Melissa Leo, a front-running Best Supporting Actress nominee for her role in “The Fighter,” courted controversy by violating one of the Academy Awards’ unwritten rules: “Don’t promote yourself for an Award—it’s tacky!” Leo personally placed Hollywood trade ads showing her in full glamor mode, a sharp contrast to her character in “The Fighter.” The text simply said “Consider,’ then below that, “Melissa Leo,” and in small print off to the side, the web address http://www.melissaleo.com. She argued that she needed to promote herself because her competitors were getting the benefit of big studio publicity, while she was not.
What rankled some of the Hollywood elite was that Leo’s ad didn’t promote her performance, but herself, as if the Academy Awards were <gasp!> just a popularity contest. Of course, they are a popularity contest, but performance factors in there somewhere too (well, most of the time), as well as politics. political correctness, whatever minority group the Academy want to mollify, and career credits. Now, if Leo wins, her ads may make some believe the Academy voters considered factors other than performance (which they always do), and if she doesn’t people will say it is because she was punished for breaking the unwritten rule, a rationale which would have nothing to do with performance quality….proving, ironically, that her reasoning was correct.
How would it have been better to promote the film or the performance? If the process has integrity, voters will vote based on whether her performance is the best of the nominees, not based on the promotion of it. All promotion of a particular candidate for an artistic award is unethical. Its purpose is to bias what should be a fair competition by argument and persuasion by non-voting parties. Its very existence undermines public faith in the objectivity of the process.
If Leo’s is the best performance (setting aside for the time being the matter of whether it is really possible to determine what is “best” when comparing different fruit), then she should win regardless of anyone’s promotional campaigns, including her own. Her efforts show that she (like most of us) doesn’t believe that the competition is objective, so either she is refusing to play a public deception game (ethical) or engaged in rogue activity undermining her industry’s yearly publicity fest for personal gain (unethical).
Or doing both at the same time, which is my view.
For the record, self-promotion campaigns for Oscars usually backfire. One of the most infamous was the obnoxious Supporting Actor campaign whisper-voiced character actor Chill Wills ran for his role in “The Alamo” in 1960. Featuring a photo of the entire “Alamo” cast, it read: “We of the Alamo cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives in the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar as the Best Supporting Actor. Cousin Chill’s acting was great!” It was signed “Your Alamo Cousins”. The film’s director John Wayne was moved to take out his own ad denouncing his own actor, saying in part, “I refrain from using stronger language because I am sure his intentions were not as bad as his taste.”
Leo’s ad wasn’t in bad taste—it just refused to go along with Academy’s myth. Whether that is ethical or not shouldn’t matter: the Oscar is not an ethics award.