How To Win An Oscar

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Fancy going home with an Oscar this year? Well, unless you’re already nominated, tough: it’s far too late. But it’s never too soon to start planning for the future, so we’ve assembled a handy guide to winning an Oscar in years to come – for actors, directors and those wannabe Best Picture producers. If you want to land a place among such exalted company as 360 Mafia, read on…

This is the big one, the prize they’re all aiming for. After extensive analysis we’ve come up with a few handy guidelines for you.

1. Don’t sweat the whole brevity thing
Best Picture nominees and, especially, winners tend to be lengthier than your average film. Gone With The Wind, Ben Hur and Lawrence of Arabia all tip the 3-and-a-half hour mark if you include intermissions; Return of the King is just under it at 3 hours, 21. The shortest Best Picture winner, Marty, was only 91 minutes, but that’s very much the exception that proves the rule. A minimum running time of 2 hours is a good rule of thumb.

2. Don’t be animated
Three animated films have been nominated for Best Picture in the award’s entire history: Beauty and the Beast, Up and Toy Story 3. At the time of writing, none had won. It’s also probably significant that the latter two were nominated only after the number of Best Picture nominees was expanded to ten: they might not have made a list of five, despite their self-evident greatness. If you’re animated, go off and get comfortable in the Best Animated Picture ghetto category, because there looks to be little chance you’ll escape it.

3. Think Epic – But Emphasise Acting
The single biggest voting block at the Oscars is comprised of actors, so you can generally count on a film with impressive performances beating the one with great effects. Hence The Hurt Locker beating Avatar, for example. It’s possible to win Best Picture without having Acting nominations – see Slumdog Millionaire or Return of the King for instance – but you still need to have a really quality ensemble in there.

4. Make a crime drama or a socially-important literary adaptation
It is no longer the 1950s, so don’t make a musical. Don’t even think about sci-fi or even fantasy (only one has ever won, and that was Return of the King). One arguable-horror has won, and that was The Silence of the Lambs, so best cut out the scares too. Even biopics are no longer a sure-fit winner: the last to take the big prize was A Beautiful Mind a decade ago. Don’t do a remake either: The Departed is the sole ever remake winner. So crime dramas, original (but weighty) dramas or literary adaptations are the way to go. Beware those Pulitzer Prize adaptations, however: only two have ever won. Sequels rarely win too, so don’t focus your efforts there.

5. Don’t be foreign
The Academy only considers English language films for its Outstanding Picture winners. If your native language happens to be something else, take your nomination, or your Best Foreign Film prize, and consider yourself lucky.

6. Don’t have a female director
Only one film directed by a woman has ever won this prize: that was The Hurt Locker last year. You probably shouldn’t really focus your story on a woman either. The last female-focused film to win was Chicago (Million Dollar Baby was seen from Eastwood’s character’s point of view, not Swank’s) and the winners before that are few and far between. At the very least, you’ll want a really major male star as co-lead. It’s fine to have an all-male or almost-all-male cast though.

7. Watch the rating!
Careful of that nudity and violence there, sailor! On the other hand, make sure you have a little of each. Best Picture winners these days are either PG-13 or R-rated. The last PG (or lower) winner was Driving Miss Daisy in 1989; obviously NC-17s don’t get a look-in because nowhere in the US will screen them. So pepper in a few swear-words and maybe some boobs to increase your chances.

What about the auteurs? How can they hope to land the big prize on the night? Well, we have a few sage words of advice…

1. Try to ensure your film is nominated as Best Picture
You pretty much have to make sure your film is nominated for Best Picture to be in with a real shot at this award – the last time someone won Best Director without his film receiving a Best Picture nomination was 1929 – and for preference your film should win Best Picture: the two categories have shared winners 61 times out of 82.

2. Try to be a straight white man
It is the sad fact that in 82 years only one woman has ever won this award (Kathryn Bigelow, for The Hurt Locker) and only two black men have ever been nominated (Lee Daniels for Precious and John Singleton for Boyz In The Hood). One Asian director has won (Ang Lee, for Brokeback Mountain) and three others have received nominations, while 4 out gay or bisexual directors have won, with seven more nominated. Still, your chances are considerably better if you are straight, white and male – statistically speaking. We can hope that things are changing though.

3. If you also act, try to choose which you’d rather win
It is possible to be nominated for both Best Director and Best Actor for the same film – Clint Eastwood and Warren Beatty have managed twice. But to date no-one has won both prizes, so make a decision on which you’d prefer and go for that. Eight people have received this double nod: three of those won Best Director (Eastwood twice), two won Best Actor and three lost both. Beware, multi-hyphenate!

4. Make a film in English
It should be obvious by now, but while you might get a nomination for foreign-language films, no one has won Best Director for a film that was not at least partly in English, so don’t be messing around with any other languages, eh?

5. Be in your 40s
The oldest winner was Clint Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby, aged 74 at the time, and the youngest ever was 32 – but that was Norman Taurog waaay back in 1931. In recent history, the youngest winner was Sam Mendes at 34 for American Beauty. Practically speaking, the average age of winners is 46, so you should be planning to peak just around there.

6. Don’t plan to win twice in a row
While there are quite a few repeat winners of the Best Director prize, only two men have ever managed two-in-a-row: John Ford and John L. Mankiewicz. You’re probably not that good, so if you won last year, take a well-earned break and wait for another time.

It’s the highest accolade any actor can win, and here’s how you go about it.

1. Be in your 40s
The average age of a Best Actor winner is a hair under 44, so that’s the time to focus your efforts. Oh sure, you might pull off a freak early win like Adrien Brody, aged 29, who was the youngest winner ever and the only one in his 20s. Or you could mimic Henry Fonda and win in your 70s – but he was the only winner in that decade too. Basically, concentrate really hard on your career between about 36 and 54 to maximise your chances and if your name is Leonardo DiCaprio, just keep up the good work for another decade or so.

2. Play a real person
The single biggest group of winners, particularly over the last few decades, come from actors who played real people. Those may be historical figures (Sir Thomas More) but should, for preference, belong to fairly recent history (Ray Charles, Truman Capote, Idi Amin). Bonus points if the person you’re portraying had a famous public persona that was very much at odds with his private life: a hugely successful singer traumatised by a childhood loss, say. Bonus points also if he also behaved really, really badly to those around him.

3. Look into addiction, disability or mental problems
Not, you know, for realz, since these cause huge problems for their sufferers and we don’t intend to make light of that. But on screen, 10 of the last 20 winners have suffered some form of addiction, mental illness or disability (and that’s not even counting Roberto Begnini’s manic turn in Life Is Beautiful). Alcoholism is best, addiction-wise, although drug addiction is a growing trend. In terms of mental illness, psychosis works well, but OCD is acceptable. And for disability, Al Pacino played blind and Tom Hanks suffered through the latter stages of AIDS, which is pretty darn disabling, so really anything goes. But as we all know, one can take it too far: never go full retard.

4. Naff off and die
Interestingly, of the winners in the last 20 years not afflicted with some sort of illness, five died. Seven of the last 20 winners died, and the popular power of a good death scene goes back way before that. So while dying onstage is a fate not to be wished, dying onscreen is an A-OK way to win awards and influence people. Just give yourself a poignant death scene and some profound final words, eh?

5. Don’t be afraid to go dark
Eight of the last 20 winners have played bad guys or antiheroes of one sort of another. Turns out that not only does the bad guy have more fun; he wins the awards as well. If you’re a morally-ambiguous leading character, bob’s your uncle and Oscar’s your destiny. This means that the reported smear campaign against Colin Firth’s George VI and The King’s Speech may in fact have been counter-productive.

6. Be a white English-speaker
Once again, statistically it helps. That said, Best Actor has been won for a performance not in English: by Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful. And Robert De Niro won Best Supporting Actor for his Italian-speaking role in The Godfather Part II, so it’s just about do-able. Still, if you’re maximising your chances, English is the way to go.

7. If Oscar gets it wrong at first, don't give up!
Many Best Actor wins get their trophy rather belatedly: John Wayne for True Grit, Henry Fonda for On Golden Pond, Jack Lemon for Save The Tiger, maybe even Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart. In most of these cases, they’d been deserving of the award 20 years before but got it as a tacit apologia and acknowledgement of their contribution. So if you’re wildly felt to have turned in a classic turn 20 years ago, give a respectable turn now and you’re sure to win the prize.

What about all the single ladies? And the married ones? Well, slightly different rules apply here

1. Be An A-Lister
In the last few years, it has become a rite of passage for Hollywood’s leading ladies to win an Oscar. Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman: virtually every actress with the ability to open a film also has a lead or Supporting Oscar. It can be only a matter of time before Katherine Heigl and Cameron Diaz, the two biggest box-office names not already to have won, follow in their footsteps. In this category, the biggest name usually walks away with the prize, so build your box-office appeal first, then go serious.

2. Be under 40
The average age of a Best Actress winner is only 35 ½, almost a full decade less than the average male winner. There are many possible reasons for this – some of which we’ve previously discussed here – but it’s a definite advantage to get in there early. To enhance your chances, therefore, you need to start very strong in your teens or 20s and establish your star-power, and then turn serious by no later than about 33. Crikey – who knew the biological clock applied to winning an Oscar too?

3. REALLY don’t be in your 50s
Here’s a weird statistical blip: know how many Best Actress winners there are in their 50s? One. That’s compared to 11 Best Actor winners. When women talk about their being no roles for women at a certain age, they’re not kidding. The good news? There were 5 winners in their 60s, one in her 70s and one, Jessica Tandy, at 80. So if you miss out in your 30s, take 20 years off and give it another go; there’s bugger all point trying in the meantime.

4. Ugly up
You’re a Hollywood actress, so chances are you’re gorgeous. But if you want to win this one, think dowdy, think ugly. Eight of the last 20 winners have gone at least dowdy and at most donned a fake nose. Consider, if you will, Kate Winslet: up for Revolutionary Road and The Reader in the same year, she won for the latter – where she looked considerably worse than in the former. Basically, being plain is to actresses what being disabled is to actors. We’re pretty sure that says something not-very-nice about Hollywood’s gender attitudes.

5. Play a real person
Seven of the last 10 winners have been based on real people, so that’s (if anything) even more valuable advice for the ladies than it was for the gentlemen. Three of those are best described as leading tragic lives; the other four were either outright inspirational (Erin Brockovich, The Blind Side) or inspiringly strong characters (Walk The Line, The Queen). However, beware playing Elizabeth I: although actresses playing her have been nominated, only one has ever won.

6. Naff off and die
As with their actor colleagues, dying onscreen is a positive aid to awards success. Seven of the last 20 winners’ characters died in the course of their stories. Another – Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love – might have, or might as well have, depending on how you read that ending. Weirdly, hookers are also heavily represented among Best Actress nominees and winners. Again, let’s not reflect too closely on what this says about Hollywood.

Would you prefer money to artistic glory? Then read our guide on How To Make A Billion Dollars At The Box Office here.