Top 10 surefire ways to win an Oscar
LOS ANGELES, CA -- Daniel Day-Lewis in "My Left Foot." Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia." Gwyneth Paltrow in "Shakespeare in Love." All are Academy Award winners; all fit into a set of unwritten criteria believed to be the Oscar "type."
Yes, like women who veer toward bad boys and men who seek out trophy wives, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a type. And if filmmakers play to it, they have a surer shot at scoring the most prestigious trophy in the industry.
This fact becomes the stuff of spoof during Oscar season. On a recent episode of NBC's "30 Rock," the self-absorbed Jenna Maroney wailed about wanting to win an Oscar playing a disabled version of '60s crooner Janis Joplin: "The academy loves dead singers and the handicapped, and Janis was both!"
Insensitive? Perhaps. But entirely off base? No.
Looking at the roster of Oscar-winning films, it's easy to come up with a checklist of criteria capable of wooing academy voters.
Below, check out ABCNews.com's take on 10 ways movies can win an Oscar -- or at least get nominated for the award -- and see how this year's crop of contenders might fare.
1. Star a Handicapped/Disabled/Mentally Ill Character
Jenna Maroney was right -- more often than not, if an able-minded, able-bodied actor can convince audiences he or she is otherwise, the academy will bow down. Leonardo DiCaprio scored his first Oscar nomination for playing the mentally handicapped brother of Johnny Depp's character in 1993's "What's Eating Gilbert Grape."
"Milk" nominee Sean Penn earned his third Oscar nod for playing a mentally handicapped father in 2001's "I Am Sam."
Billy Bob Thornton won a best adapted screenplay Oscar for "Sling Blade," about a mentally disabled man jailed for murder.
"Tropic Thunder," this year's Oscar-nominated satire about the movie industry, uses Penn's "I Am Sam" loss to illustrate the phenomenon. Kirk Lazarus, played by Robert Downey Jr., points out several not-so-politically-correct examples to explain to Ben Stiller's Tug Speedman why his over-the-top performance as a mentally challenged man didn't bring home an Oscar:
Kirk Lazarus: "Everybody knows you never do a full retard."
Tugg Speedman: "What do you mean?"
Kirk Lazarus: "Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, 'Rain Man,' look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Count toothpicks to your cards. Autistic. Sure. Not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, 'Forrest Gump.' Slow, yes. Retarded? Maybe. Braces on his legs. But he 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. Don't believe me? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, 'I Am Sam.' Went full retard. Went home empty handed."
Also, it should not go unnoticed that in real life, Downey, who is white and American, has been nominated in the best supporting actor category for his turn as the multiple Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus, a white Australian playing a black man.
2. Make a Movie About the Holocaust
The academy loves history and few periods lend themselves to drama more than Nazi-era Germany.
Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" won seven Academy Awards in 1994, including best picture. "The Counterfeiters," a 2006 film about a Nazi plot to financially destabilize the United Kingdom, won Austria its first Oscar by scoring the best foreign language film award.
Hoping to take advantage of the trend this year: "The Reader," about a Nazi war crimes trial, is up for five awards, including best picture and best actress for Kate Winslet.
3. If Not the Holocaust, Make It a Period Piece
As noted, Oscar voters veer toward films with historical grounding. Elizabethan England's fared well with the academy -- 1998's "Shakespeare in Love" won seven Oscars, including best picture and best actress (Paltrow); 1998's "Elizabeth" and its 2007 sequel, "Elizabeth: the Golden Age," both scored a slew of major nominations and won awards for makeup and costume design, respectively. Depression-era films like "Cinderella Man," which picked up three nominations in 2006, also stand to do well. This year, Clint Eastwood's "Changeling" could further that legacy.
4. Make a Straight Actor Play Gay
It worked for "Brokeback Mountain." The 2005 film about gay cowboys, played by straight Hollywood heartthrobs Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, won three Oscars and was widely favored to take home best picture, but lost to "Crash."
"Milk," starring Penn as the nation's first openly homosexual elected official, will attempt to take home the big trophy at this year's awards.
5. Make a Hot Actress Not Hot
It's the "take me seriously" syndrome: Often, to score an Oscar, the industry's most attractive actresses put their looks on the chopping block in the name of their craft.
Hilary Swank successfully did it with "Boys Don't Cry," when she shed pounds to assume the stature of a homosexual teen boy and won a best actress Oscar for her performance. Charlize Theron shed her image as a Hollywood glamour queen to play a serial killer in 2003's "Monster," winning critical acclaim along with a best actress Oscar.
This year, in "Rachel Getting Married," Anne Hathaway gave up her red carpet glow for a drug addict's pallor -- like her predecessors, she's also up for a best actress award.
6. Make a Hot Actor Not Hot
By the same token, stripping a Hollywood heartthrob of his hunkiness has a way of wooing the academy. Granted, Javier Bardem can pin last year's Oscar for "No Country for Old Men" primarily on his acting talents, but it didn't hurt his case that he was able to pull off that performance sporting one of the ugliest haircuts known to man.
Brad Pitt let makeup mask his chiseled good looks in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," awing audiences with the transformation. Considering the film's bevy of nominations, including a best actor nod, he amazed the academy as well.
7. Feature a Dead Actor
When an actor dies, the academy perks up. Oscar voters have a long tradition of bestowing posthumous nominations. Among the most famous: James Dean scored two nods after his untimely death, for 1955's "East of Eden" and 1956's "Giant." But winning a statue from beyond the grave is not so easy.
The last time the academy awarded a dead actor with an Oscar was when Peter Finch won best actor for 1976's "Network." The late Ledger could advance the trend if he scores the supporting actor Oscar for his much-lauded performance as the Joker in "The Dark Knight."
8. Feature the Comeback of a 'Has-Been'
America loves a comeback story; so too does the academy. After an almost 20-year-long absence from the movie industry, Depression-era star Gloria Swanson burst back onto the scene and scored a best actress nomination with her role in 1950's "Sunset Boulevard." Mickey Rourke did the same with his career-reviving turn in "The Wrestler."
9. Give It Subtitles
In the same way that Americans sometimes assume Britons are intelligent by virtue of their accents alone, sticking subtitles on a film can instantly make it seem smarter and more worthy of an award.
The 1998 Italian-language film "Life Is Beautiful" went beyond winning the foreign language category to score Oscars for best music and best actor. Star/director/writer Roberto Benigni's ecstatic, energetic acceptance speech stole the show.
This year's subtitled nominee: "Slumdog Millionaire." Though it's acted mainly in English, a few key scenes are spoken in Hindi and feature an on-screen English translation.
10. Make It the 'Feel-Good Movie of the Year'
Sometimes the Oscar goes not to the film that was the most aptly acted, the most visually stunning, the most precisely directed or the most well written. Sometimes, it goes to the movie that simply made everyone go "Aww!" at the end, like "Forrest Gump" in 1995, like "Titanic" in 1998 and, perhaps, like "Slumdog Millionaire" in 2009.
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