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A Guide to the Desperate Female Oscar Campaign

From Sally Kirkland to Jennifer Aniston, female Oscar nominees have been playing the desperation game for decades.

by Mayukh Sen
Feb 15 2015, 1:10pm

Photo via Flickr user camknows

I'm told I shouldn't feel bad for Jennifer Aniston, who launched a failed Oscar campaign for Cake, a movie now destined for the annals of film history. She sent Sprinkles cupcakes to awards voters. Arianna Huffington hosted a screening for her. None of it worked—imagine the cruel irony when she lost out to Marion Cotillard, who didn't spend a cent or second campaigning (though her performance was infinitely better than Aniston's).

Militant efforts like Aniston's are reminders of how impossibly labyrinthine and politicized the game of Oscar campaigning has become. It's a process that forces artists who produce great work to kiss the right asses to gain recognition.

It's a particularly brutal process for women, who find themselves working actively against the baggage that has followed their public personas. It's no secret that women in Hollywood have their private lives exacted with more scrutiny than their male counterparts, and this scrutiny often poisons their right to be ambitious.

Aniston is no stranger to this. Since her now folkloric breakup with Brad Pitt, she's become the subject of our derision and false sympathy. Everything she now does is destined to be tinged with the bitter resentment of a woman who was wronged by Brad Pitt and his glamazonian lover-turned-wife.

With her non-starter of a campaign for Cake, Aniston's persona has adopted a new angle. She'll now be known for her childlike obsession with wanting to be taken seriously as an artist, forever unable to escape Rachel Green. In the run-up to the announcement of the Oscar nominations, Aniston worked the circuit hard. She openly spoke out about facing her biggest fear of going underwater while filming Cake. She opined about how much she loved her now-deceased ex-boyfriend.

In those moments, her hunger for an Oscar nomination seemed feral, and she became an easy and convenient target for our cultural anxieties regarding ambitious women. Oscar pundits have had a nasty habit of chiding women, like Aniston, who play this game exactly as they should: with palpable thirst. What's so attractive about mocking these displays of vulnerability?

We can look back to 1973, when Diana Ross was nominated for playing Billie Holiday inLady Sings the Blues. It's a performance as absurd as it sounds, but Ross's narrative was an enticing one. Like Aniston, she was an artist who wanted to be taken seriously. By most accounts, it worked. She drew near-unanimous critical praise—Roger Ebert famously proclaimed "this is acting" when he saw her—that, in retrospect, probably had more to do with the fact that she wasn't a total bore on screen. Her mentor Berry Gordy aggressively ran full page ads in local trades extolling her praises. She lost to Liza Minnelli for Cabaret.

Photo via Flickr user Alan Light

A year later, Candy Clark, not exactly a household name, paid $1,700 to put ads in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety for her role in 1973's American Graffiti, for which she got a Best Supporting Actress nod. Her performance was quietly enchanting, but she was, weirdly, the only one from her great ensemble cast to be cited at the Oscars.

Carol Kane, well known for playing Woody Allen's first wife in Annie Hall, knocked on voters' doors in 1976 to get them to recognize her work in Hester Street. It's a small film with mostly Yiddish dialogue that exactly no one has heard of, but her work was ingeniously expressive, subdued, and sort of devastating. Voters responded by including her in a particularly barren field for Best Actress. That was the year when Louise Fletcher—the least ubiquitous Best Actress winner this side of Marlee Matlin—won for playing Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

In 1986, after being nominated for her role as Shug in The Color Purple, Margaret Avery sold her kitchen stove to put a trade ad in Variety that begged readers for an Oscar win. Adopting some sort of Southern affect that was actively at odds with the way her character spoke, she wrote, "[n]ow I is up for one of the nominations fo' Best Supporting Actress alongst with some fine, talented ladies that I is proud to be in the company of." It was hilarious, pathetic, and more than a little sad.

There was Diane Ladd, Laura Dern's mother, who got nominated for a bonkers performance in David Lynch's bonkers Wild at Heart in 1991. Ladd schmoozed voters by screening her film after treating them to home-cooked spaghetti meals. She also wrote to voters personally with letters and offered to send them videocassettes of the movie. She charged $15,000 to her credit cards to put out four ads for herself in the trades. Funnily enough, she went to bat for her daughter this year, too, proclaiming that Dern created a "light-filled" performance in Wild, a film for which Dern was unexpectedly (and deservedly) nominated.

Melissa Leo put up some kitschy trade ads, donning faux fur against one simple word—Consider—when nominated for The Fighter in 2011, in protest of the fact that aging actresses like her didn't have the luxury of adorning magazine covers. She won the Oscar.

Photo via Flickr user minglemediatv

It's easy for queens like me to criticize these women, especially when the qualities that endear us to them start turning sour. Watching Anne Hathaway's charms mutate into grotesque vanity as she won every award for Les Miserables was a glimpse into my own private hell.

But even Hathaway's manic, cultural PTSD-inducing campaigning gets at a truth we all know. Nowadays, Western cinema has a dearth of roles for its many talented women. An Oscar, as much as we distance ourselves from any imagined weight or importance it carries, can do something to correct that truth. It has the power to resuscitate dormant careers.

Some women could've used that kind of attention. Ann Dowd, that kind of yeomen actress who received critical accolades for her truly great work in Compliance (2012), financed an Oscar campaign out of her own pocket because the distribution company was too poor to do it themselves. She wasn't exactly rolling in trust fund cash, either; she was a working-class mother of three. In spite of her efforts, she didn't get nominated, and casting directors haven't been exactly knocking on her door since. After all, she's no spring chicken—how many roles for women over 50 are there?

Every Oscar season, we tend to blame the Academy for problems that are endemic to the movie industry itself. The Oscars are a symptom of the problem, and expending energy attacking them would be like putting a Band-Aid on a diseased leg. I sure as hell understand and sympathize with the impulses behind memes like #OscarsSoWhite, but it's foolish to blame the Academy for under-nominating Selma or Top Five. Don't blame the Academy. Blame the distributors like Paramount who prioritized a Christopher Nolan movie over much finer films whose casts were predominantly black.

And every year we bemoan the state of the barren Best Actress field without acknowledging the generally shitty landscape Hollywood provides for female actresses. It produces a troubling call-and-response when awards season rolls around. Aniston's role in Cake was the richest she'd gotten in quite some time. She received a modicum of praise for it upon its release at the Toronto International Film Festival. Then, her campaign managers seized upon an opportunity when they saw an open spot for her in a bleak Best Actress field.

Let's enjoy the Oscars for what they are: shiny mirrors of a supremely fucked-up industry that occasionally traffics in fantasy. The Oscars are capable of producing narratives that read like cosmic justice. Before she became the cultural monument she is today, Cher trudged through the manure of 1980s American cinema to undo the baggage of her public persona. Emphatically a non-actress at the beginning of that decade, she became a hot commodity after getting roles from cool kid directors like Robert Altman, Peter Bogdonavich, and Mike Nichols. Soon, she'd win a Golden Globe for Silkwood (1983), a Cannes Best Actress award for Mask (1985), and, ultimately, an Oscar for Moonstruck (1987). Seeing her on that stage with an Oscar in her hands was stupidly magical.

Photo by John Mueller via Creative Commons

Some women don't get to enjoy that moment at all. Indeed, one of the women Cher beat out that night was Sally Kirkland, whose fairytale ending never came. Perhaps the most infamously desperate grassroots Oscar campaign was Kirkland's for a film called Anna. Kirkland plays an aging, immensely talented, and unlucky Czech actress who's struggling to make ends meet in New York. In the film, she loses out to some hot young thing (Paulina Porizkova). Kirkland personally called and wrote to Academy members, enlisting the help of anyone important she knew. Though she won a Golden Globe, she didn't win the Oscar.

But Kirkland, now bordering on self-parody, still talks about the experience vividly today, in part because she hasn't had a plum role since. This past year alone, she campaigned to get traction for her little indie film that couldn't, The Archaeology of a Woman.

It's easy and tempting to make fun of Kirkland and Aniston for their campaigning. If we laugh at these women, let's recognize the tragedy in that funny, desperate dance they do every awards season. Do they really have another choice?

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