Although most Oscar races are still wide open, last Saturday's Screen Actors Guild Awards gave us two winners we're likely to see again on Feb. 28: Brie Larson for best actress (Room), and Leonardo DiCaprio for best actor (The Revenant). There's a perception out there that these two "deserve it," that it's "their time." Perhaps more important, they've been campaigning with a tirelessness that makes Bernie Sanders look like a featherweight.
Shilling for Oscar has always been tricky. You have to admit you want it, but not too much. You have to be ubiquitous without appearing desperate. This year – when the #OscarsSoWhite controversy has redirected our focus onto who isn't nominated – it's especially delicate.
According to Variety, smaller studios spend around $3-million to lobby voters for a film, while the majors lay out up to $10-million. (All figures U.S.) The cost of mailing watermarked screeners alone can run up to $300,000. For that, studios and distributors want their stars to show up and schmooze. The Academy voters are about 50 per cent actors, after all – they need to be wooed; they love being loved.
Room and The Revenant are movies they can root for. Neither is too arty or too commercial. Neither is a case of good actor/bad film (I'm looking at you, Joy). Both have done respectable box office.
There's a general acknowledgment that both Larson and DiCaprio worked hard for their money – she by shutting herself away, losing weight, and helping guide the performance of her then-eight-year-old co-star, Jacob Tremblay; he by braving freezing temperatures, eating raw animal parts and surviving his volatile director, Alejandro Inarritu. Larson is no mere ingenue: She's intelligent, warm, and has been working since her childhood. DiCaprio is at the peak of his powers, has impeccable taste, and has been nominated four times before with no wins. Yet wowing voters in person remains invaluable.
Prior to the announcement of the nominations, the mingling takes place at catered fêtes. After the noms are announced, Oscar rules say no food or drink can be served at events (as if canapés could buy votes in a town where no one eats). Still, studios get around that by arranging for nominees to have retrospectives at museums; go on multiple talk shows; or accept awards at film festivals, swanky soirees where Oscar voters want to be.
This year, with so many races up for grabs, the party circuit is wildly competitive – especially when you factor in that a huge chunk of a studio's promotion budget used to be spent on buying ads in daily print trade papers. Now that Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are weeklies and online, that excess coinage is repurposed into flying talent to events.
As a marketing tool, the ad has been replaced by the selfie. So Larson and DiCaprio have walked every red carpet, charmed at every postscreening Q & A, and found sincere-sounding ways to thank the Screen Actors Guild. (Larson described her adolescent self as an outsider, and thanked the room for giving her movies that helped her through. DiCaprio recalled that, as a young actor, he made a study of films from every era, and encouraged all young actors to do the same, "so you know whose shoulders you stand on." Win, win.)
So much cozying up is happening, Larson admitted at the BAFTA Tea in Los Angeles that she was scared she'd get pink eye. DiCaprio went her one better last Thursday, scoring the coup of the season: He met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, where he handed over a book of Hieronymus Bosch paintings and a cheque from his environmental foundation, to use for a charity, as he put it to his Holiness, "close to your heart."
It's hard to imagine a more high-profile hang than the Pope, but before that, much of The Revenant campaign took place at private lunches and dinners (without press) in New York and Los Angeles. At a New York party, the guest list included Sting; at an L.A. dinner, it was Barbra Streisand, Warren Beatty and Sean Penn.
On top of all that, stars are expected to run their own campaigns on social media. Larson's handling it by tweeting "thanks" to everyone who gives her an accolade or award, retweeting every nice thing anyone says about her, and crafting modest captions for her Instagram snaps. (The caption for a photo of her with Cate Blanchett at the Palm Springs Film Festival was the word "yes" 38 times, the last one all caps.)
DiCaprio's Twitter feed, on the other hand, studiously never mentions Oscar. It's all tweets from the Paris accord, or retweets from NASA, EcoWatch, UNICEF, the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace. In the past month, he's tweeted about global warming, dangerous gas leaks, the need to support indigenous voices, and the declining rhino population.
Interestingly, social media is kind to Larson. But there's a virulent anti-DiCaprio strain out there. One video recuts the scene from Titanic where Jack draws Rose to look like he's drawing an Oscar with hearts around it. Another shows the scene from The Wolf of Wall Street where Matthew McConaughey pounds his chest, recut to look like he's flaunting his Oscar, while DiCaprio looks away. There are gifs of DiCaprio crying for an Oscar, or looking pained at awards shows, with captions like, "(screams internally)" or "You can actually pinpoint the second where his heart rips in half." There's a "Poor Leo" Tumblr, and an ironic petition to the Academy at change.org.
This gets back to what I mentioned earlier: You can't want it too much. But to survive in today's blockbuster-centric Hollywood, you almost have to.
DiCaprio and Larson aren't only campaigning for themselves and their current films – they're campaigning for the kind of films they want to make in the future. Getting the green light for work that's challenging, thoughtful, and adult-oriented is not easy, no matter how pasty-white the actors are. Oscar still helps.
But to get that message across, especially in this year of legitimate outrage at what a closed shop Hollywood is, you have to be more than just an excellent actor. You have to be an ambassador. And you have to deliver the performance of your life.