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Leo the Lion: Melissa Leo’s Self-Funded Oscar Campaign…

Melissa Leo took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar last Sunday night and I was quite happy about the decision, to be honest. She was great in The Fighter and – although I personally would have though Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit would have made a more deserving winner – it wasn’t a bad result. In the lead-up to her win, Leo garnered a fair amount of publicity from the fact that she took out her own “For Your Consideration” advertisements, most of it, to be honest, quite derisive. But you know what? I’m okay with that. After all, who else was going to do it for her?

Perhaps not the most Consider-ed move...

Okay, let’s be honest. Her speech on Sunday night was embarrassing. It’s common courtesy not to acknowledge that you were the frontrunner, but it’s even more awkward if you acknowledge that everybody knew you were going to win – but you’re still going to pretend to be modest about it. And then there was the random rambling, which is always even more worrying when it comes from a frontrunner – c’mon, you’ve had weeks to put your speech together! Sure, Christian Bale seeming to forget his wife’s name was bad, but Melissa Leo’s whole speech was cringeworthy. Still, she did flirt with Kirk Douglas (and he flirted right back), so we can almost forgive her. And, to be honest, we don’t revoke the awards for awful speeches – Halle Berry got to keep hers, after all.

So, this minor embarrassment aside, lets get back to the other somewhat “embarrassing” aspect of Melissa Leo’s path to her Academy Award. She basically took out her out her own print advertisements in the publication Deadline, a magazine favoured by Academy voters. As you can see from the screenshots, the advertisements are cheesy as hell, but that isn’t why most people seemed to object. After all, she was already the frontrunner and there’s something that seems almost distasteful about paying for your own advertising space:

Frankly, the first time I saw the ad I was perplexed. Leo is the front-runner, so why would she feel it necessary to sink such effort into such a brazen act of neediness? It honestly seems like a gag from a Hollywood parody like Larry Sanders or For Your Consideration — the attention-starved actress, not content with her near-universal acclaim, launches a personal campaign wherein she poses with adorable koalas or a basket full of orphans to make SURE that everyone sees her and loves her. It’s a cliche of ego run amok.

That’s a solid point, but I don’t believe that it’s entirely fair.

Did you know that the price of the Oscar is $1? That's the price you have to offer the Academy if you want to sell it on...

Melissa Leo was the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress, but this was an awards season where the vast majority of early leaders were swiftly dispatched. Remember when we all thought The Social Network would win Best Picture, or Annette Bening would win Best Actress for The Kids Are All Right? Dynamics in Oscar races can change fast, and with little warning. Once the balance of public discussion swings the other direction, the award is generally lost. You need to keep people talking about you to hold on to the momentum.

And, you know what, Leo makes a pretty compelling argument for why she had to take out her own adverts:

She explained the ads followed months of her frustration at not being able to land magazine covers, even with all the awards and attention for The Fighter. Leo is 50 years old and she attributes the media’s lack of interest to ageism and because of that and other factors she’s not considered “box office.” “I took matters into my own hands. I knew what I was doing and told my representation how earnest I was about this idea. I had never heard of any actor taking out an ad as themselves and I wanted to give it a shot,” Melissa told me. So she and three friends arranged a special “fun” photo shoot instead of using the usual studio-prepared photo from the film for “For Your Consideration” ads.

It’s a little bit much for Leo to claim she can’t think of any other actresses who did the same (although it is possible she isn’t familiar with Oscar trivia). Diana Ross is frequently cited as losing an Oscar by running such a campaign, but some claim that Joan Crawford won using the same approach.

Leo fights for her award...

However, the truth is that she makes a good point. Unless you’re Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, the media isn’t really too interested in a woman past a certain age. The roles dry up, but so does the publicity. Nobody else was going to fight the campaign for her, so why should she be ashamed to fight it for herself? Any number of actors and actresses have entire studios throwing millions around on their campaigns – Colin Firth’s win this year was backed by none less than Harvey Weinstein. It’s simply the way that the game is played.

Leo herself makes the argument that awards season is about nothing more than “pimping” a particular film or actor to the voters:

This entire awards process to some degree is about pimping yourself out. I’m confident my fans will understand the ads were about showing a different side of myself.

You know what? It’s distasteful to think of it in those terms, but she’s right. After all, that’s why we see stunts like Mark Zuckerberg appearing on Saturday Night Live with Jesse Eisenberg or the Her Royal Majesty the Queen endorsing The King’s Speech. It’s all about trying to sell an image, rather than trying to sell a movie. after all, it’s the Weinsteins’ superb campaigning which is generally regarded as the factor which led to the surprise win of Shakespeare in Love in a field crowded with classics like Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line and Elizabeth.

Sure, there were huge risks involved in Leo’s campaign. It could easily have backfired. No institution particularly likes it when you expose the nasty little gears that turn in order to keep it working. The ads could have provoked a backlash from the Academy, because – for all the cheesiness in Leo’s execution – they reveal how the Academy works. How is it any more awkward for a star to pimp themselves, rather than relying on a studio to do it for them?

This just takes the pimp out of the equation.

6 Responses

  1. Here speech made me wish wholeheartedly for Hailee to win (which she also deserved to, btw). But I’m not sure her ego could take it. I think her self-advert is in poor taste all around, but then again I’m not a fan of Oscar/award campaign in general.

    • Yep, it’s in poor taste, but in no poorer taste than treating the fact the Queen likes a movie about her father as a publicity point. The Oscar campaigns are always crass and cynical, but I think this just is at least more honest about it.

  2. I wasn’t particularly fond of her speech, but I thought the campaign leading up to that moment was amusingly refreshing – It’s a more transparent version of what many of the nominees do in the background – It was a great PR trick as the the controversy around it meant that her name is still in people’s minds, which presumably was all planned too. It’s great to see someone simply saying – I want the award and I want employment – rather than this “Oh shucks, what will be will be, it’s all about the taking part” and then going on a sly and apologetic campaign run. It’s all about PR really isn’t it – Even the success of the bible is based on good PR…!

    • Yep, I can see Leo going the Cuba Gooding route of “I have an Oscar, so I’ll star in anything that pays well”. As you said, it’s probably just a career boost to her. Which I suppose it is to most people, with rare exceptions (Martin Scorsese).

  3. Stop complaining about Melissa Leo’s pre-Oscar ads! She is a beautiful woman and the whole world should be aware of this. Her studio could not publish the ads for her in view of the fact that it would surely have offended Amy Adams! The ads gave bloggers something to write about, but we have not as yet heard one Academy member announce that he/she had voted against Melissa because of the ads. Meissa Leo is the greatest! She will be winning Academy Awards for years to come. Behold, the “Leo Dynasty.”

    • Well, we’ve also yet to hear one Academy member confirm the ads enticed them to vote for her. And the trade papers are populated with anonymous suggestions voters were disgusted by the ads.

      However, if you read my article, you’ll find that I was actually supporting her.

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