In a season of underdog triumphs, Oscar contenders jostle for 'little guy' status
The history of the Academy Awards suggests that Hollywood loves a good Cinderella story. Will this year be any different?
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Beyond that, the Academy has been known to extend that into the real-life stories behind the scenes. They take pride in ferreting out and lauding performers who seem to embody the spirit of the plucky newcomer who triumphs over great adversity, often personally embodying the stories they portray.Skip to next paragraph
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Think of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who won a supporting-actor Oscar for his role in "The Killing Fields," a part that paralleled his own very tragic life story, says Ms. Gray. A Cambodian physician who lost his family under the Pol Pot regime, Ngor portrayed a Cambodian journalist who survives the genocide. Marlee Matlin is another one, she adds, a deaf actress who won a supporting actress award for her work in "Children of a Lesser God."
The same logic applies to films. Small-budget productions that feature deeply personal struggles have a track record of Oscar upsets, says Gray, who points to a fine tradition of unknowns overtaking the anointed winners, long before the ascendancy of the independent film over recent decades. Certainly the 2006 long-shot win of "Crash" was a surprise," she says. But her all-time come-from-behind favorite was "Marty," a small, black-and-white film written by Paddy Chayefsky about two underdogs in life who resign themselves to never finding true love.
Academy voters identified with the universal Every- man at odds with the world, and so "Marty" usurped big-studio films such as "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing," and "Mister Roberts," in 1955. "The Academy prides itself on seeking out the small, possibly overlooked performances and rewarding them," says Gray.
A predilection for the simple and a suspicion of the high and mighty is also fundamentally a very American trait, says film scribe Roger Schulman, who co-wrote "Shrek." He says it relates to our antipathy for the boastful or proud.
"This probably comes from the earliest stories," he says, pointing to early creation myths. After all, he points out, Satan is a fallen angel. And what was his crime? "Overweening pride."
Those who help orchestrate Oscar campaigns don't like to discuss them. One public-relations professional who is deeply involved in several Oscar campaigns and who would speak only on condition of anonymity, says that ever since the success of such small films as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," he and his cohorts have understood the appeal of the underdog campaign. It's a delicate balance, though, because American audiences are very savvy and don't like being manipulated.
"The film really has to embody that spirit or audiences won't buy it," he says. Given the influence of the indie-film market these days, he adds, nobody can afford to overlook the appeal of the underdog. "Everybody loves a Cinderella story," he adds.