Seven ways to win an Oscar

As the deadline for Academy award qualification looms, hopeful films are thronging our cinemas. But many of them have a familiar ring. Justine Elias reveals the formulas for success

The last few weeks of the year are crammed with urgently marketed Hollywood studio films that seem to promise some ennobling influence upon their audience. What could be less enticing? All these movies seem to have the same faux classical score, the same stars (Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Anthony Hopkins), and they all seem eerily familiar, as if you saw the same adverts last year.

Actually, you did. When a deep-voiced announcer intones that a movie is "Based on the critically hailed novel by... from the Academy award nominated director of... starring Academy award winner..." the studios are recycling a perennial theme. Movies may be mere entertainment the rest of the year, but over the holidays, they are sold as Art with a capital A. If you are unable to judge the end-of-year releases by their marketing campaigns, I will now translate them for you.

1. The book you didn't want to read three years ago becomes the movie you won't want to see now

Also known as "a film in the Miramax tradition of motion picture excellence": impeccably acted, beautifully designed, calmly directed by a Brit for hire (Anthony Minghella, Sam Mendes, Stephen Daldry) or some greying Hollywood eminence. In general, a movie that's safe for you to see with your parents. Better yet, a film that's safe for your parents to see while you do something fun.

Previous examples

The English Patient, The Hours, The Shipping News, Angela's Ashes, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, A River Runs Through It, Legends of the Fall.

This year's contenders

Cold Mountain
A traumatised soldier of the American Civil War (Jude Law) deserts to get home to his fretful wife (Nicole Kidman). The book's long, ponderous descriptions of southern landscapes and sub-Faulknerian dialogue led some readers to suspect that the hero was in no hurry to see her again.

Mystic River
Crime melodrama set in working-class Boston featuring an overpraised, over-the-top performance by Sean Penn almost guaranteed to win major awards.

The Human Stain
If Philip Roth's intentionally lurid title doesn't succeed in keeping you away, the startlingly miscast leads (Anthony Hopkins as a biracial New Jerseyan, Kidman as his janitor-lover) and dreary, earnest think-pieces in the New York Times about race and political correctness will. The US movie posters for The Human Stain feature a pouting Kidman all but falling out of her brassiere; do not be fooled.

2. The big, loud, expensive epic

For decades, Hollywood has followed some simple rules: cast British actors in the imperialist roles and US audiences won't recognise any analogy to modern times.

Previous examples

Gladiator, Braveheart, The Patriot.

This year's contenders

Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World
In Patrick O'Brian's novel of British naval heroics, the year is 1812 and the enemy ship is American. For the movie, Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) commands his ship in 1805, and he's after a French vessel - because US audiences a) didn't realise there was an American Navy back then; b) think Mel Gibson won the American Revolution at the end of The Patriot; and c) hate everything French.

The Last Samurai
... Remember that TV mini-series based on James Clavell's Shogun? Tom Cruise hopes you don't, either.

3. The safe, modest, little British film

US audiences like two kinds of British movies: the Merchant Ivory heritage film, featuring stately homes and Emma Thompson; and the contemporary, whimsical kind, with Hugh Grant and the Royal Shakespeare Company crowded into very small cars, driving the wrong way down narrow London streets.

Previous examples

Shakespeare in Love, Sense and Sensibility, Notting Hill.

This year's contenders

Bend It Like Beckham
A hit in America not because anyone knows who David Beckham is, but because more young girls than boys play on football teams.

Calendar Girls
Ladies of a certain age (played by Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, and other doyennes of UK film and stage) strip, tastefully, to raise money for cancer research.

4. Special effects-driven journey into geek fantasy worlds

Performances in this category run the gamut from pantomime-level badness (Star Wars: Attack of the Clones) to comatose (The Matrix Reloaded) to the positively Shatnerian.

This year's contenders

The Matrix Revolutions
What is the Matrix? It's finished. Please stop talking about how good the first movie was. The rest of them sucked.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Bring food, water and supplies. The trilogy ender's running time is 210 minutes.

Peter Pan
Star Wars movies and the like now arrive with the regularity of Christmas, but, this year, children will have to make do with a film based on a (horrors!) book. Fortunately, this live-action adaptation promises to banish memories of the Disney cartoon; it looks as dark and disturbing as the Barrie coming-of-age tale.

5. Old codgers get sexy with young starlets

Examples are too countless to mention. Ordinary people tend to mate within one or two decades of their own age group. In movies, leading men romance actresses who are half their age. This is art imitating Hollywood reality.

This year's contenders

The Human Stain
Anthony Hopkins, 65, and Nicole Kidman, 35.

The town of Dogville, various ages, and Nicole Kidman, 35.

Kill Bill
Peter Fonda, 63, and Uma Thurman, 33.

Lost in Translation
Bill Murray, 53, and Scarlett Johansson, 19.

Girl with a Pearl Earring
Colin Firth, 43, and Scarlett Johansson, 18. Firth, as Vermeer, finds masterpiece subject in downstairs maid Johansson. Sample seduction dialogue: "Wet your lips. Again." Subtext: Arch your back. More.

6. Women cannot be punished enough

If Hollywood heroines aren't taking the initiative and killing themselves or running headlong into danger, they can always suffer the old-fashioned way: masochism. There are so many of these movies, you start to wonder. Who's in charge out there? August Strindberg?

In the third of Lars von Trier's beleaguered-babe trilogy, a fugitive (Kidman) in small-town America is exploited and repeatedly raped. But don't worry. There's an upbeat ending - if you enjoy seeing small children shot to death.

In the Cut
Meg Ryan deserves praise for her daring, take-no-prisoners performance. Not because she does nasty sex, but because she keeps a straight face when detective Mark Ruffalo asks her to identify a murder victim and whips out a photo of a bloody, severed head. What does he expect her to say? "My God! That head used to live down the block from me. Its name was Lisa."

The Company
Ballet has made for insanely inventive melodrama - like The Red Shoes - and lively musical theatre. Robert Altman refuses to submit his audience to all that low, pandering amusement, and somehow manages to explore the inner workings of a ballet company as if he were making a docudrama about a failing insurance firm. But every so often, Malcolm McDowell, as the bitchy ballet master, shoves his way on camera and verbally abuses trembling, skinny little bunheads. He is, quite simply, hilarious.

7. Artists and writers whose miserable deaths, on the evidence of these biopics, utterly overshadow their creative legacies

Previous examples

Frida, Pollock, Iris.

This year's contenders

Literature fans will have to restrain from shouting out a warning when Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow), in a rage, tries to satisfy straying husband Ted Hughes by baking dozens of cakes. In a gas oven. In screen-writing, that's called foreshadowing. Subtle!

Veronica Guerin
See feisty Dublin crime reporter barge into crime bosses' houses and ask them what kind of riff-raff they think they are! See her forget to bring a notebook or tape recorder as she does so! Star Cate Blanchett is compelling as always. But imagine what would have happened if perky Winona Ryder had played the title role (she was originally attached to star). Guerin would have been shot a lot sooner.

Justine Elias

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
In the name of the father

In a rare interview, Daniel Day-Lewis talks candidly to Simon Hattenstone about winning a Bafta, the Oscars, and the night he saw his father's ghost on stage.

Simon Hattenstone

28, Feb, 2003 @5:09 PM

Want an Oscar?

It's perfectly simple. Oliver Burkeman explains.

Oliver Burkeman

20, Feb, 2004 @2:14 AM

The twelve seasons of film

Ever wondered why December is for blockbusters, January for Oscar hopefuls and May for awful pap? Steve Rose explains the logic behind the movie year.

Steve Rose

29, Nov, 2002 @12:59 AM

David Mamet: Oscar electioneering

The Academy would politely request people seeking Oscars to stop networking. Fat chance, says David Mamet.

David Mamet

26, Mar, 2004 @3:22 AM

2004 Oscar hopefuls: Best picture

After some big surprises in the nominations, Jessica Winter runs the rule over this year's hopefuls.

Jessica Winter

20, Feb, 2004 @2:14 AM

We interview past Oscar nominees

Why are soft poached eggs and toast so important to Geoffrey Rush? What made Michael Caine crack up? Why does Angelina Jolie have a gothic-looking stand-in? As the film world prepares for the most celebrated awards on earth, Guardian film writers ask past nominees and winners what the ceremony meant to them.

Mari Cartel, Will Hodgkinson, Stuart Husband, Matt Keating and Gary Susman

23, Mar, 2001 @3:01 AM

The Observer Profile: Harvey Weinstein

The Hours, Chicago and Gangs of New York are all from the Miramax stable. Its ebullient co-founder has been accused of bullying his way to the top but with 40 Academy Awards to his credit and 40 more nominations this year, he's not perturbed: Harvey Weinstein.

Vanessa Thorpe

16, Feb, 2003 @4:25 AM

Letter from LA: 10 films you need to see if you want to be in the Oscar loop

There are 10 films you need to see if you want to be in the Oscar loop. And here they are... with accompanying gossip.

Anne Thompson

17, Nov, 2002 @12:59 AM

Miramax's Oscar contenders

Competition is strong for the Golden gong.

15, Dec, 2002 @3:13 AM

Article image
Xan Brooks talks to Don Cheadle about Hotel Rwanda

From jobbing actor to Academy award hopeful - Don Cheadle, star of Hotel Rwanda, talks to Xan Brooks.

Xan Brooks

18, Feb, 2005 @1:16 AM