Does being a jerk prevent you from winning an Oscar?

All about the Academy Awards.
Feb. 6 2009 11:24 AM

The Batman Goes Bananas

Does being a jerk prevent you from winning an Oscar?

Read all of Slate's Oscars coverage.

Christian Bale
Christian Bale 

Watching Jon Stewart's unsporting (if accurate) assessment of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the other night on The Daily Show ("Hey, what happened to the old baby? Is the old baby OK? … No, seriously, I loved that movie. It was Forrest Gump meets … [audible snoring]"), all I could think was: "There go his chances of ever hosting again." Later in the same show, Stewart all but FedExed the academy a dead fish when he told his guest, Slumdog Millionaire lead Dev Patel, that the Oscars must not be happening this year, "because if they were I would obviously be hosting them."

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Given that last year's Oscars, hosted by Stewart, were the least-watched in history, he has no doubt made the pragmatic calculation that currying the academy's goodwill is less valuable to him than getting a laugh.

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A day after Stewart's Button mockery came the inconsequential-yet-irresistible viral tidbit of the week: the audio clip of Christian Bale losing his cool and profanely berating a director of photography who stepped into his shot on the set of Terminator: Salvation. (Listen here, but be warned: Bale's rant goes on at excruciating, mortifying, God-let-it-end-now length.) Of course, Bale was not nominated for an Oscar this year for his turn as the Batman in The Dark Knight. (If there's one thing that movie gave me, it's the thrill of always referring to Batman as "the Batman.") In fact, in two decades of notoriously immersive screen acting, Bale has never yet been nominated, and if you listen to today's show-business bloggers, he may have just blown his chances of ever getting that nod. This raises the question: If you want to get an Oscar, how should you act … when the camera's not rolling?

In an entry on the Los Angeles Times' Oscar blog, the Envelope, Tom O'Neil provides a mini-survey of the biggest assholes ever to have won an Oscar (Marlon Brando is one example) and those who were so jerky that they never won despite multiple nominations (Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton). By the time Russell Crowe got his bad-boy reputation, he already had his statues for Gladiator in hand—well, not literally, thank God, or it might have been the projectile he flung at that Manhattan hotel clerk. Between the phone-hurling and the grunting, Crowe has yet to win another Oscar, even though he's since appeared in much-recognized films such as Master and Commander and Cinderella Man.

You have to love Mickey Rourke for combining Russell Crowe's pugilism with Richard Burton's bad taste. Ever since awards season began, he's been running around in iridescent track suits, cradling overweight Chihuahuas. He's also granted more than his share of self-immolating interviews, not to mention challenging real-life wrestlers to high-profile grudge matches on Larry King Live. And those are just the well-sourced ridiculous things he's done. Fox News has him making out with Evan Rachel Wood, the actress who plays his daughter in The Wrestler, and the Daily Beast's Gerald Posner claims to have been leaked a text message in which Rourke slags on his competition Sean Penn as an "average" actor and a "homophobe."

However overreported, Rourke's penchant for bizarre behavior seems as guileless as the obviously unfaked niceness of Richard Jenkins, a long-shot best actor nominee for The Visitor. Rourke is trying neither to help nor to harm his chances of winning an Oscar on the 21st. He's just … Rourking. The best Oscar strategy seems to fall somewhere between Rourke's grandstanding and Jenkins' hyper-discretion. (He lives in Providence, R.I., with his wife of 39 years, drives a Toyota Camry hybrid, and cheerfully told the ladies on The View that he stands "not a chance in the world" of winning.) You want to be humble and modest, yes … but you want to be seen being humble and modest, in the right outfit, preferably while standing on a podium accepting some other award. (Anne Hathaway is a good example of how to do this with eyelash-batting panache.) Sean Penn, who skipped the Golden Globes ceremony entirely (and who, as the head of the 2008 Cannes jury, boasted that this year's festival would be "the opposite of the Oscars") is not exactly beloved by the academy. But since it's generally agreed that the best actor Oscar race is down to Penn and the flamboyantly self-destructive Rourke, all Penn has to do between now and Oscar time is to remain publicly sober and Chihuahua-free.

So then: Ixnay on the Chihuahuas, the flying telephones, and the leaked audiotaped browbeatings of crew members. But is it possible to go too far in the other direction? Kate Winslet's tearfully excessive acceptance speeches at the Golden Globes last month—she won best supporting actress for The Reader and best actress for Revolutionary Road—were regarded in the American press as sweet and sincere, the high point of a dullish ceremony. But the British press mocked her for her abandonment of restraint and wondered whether her solipsistic bliss at the podium might hurt her Oscar chances. "A simple thank you would have done," sniffed the Independent, while the Times Online saw Winslet's gushing as a political misstep: "The actress has badly misjudged the changing mood of America." Of course, the definition of what constitutes correct behavior is always culturally inflected, but there may be a trace of gender bias at work in the Kate-bashing as well: Male performers, it seems, have to threaten (or carry out) violence against others to fall from Oscar grace. Women can do it simply by being too happy.

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