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?

Scott Wallace - staff
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

From politics to pigskins, pooches, and pop culture, America loves its underdogs. Whether it's come-from-behind kids like Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee; Herbie Hancock's unlikely triumph at the Grammys; the New York Giants snatching last-minute victory from the undefeated New England Patriots; or Uno, the modest Beagle pup who took "Best in Show" at Madison Square Garden, this is the season of the Cinderellas.

Not a surprise, then, that every Oscar nominee wants to be positioned as the underdog. Especially since all-too-many front-runners in past years have failed to cross the finish line in first place. (Remember how "Brokeback Mountain" was considered a shoo-in for the Best Picture of 2006 only to be upset by "Crash"?) As handicapping for Sunday's Academy Awards race intensifies, the value of the "humble" nominee is clearer than ever. When it comes to being the unassuming stepchild in Hollywood, there's more at stake than a glass slipper. The right kind of "Oscar whisper" can mean tens of millions of dollars at the box office, not to mention a statuette.

"They're all underdogs these days," says Rob Silverstein, executive producer of NBC's entertainment news show, Access Hollywood. "And even if they're not, they want to be," he adds with a laugh.

For now, the presumed front-runner for Best Picture is the Coen Brothers' "No Country for Old Men," which has reaped a respectable $61.3 million to date, in addition to numerous kudos from film critics and the Best Picture award by the influential Producers Guild of America. However, the film's ultraviolence and less-than-conventional ending may turn off voters. Looming large in the Coen Brothers' rear-view mirror is "Atonement," the epic period drama based on Ian McEwan's lauded novel that scooped up top honors at the Golden Globes and the British Academy Film Awards. "Michael Clayton," too, could trump "No Country for Old Men" thanks to George Clooney's high-profile support for the film in between trips to raise awareness of the Darfur situation. Then, again,, a website that tracks buzz on the nominees, notes that "There Will be Blood" – a sort of "Citizen Kane" set in the oil fields of early 20th-century California – is a "dark horse" that has been gaining momentum among voters of late. As in this presidential election cycle, though, "momentum" is a less-than-tangible property.

America was built on the notion of bootstrap success and punishes anyone who gets overconfident, says Mr. Silverstein. He points to one of the year's early underdog favorites, "Juno," a small film about a young girl's struggle to handle an unexpected pregnancy, which is beginning to suffer from "underdog" fatigue.

Audiences, not to mention Academy voters who actually determine the Oscar winners, don't like being "spun," or told what to think about a movie by studio campaigns, he says. Americans have given their hearts and movie dollars to this year's "little film that could," (last year's was "Little Miss Sunshine"). Problem is, the small-budget film isn't all that little anymore. The movie has made more money at the box office than any of the other Best Picture nominees – more than $125 million so far – which has dimmed its dark-horse pallor a tad. And thereby, some of its Oscar chances, say a number of observers. "It's hard to go on calling it an underdog at that point," adds Silverstein.

The notion that gumption trumps money or class is deeply entrenched in the American story, says film historian Beverly Gray. From the birth of the country, we were the peons who defeated an empire. The symbol of the "little guy" permeates moviemaking from Preston Sturgess to Frank Capra to Woody Allen and Adam Sandler. This same love of keeping it simple has traditionally translated into a strong independence streak when it comes to the Academy voters, says Rosie Taravella, executive director of the Rochester High Falls International Film Festival, which is located in the New York city that birthed motion-picture technology at Eastman Kodak. "Academy voters defiantly vote for their favorite performances, sometimes in spite of the publicity blitz that may have been conducted by the studio that released the film."

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.

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.

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