Oscar victory not always tied to performance
Sometimes award more for lifetime achievement
(CNN) -- Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Al Pacino learned the hard way that winning an Oscar isn't quite as simple as delivering a dead-on performance in a critically acclaimed film.
Sure, you've got to be good, even fabulous. But sometimes Oscar success has as much to do with current events, a savvy studio lobbying campaign, even a role in an earlier movie, as sheer cinematic brilliance.
"It's not about the best performances and the best films of the year. No Oscar voter believes that and no Oscar historian does," said Tom O'Neil, host of the award-related Web site, GoldDerby.com.
"What this is is Hollywood voting on itself, and the premise is by revealing winners and losers, they are giving us a peek backstage. We get to see who's in, who's out, who's cool, and it has everything to do with their back stories of the players."
Take "A Beautiful Mind," considered a leading contender for many of the top awards.
But in recent weeks it has been subjected to renewed criticism -- some are calling it an orchestrated smear campaign by Oscar competitors -- for its sanitized depiction of math wiz John Forbes Nash Jr. and his alleged anti-Semitism.
Russell Crowe, who portrays Nash in the film, also may pay a price for a reported tiff with the director of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards over a poem that was cut from the recent broadcast.
"The award is not best performance by an actor, it's best actor or best actress, and how they define 'best' has a lot to do with things off the screen, too," O'Neil said.
But that same type of sentiment could play in "Moulin Rouge" star Nicole Kidman's favor, he said.
"She became a superstar this year in the same way that Russell Crowe did last year, in that she not only had two major films, she survived the disastrous end of a fairy-tale marriage, and emerged from being merely Mrs. Tom Cruise to being Ms. Nicole Kidman, Superstar," he said.
"Oscar voters find that very sexy as a Cinderella story in a town that deals every day with fables and stories."
Here's a look, then, at some of the factors, beyond mere achievement, that can figure prominently in Academy Award success.
Hilary Swank turned in a powerful performance as transgender murder victim Teena Brandon in 1999's "Boys Don't Cry." But her bid for a best actress Oscar undoubtedly got a boost from outrage over the slaying and sympathy for the real-life subject.
The same could be said for Tom Hanks as the defiant lawyer with AIDS in "Philadelphia" (1993), Jodie Foster as the blue-collar rape victim in "The Accused" (1988), Sally Field as the union organizer in 1979's "Norma Rae," and even Julia Roberts in 2000 as the unlikely environmental activist in "Erin Brockovich."
Films that touch on a hot social or cultural issue also tend to play well with Oscar voters, their artistic merits notwithstanding.
In 1990, several film critics associations named "Goodfellas," the gritty Mafia movie from director Martin Scorsese, as the best picture. But Oscar voters went for "Dances With Wolves," the sprawling epic directed by actor Kevin Costner that examined how the United States conquered the Native American population.
After years of being overlooked, Steven Spielberg finally grabbed Academy Awards for best picture and best director with 1993's "Schindler's List," one of the biggest-scale pictures to date about the Holocaust.
Before "Schindler's List," Spielberg had been nominated four times for best director but several of those films dealt with less weighty subject matters, like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
"The Deer Hunter" won best picture in 1978, just as America was confronting the wreckage of the Vietnam War.
"When they snub 'E.T.' in favor of 'Gandhi,' it's a salute to the noble ideas and high-mindedness and values of Gandhi. It's not a sincere belief that that was the best film of the year," O'Neil said.
Overcoming the odds
Actors whose characters overcome physical or emotional disabilities often fare well come Oscar time.
Cliff Robertson won a best actor Oscar for playing a mentally retarded man who becomes super-intelligent 1968's "Charly." Daniel Day-Lewis won for his portrayal of an Irish poet fighting cerebral palsy in 1989's "My Left Foot," while Geoffrey Rush won seven years later as a mentally ill pianist in "Shine." After winning best actor for 1993's "Philadelphia," Tom Hanks portrayal of a mentally challenged man in "Forrest Gump" took home the award again.
Oscar winner Marlee Matlin dealt with deafness in 1986's "Children of a Lesser God," while Al Pacino coped with blindness in 1992's "The Scent of a Woman."
Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that Russell Crowe is a favorite to win a second straight best acting Oscar for his role as the mathematician struggling with paranoid schizophrenia.
Years of service
Acting's elite typically tend to get a few extra points for years of service when the Oscars roll around.
Nearly four decades after her first and only best actress Oscar, Hollywood legend Helen Hayes got a supporting actress nod in 1970 for her role in the disaster flick "Airport." Maggie Smith, best actress winner for 1969's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," won a best supporting actress Oscar in 1978 for her role in the less-than-memorable "California Suite."
Judi Dench won for her minuscule role as Queen Elizabeth in 1998's "Shakespeare in Love." And, who can forget pushup king Jack Palance pulling in a 1991 trophy at age 73 for "City Slickers."
Of course, the oldest winner is Jessica Tandy, who was 80 and in her fifth decade as an actress when she won the best actress award for "Driving Miss Daisy."
Righting past wrongs
In another, not unrelated category, there's the Oscar bestowed not necessarily for the film for which an actor was nominated but rather his or her body of work. In other words, the academy's trying to make amends for previous snubs.
Pacino finally won best actor for his quirky performance in "Scent of a Woman" only after being passed over in six previous nominations, including "The Godfather" and "The Godfather, Part II."
Elizabeth Taylor won her first Oscar for her performance in "Butterfield 8" (1960) rather than more memorable roles in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958) and "Suddenly, Last Summer" (1959).
(Taylor had also come down with a severe case of pneumonia a few weeks before the ceremony, requiring a tracheotomy. Some observers believed she won less for her performance or lifetime achievement than out of sympathy for her illness.)
Paul Newman got his first Oscar not for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Hud," "Cool Hand Luke," "Absence of Malice," or "The Verdict," but for "The Color of Money" (1986).
And in the all-time winner in this category, an aging Henry Fonda won best actor for 1981's "On Golden Pond," after being passed over four decades earlier for "The Grapes of Wrath."
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