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The Unwritten Rules of Oscar

Did you, by any chance, notice the lovely pictures in "A Very Long Engagement," one of the spectacularly photographed nominees (and the ASC winner) for Best Cinematography this year?

Shhhhhh. Don't tell a soul. Close Oscar-watchers (and Academy insiders) know that what you are about to read is true -- but few like to talk about these things. When it comes to picking Oscar winners, you can study the stats of Oscars past in search of patterns and clues, but there are certain influential paradigms that defy and transcend conventional statistical analysis.

Here are some of them -- the Unwritten Rules of Oscar:

Really the Most The easiest way to pick a winner is to approach the nominees this way: Substitute the word “most” for “best” in the name of the category. You see, in order for a sufficient number of Academy members to single out work for praise, first they must notice it. This is particularly true of the acting categories, and the work of “technical” or supporting artists and artisans. Subtlety is not the Academy’s forte – witness, for example, the failure to nominate Paul Giamatti in "Sideways" for best actor this year.

For the Academy, whatever stands out the most is best – even though, in terms of quality of work, it’s usually exactly the opposite: the less you notice something, the more accomplished it actually is. But when it comes to second-guessing Oscar voters, it never hurts to ask yourself: Who did the “most” acting? Most editing? Most noticeable cinematography or music? Most conspicuous costumes or makeup or production design or screenwriting or directing?

Holocaust Trumps All Perhaps the best-known unofficial Academy rule is this: When it doubt, go for the Holocaust film. This can apply in virtually any category – from documentary short to Best Picture (although there are always exceptions, as when Roman Polanski’s "The Pianist" took all the major awards – actor, screenplay, director – but then lost the evening’s big prize to "Chicago"). Spike Lee was pretty sure he had his Oscar in the bag when his "4 Little Girls" (about the Birmingham church bombing) was nominated for Best Documentary Feature. Then he realized he was up against "The Long Way Home," produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, about survivors of the Holocaust. Indeed, in the last ten Oscar contests, the Holocaust film has won in the Documentary Feature category four times – every time a Holocaust-themed film was nominated. (Another related winner was "One Day in September," about the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.)

Addendum: Why is this the case? Is it necessarily because there are so many Jews in the Academy? I don't know -- there are no demographic statistics available about the ethnic or religious composition of the Academy's membership. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say it has more to do with Rule #1, above. It's hard to top the enormous emotional impact of a movie about the Holocaust.

As I Lay Acting Apply the death test: Any nominated film in which at least one of the main characters dies is likely to win Best Picture and acting Oscars. Of the last 20 Best Picture winners, 14 have killed off at least one of their significant characters – and, as a public service, I will not tell you which movies or characters those are. Terminal illnesses, tragic accidents, executions – all provide occasions for high drama (and Much Acting) of the kind Oscar laps up like warm milk. Most Oscar-bait movies either sentence a major character to death, or kill off a supporting character to give the major players something to re-act to. Sacrificial deaths are especially appreciated.

Just to give you an idea of how important the Dramatic Device of Death is, Mel Gibson’s first snuff-porn movie, "Braveheart" (or “The Rehearsal for The Passion of the Christ”), climaxed in an orgiastic torture scene, a lurid and sensational wallow in physical agony worthy of the masterminds of the Inquisition, in which his William Wallace is drawn and quartered and beheaded and otherwise killed for a long, long, long time. "Braveheart" is one of the few movies ever to win Best Picture without a single acting nomination. ("Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is another, and it featured a sacrificial death by one of its characters who was touted for a supporting nomination but didn’t receive one. It did capture one acting nomination twice-removed, however: Sir Ian McKellen was nominated for his role in the first installment of the trilogy.)

Love on the Rocks Leading actresses tend to win Oscars for portraying sexual conduct outside the bonds of matrimony – willing or unwilling, in either professional or freelance capacities. With few relatively chaste exceptions (Sally Field in "Places in the Heart," Jodie Foster in "The Silence of the Lambs," Susan Sarandon in "Dead Man Walking," Frances McDormand's pregnant Marge in "Fargo" – surely the most married of all Best Actress characters), the winners for Best Actress in the last 20 years have been outlaws or outcasts, villains or victims in the land of love and sex – or, at the very least, participants in rather unconventional romances: Kathy Bates in "Misery," Hilary Swank in "Boys Don’t Cry," Jessica Tandy in "Driving Miss Daisy," Jessica Lange in "Blue Sky," Jodie Foster in "The Accused," Gwyneth Paltrow in "Shakespeare in Love," Holly Hunter in "The Piano," Helen Hunt in "As Good As It Gets," Charlize Theron in "Monster."

Pain Pays Meanwhile, leading actors are awarded statuettes for pain and suffering (up to and including death), whether physical or mental. Sometimes it’s major or minor mental illness (Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets," Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man," Geoffrey Rush in "Shine," Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump"); or pathological obsession (F. Murray Abraham in "Amadeus," Kevin Spacey in "American Beauty"); or victims of physical debilitation or brutality (Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia," Russell Crowe in "Gladiator," Daniel Day Lewis in "My Left Foot").

Having a Period The showiest way to flaunt your budget (besides spending it on astronomical marquee names) is to set your movie in the past, so you can see all the departments – costumes, production design, cinematography, makeup – working hard all the time. It’s astonishing, but the only Best Picture winners in the last 20 years to be set in contemporary times (real or fantasy) were "Rain Man," "The Silence of the Lambs," and "American Beauty" – which are also among the few that weren’t historical biographies (although "Rain Man" was supposedly based on a real person).

Not-So-Instant Karma Every now and then, somebody wins an Oscar for work they should have won for a year or more before. Like when Jeremy Irons picked up his Best Actor trophy for playing Claus von Bulow in "Reversal of Fortune," he went out of his way to thank director David Cronenberg. “Some of you will understand why,” he said. And some of us certainly did. Cronenberg didn’t direct him in "Reversal of Fortune" (Barbet Schroeder did, and it was a wickedly witty performance), but had directed Irons’ masterful dual-turn as the twin gynecologists in "Dead Ringers" the previous year. Irons said in many interviews that he considered his Oscar an acknowledgment of both – or, rather, all three – performances.

Likewise, Russell Crowe won for "Gladiator" when he really should have won for "The Insider" the year before. And Judi Dench won for her supporting role in "Shakespeare in Love" when she didn’t win for her leading role in "Mrs. Brown" one year earlier. And it seems extremely likely that the Academy’s vote for Renee Zellweger in "Cold Mountain" was a way of making up for her not winning for "Chicago" the previous year, even though her co-star Catherine Zeta-Jones did.

In other cases, an Oscar for a particular film can be seen as a kind of career achievement award – as could be the case if Martin Scorsese won for directing "The Aviator" this year. Nobody’s going to say that "The Aviator" is Scorsese’s best movie, but if he didn’t win for "Taxi Driver" or "Raging Bull" or "GoodFellas," you can’t say he doesn’t deserve a little bald guy for his mantelpiece. Likewise, Paul Newman’s Oscar for Scorsese’s "The Color of Money" is well-deserved, but Newman probably won it because he’d never won before.

Old folks in supporting categories are also often acknowledged for a lifetime of good work. Think Helen Hayes in "Airport," Don Ameche in "Cocoon," or James Coburn in "Affliction." It’s as hard to believe that Morgan Freeman hasn’t won an Oscar as it is to believe Scorsese hasn’t, and this could be the year both get their (long over-)due.

Pretty Is as Pretty Does In what may be the most openly honest Oscar acceptance speech in history, Director of Photography David Watkin, picking up his trophy for his work on the lusciously filmed "Out of Africa," began by thanking his second unit, noting that he didn’t shoot all those gorgeous scenic helicopter shots of the African landscape for which the Academy was honoring him. Even though first-rate cinematography is more about expressing emotions and ideas with visual fluidity, flair and economy, the prettiest pictures – the ones that make audiences sit up and go “Wow!” – almost always win. That’s not to say they’re not extraordinary accomplishments, but they’re not exactly subtle. Instead, they’re usually highly stylized, often epic and rarely anything less than spectacular: "The Mission," "Glory," "The Last Emperor," "The English Patient," "American Beauty," "JFK," "Dances with Wolves," "The Killing Fields," "A River Runs Through It," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," "Titanic," "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan," "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," and so on.

Surprise! Count on at least one surprise, off-the-wall winner – usually in one of the supporting acting categories, where things tend to be the most unpredictable. Think Marisa Tomei in "My Cousin Vinny," or Marcia Gay Harden in "Pollock," or Jim Broadbent for "Iris." Nobody likes to be too predicable, even Academy voters.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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