Saturday, January 17, 2015

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Cake" (2014)

As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Cake (2014)
Directed By: Daniel Barnz
Written By: Patrick Tobin
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 102 minutes
Summary: Claire becomes fascinated by the suicide of a woman in her chronic pain support group while grappling with her own, very raw personal tragedy.

The History

It is the question that has likely been on everyone's mind since it randomly popped up last year and began getting awards nominations: What is Cake? To be honest, it still only sounds like a film made for a manipulative Oscar vote. In a strange twist of events, this whole thing wasn't orchestrated by Harvey Weinstein, but a new start-up company called Cinelou Releasing. Their whole goal is to make films that have budgets priced at underneath $10 million. Yes, this sounds almost exactly like Annapurna or any other various upstarts. Still, it isn't likely that Cinelou Releasing will ring any bells immediately.

The film premiered at Toronto International Film Festival with mixed reviews that basically dismissed the film, but gave credit to Jennifer Aniston's performance. Many considered her to have just turned in her best performance, at least since The Good Girl. While the Friends star has been known to mostly do comedies, most recently with We Are the Millers and Horrible Bosses 2, she has done some dramas. The likelihood of them being popular are slim, as they are far and between on her resume. Still, this means that when she does get something, she will be noticed for them.

Cake is a film that popped up everywhere, almost as an outlier asking to be accepted as something more. True, in a year where Birdman dominated conversation, there wasn't much room for last minute entries, such as that of Cake, but it was still possible. With a limited run late in 2014 for qualification, there wasn't much stopping it. In fact, it landed Aniston a Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nomination. This seems baffling when Cake still remains this predominantly unknown movie to the general public. So, what's the angle, exactly?

The Campaign

It all came down to a wing and a prayer of emotional manipulation. The term Oscar Bait is one that is full of taboos and cliches. The only reason that the term hasn't been dismissed is because it keeps popping up every year. If you turn in a performance that provides novelty changes, you'll likely get a nomination. Considering that Steve Carrell just received a Best Actor nod for Foxcatcher likely because he is a comedic actor playing dark, there's some truth in this. Still, Aniston's approach was different than Carrell's. In this case, it is the removal of vanity.

There's a rule of thumb in Oscar consideration for women. If you remove the vanity, you're almost immediately a front runner. The best example of this comes back to Charlize Theron for her role in Monster, which won her a Best Actress nomination. To say that she looked "ugly" wouldn't be an insult. She was rugged and unrepentant in the performance in the ways that spoke against her natural beauty. Same could be said for Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose, who also won Best Actress. She altered her appearance to better look like the famous French singer Edith Piaf. While these two performances stand on their own, they also serve as the basis for what Oscars deem award worthy.

Enter Aniston. With majority of critics disliking Cake, there wasn't much going for the film other than her performance. The angle was that she lost her vanity by not wearing make-up and having visible scars in a role that's clearly meant to be sympathetic. This isn't a problem, but considering how the film entered the race after this, it all came across as manipulation, or one of the least intelligent marketing campaigns for a film in general (scheduled to open next week).

The loophole came with the Best Actress category in general. Many will attest that it wasn't a great year for actresses in Hollywood. The results can argue against this, as each of the five final nominees in some way turned in memorable performances. However, with this notion starting to influence voters in late November, Cake came to fruition, popping up as this heartbreaking drama of an abused woman. Much like Julianne Moore in Still Alice, the whole appeal of the performance is the tragedy of it all. Unlike Moore, Aniston's angle was more that she lost her vanity and starred in a greatly reviled film.

The Payoff

The film showed up at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards. That was a good start, which seemed like an easy way to get the Oscars to notice. Still, between the lack of vanity and starring in an emotionally manipulative movie, things didn't pay off. Aniston missed the cut and now Cake would fade into more of an obscurity. It is likely that in five years, maybe even a few months, that Cake will disappear from conversations entirely and nobody will know that Aniston tried to do this drama. While it shouldn't fault those that actually like the film, it serves as just another notch of playing the familiar sympathy cards and not getting results.

This isn't to discourage Aniston from taking on more challenging roles. It is more an attest to the idea that just because somebody does the tried and true doesn't mean that things will pay off. It's a sign of confidence that the Oscars will at least judge performances more on the quality and not specifically by how they show a physical struggle. It may not disappear entirely to the point of removing Oscar Bait from the trope dictionary, but it's at least being worked on. There's only hope that whatever Cinelou Releasing does next, they won't just force it to be another Oscar candidate simply because it's a hard hitting subject.

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