofs, and the joke is that Hollywood studios make these films each year specifically to add to their Oscar tally.

With tongue firmly in cheek, here’s a how-to guide to winning an Oscar. 10 sure-fire ways to Oscar glory:

1. Handicaps help

Look down the annals of Oscar history and it’s a ‘who’s-got-what-handicap’ that always seems to make the cut. Past winners include Jamie Foxx (blind in Ray), Jack Nicholson (OCD in As Good As It Gets), Geoffrey Rush (mental illness in Shine), Al Pacino (blind in Scent of a Woman), Daniel Day Lewis (cerebral palsy in My Left Foot) and Cliff Robertson (mentally challenged in Charly). And that’s not even counting Lazarus’ shining examples of Hanks and Hoffman in Forrest Gump and Rain Man respectively.

Showy performances have always scored over the subtle. Case in point: The criticism the Academy received for overlooking Tom Cruise’s simmering performance as the ‘normal’ brother in Rain Man, and rewarding Dustin Hoffman’s attention-grabbing turn instead.

2. Play gay

When Sean Penn won the Oscar for playing slain gay senator Harvey Milk in 2009, he opened his acceptance speech by jokingly addressing the Academy as “You commie homo-loving sons-of-guns”. That may have been a reference to the Academy’s recent affection for gay characters in film. Although Tom Hanks (in Philadelphia) was the only high-profile star before Penn to win an Oscar for his portrayal of an openly gay character, let’s not forget nominations have been aplenty.

Ian McKellan was nominated for playing a troubled filmmaker lusting after his gardener in 1998’s Gods & Monsters. Javier Bardem landed a nod for his portrayal of gay Cuban poet and novelist Renaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls (2000). This year, Colin Firth makes it to this list for his part as a lonely gay professor dealing with the death of his longtime companion in A Single Man.

And in 2005, both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal received nominations (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor respectively) for playing long-separated gay cowboys in Brokeback Mountain. Ironically, Best Actor went to Philip Seymour Hoffman that year for his performance in Capote, as the legendary author Truman Capote – who, by the way, also happened to be openly gay.

Playing a person of another gender always grabs Oscar eyeballs. In 2006, Felicity Huffman was nominated for her role as a transsexual on a road trip with her long-lost son in Transamerica. Hillary Swank even made the cut in 1999 when she nabbed Best Actress for playing out the real-life, gut-wrenching story of the murdered transgender man Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry.

3. Make a Holocaust film

In an episode of the British TV comedy series Extras, Kate Winslet, playing a mock version of herself reveals why actors grab roles in Holocaust dramas: “I’ve noticed if you do a film about the Holocaust, you’re guaranteed an Oscar.” Winslet may have said that in jest, but ironically the actress won her first Oscar two years later for playing – yes, a Nazi guard in Holocaust movie, The Reader.

Don’t forget Steven Spielberg had directed more than 15 successful films (including E.T., Jaws, The Color Purple and Jurassic Park) before he finally won Best Director for Schindler’s List. Ditto for Roman Polanski, who in a career spanning 55 years and several acclaimed films, has won Best Director only once for The Pianist in 2003.

Even the ‘until-then-unknown-to-Hollywood’ Italian actor-director Roberto Benigni took home three Oscars in 1998 – including Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film – for his bittersweet Holocaust-themed film, Life Is Beautiful.

4. If you’re a rom-com lead, go serious

At least twice in the past 10 years it’s been proven that when top-billed rom-com leads ditch the mush for some serious histrionics, the Academy is only too happy to respond. America’s Sweetheart Julia Roberts scooped Best Actress in 2000 for her arresting performance as a single mother of three who single-handedly brings down a power company accused of polluting a city’s water supply in Erin Brockovich.

Reese Witherspoon repeated the achievement in 2005 when the Legally Blonde star snagged the award for her solid performance as June Carter, the supportive wife of country musician Johnny Cash in Walk The Line.

This year, more than likely Sandra Bullock will prove that theory right once again when she wins for playing a well-intentioned Texan mom who adopts a homeless black teenager and turns him into a football star in The Blind Side.

Romantic comedies may set the cash registers ringing in a way that few films can, but when it comes to street-cred, the ladies have to prove they can do more than just flutter their lashes cutely.

5. Undergo a physical transformation

When Denzel Washington opened the envelope to announce the Best Actress in 2003, he said, “The winner, by a nose, is Nicole Kidman.” Washington was referring to the prosthetic snout that made Kidman near-unrecognizable in her role as Virginia Woolf in The Hours and gave, what many Oscar pundits feel, the edge over that year’s favourite Renee Zellweger in Chicago.

Ditch the make-up and the Oscar jury will immediately take notice. Charlize Theron was any man’s pin-up girl, perfect in every way. Monster changed that. Theron had stringy blonde hair, piled on the pounds and wore prosthetic teeth for her role as bisexual serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Halle Berry was stripped clean as a Plain Jane waitress who loses her son in Monster’s Ball.

Javier Bardem’s chilling stare and deep-set drawl set him apart as a hit man in No Country For Old Men, but everyone remembers his ugly mullet. When Bardem first saw himself in the hairdo for the movie, he reportedly remarked, “I’m not going to get laid for the next three months.” It got him the Oscar though.

6. Play a real person

Bio-pics are fascinating. Everyone wants to see if the actor has succeeded in nailing the real-life person or not. Right since Ben Kingsley took the Oscar for Gandhi in 1982 to this year’s nomination for Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus, the Academy has always leaned towards performances based on real-life politicians, royalty, authors, even serial killers. It’s sure to get you at least a nomination, if not the golden baldie himself.

Forrest Whitaker as Idi Amin (Last King Of Scotland), Sean Penn as Harvey Milk (Milk), Meryl Streep as Julia Child (Julie & Julia), Will Smith as Mohammed Ali (Ali), Denzel Washington as Malcolm X (Malcolm X), Robert Downey Jr as Charles Chaplin (Chaplin), Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) and Anthony Hopkins (Nixon) both as ex-Prez Richard Nixon, Woody Harrelson as Larry Flynt (People Vs Larry Flynt), Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles (Ray), Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote (Capote) – we could go on and on, but you get the big picture.

The Oscars bow and scrape to the queens too – look at Judi Dench as Queen Victoria (Mrs Brown) and Lizzie the First (Shakespeare In Love), Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I (Elizabeth), and Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II (The Queen).

7. Play a washed-up loser

Alcohol. Check. Drugs. Check. Spiral downwards. Check. The Academy likes a loser, whether he’s the kind to rise above his weaknesses like a phoenix (Joaquin Phoenix in Walk The Line) or succumb to his vices (Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas).

Mickey Rourke had a comeback of sorts last year, playing Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson in The Wrestler, a fading star past his prime who decides, despite a heart attack to get back into the ring. Randy’s efforts to reach out to his estranged daughter echo in this year’s hot nominee for Best Actor, Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. Blake too tries to make contact with his son, and where Randy’s relationship with a stripper gives him hope, Blake’s love affair with a journalist makes him reassess his career as a country singer.

8. Don’t Do Comedy – You’ll Never Win

At the 79th Academy Awards, Will Ferrell, Jack Black and John C Reilly did a musical parody on how the Academy always seems to turn its nose up at comedy. Will Ferrell sang: “A comedian at the Oscars, the saddest man of all/ Your movie may make millions, but your name they’ll never call/ I guess you don’t like laughter, and a smile brings you down/ A comedian at the Oscars is the saddest, bitterest, alcoholic clown.”

While the entire film fraternity laughed over the trio’s performance, it rang scarily true. The Oscars don’t care for comedy. Even though the Academy has expanded its Best Picture shortlist to 10 films this year, it found no love for one of 2009’s biggest hits and best-voted comedies ever, The Hangover. Even nominations for funny people come few and far between. The odd ones like Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie), Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Diary) and Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) stand out, but you can be sure they never make it to the finish line.

9. Play a teacher who changes the life of his students

The Academy has always been a sucker for films about education and learning. Throw in a professor with an unorthodox way of teaching, or an educator who turns around the lives of a bunch of drifters and you have the Academy sitting up. Robin Williams may have only received a nomination for playing the teacher who stands on top of his desk and addresses his class in Dead Poets Society, but he did take home the Oscar for inspiring Matt Damon’s Will to mathematical glory in Good Will Hunting. Richard Dreyfuss and Ryan Gosling made it to the nominations with Dr Holland’s Opus and Half Nelson respectively, but Robert Donat was named Best Actor for his turn as the much-loved teacher in Goodbye Mr Chips.

And despite Eliza Dolittle singing “Just you wait Henry Higgins”, Rex Harrison received his only Academy Award for his performance as the arrogant, snotty Professor Henry Higgins who flushes out Eliza’s Cockney accent in My Fair Lady.

10. If everything else fails, just take your clothes off

What’s common between Gwenyth Paltrow in Shakespeare In Love, Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Diane Lane in Unfaithful, Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler, Kate Winslet in The Reader, and good God, even Judi Dench in Iris? They all took their kit off and landed either a nomination or the big prize itself. “I like exposing myself. There’s not an awful lot that embarrasses me. I’m the kind of actress that absolutely believes in exposing myself,” Winslet has said about her nude turns in Titanic, Little Children, Iris and The Reader, all performances which the Academy took due notice of.

Taking your clothes off works like a charm for the women, and occasionally the men get lucky too – Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves (1990) and Viggo Mortenson for Eastern Promises (2007), being cases in point.

Nudies – they always score the goal.

So there…

It can’t possibly be easy to arrive at the best films and the most deserving performances each year – even if, like its official website says – you’re the Academy, and you include “over 6,000 members who represent 15 general areas”. Despite boasting an assembly line of the finest in every field, the Academy still goes back to its old habits each year.

The celebrated filmmaker Christopher Nolan made light of it in 2009 when he responded to Oscar’s snub of “The Dark Knight”. Although the film was a multi-million dollar-grossing behemoth and also one of the best reviewed films of the year, “The Dark Knight” was left out of the Best Picture and Best Director race. Nolan cheekily remarked that perhaps next time it might be a good idea to make Batman gay, and an alcoholic, and to set the film against a Holocaust backdrop.

If you still don’t win Mr Nolan, you could always get Batman to flash.

(This piece first appeared in The Hindustan Times in February 2010)


  1. awesome, Indian movie would never get an Oscar is these are the criteria’s….

    Comment by Yaman — February 21, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

  2. Actor who went through a major physical transformation but didnt even get Nominated- Christian Bale for Machinist. He would have bet his house that he would atleast be nominated

    Anything film that deals with magic, supernatural, comic book character rarely get nominated- Case in point Pirates of the Carrebean, Dark Knight , Harry Potter. Although a notable exception was Lord of the rings

    Comment by CM — February 22, 2011 @ 5:48 am

  3. Very accurate..It’s time the Aamir Khans of Bollywood take notice of this post and develop their films accordingly..

    Comment by Mansee — February 22, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

  4. what about musical like chicago,west side story,my fair lady,sound of music,oliver.

    Comment by Vipin Raj — February 26, 2011 @ 2:43 am

  5. ROM COM HAVE NO PLACE FOR OSCARS..similarly Sci -Fi have also no room,,otherwise INCEPTION should won bagfull of oscar this time…INCEPTION best sci- fi ever,best idea ever &the innovation.

    Comment by RAJA — February 26, 2011 @ 7:23 am

  6. whenever the words like “creative”, “art” , “award-winning” are spoken…the first thing that comes to the mind of most is that something serious..a one in a million storyline or some rather unconventional depiction of human nature/behavior is being refered to…sadly even the guys at the academy seem to havin a belief in the same myth. Every genre of cinema..viz.a historical, biography, comedy , science-fiction etc…is an art…same amount of sweat nd conviction is required to make it work by the whole team…nd thus deserves equal consideration

    Comment by Ravishu Bansal — February 27, 2011 @ 12:09 am

  7. i fully accept wit RAJA(above).
    inception is superb…very intelligent…..

    Comment by sudha — April 3, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

  8. fantastic n true 10 steps of winning…..i m a die hard fan of Chris Nolan and this was again vry sad to see that he got nothing…he deserves oscar for his 4 films:
    the prestige
    if u look closely to these 4 films u’ll see the best direction(all 4), cinematography(the prestige n inception), music(hans zimmer for TDK n INCEPTION), scripts(all 4), etc etc…technically these all 4 were strong…yes i knw that they won several awards but still where’s the best director award?
    3 times nominated for direction but got nothing…:(

    Comment by arpit gangwal — May 15, 2011 @ 11:02 am

  9. Awesome…winning an Oscar is the Ultimate aim for every Actor!!!

    Comment by PRANAV — June 3, 2011 @ 6:51 pm

  10. I am also a die hard Nolan fan. The guy makes one gem of a movie after another. Just look at the list:
    The Prestige
    The Dark Knight
    Just tell me the name of one director other than Martin Scorsese who has made once in a lifetime movie one after another and also got tremendous critical acclaim and mind-boggling positive audience reviews. Nolan rightly deserves Oscar for almost every film he has made as mentioned by Arpit above. But the academy still doesn’t feel he fits in the scheme of things….Maybe Nolan deserves more, much more than a mere Oscar. So dear critics at the Academy, you don’t have the right to judge him…he is and will always be “The People’s Director”.

    Comment by Salil Talwar — June 4, 2011 @ 11:02 pm

  11. Where is Robert De Niro – arguably the greatest living actor and his famous roles. Most notably, Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (Oscar winning performance) and his weight gain is now part of Legendary Hollywood folklore. Who better than him to put in physical transformation category?

    Comment by PCZ — July 2, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

  12. im a die hard fan of nolan….Academy never took care of him….
    many of you forgot insomnia….

    Look at the list of this master’s masterpieces….He is the best director of the decade..

    The Prestige (No once can make this expect him).
    Batman Begins,
    The Dark Knight,

    and im sure TDKR will be a gem of a movie…i saw the prologue on net. tom hardy is excellent as Bane…

    Chris should have got many awards for best Director at academy his face was like a child who gave money for lolipop but didnt got it ..He is far better than danny boyle or TDK was far better than slumdog….

    Comment by Sajid — December 18, 2011 @ 4:42 am

  13. and Salil ur right….Nolan will always be people’s director…..so academy award critics…..get your A– kicked….you cant judge nolan…

    Comment by Sajid — December 18, 2011 @ 4:43 am

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