HOLLYWOOD -- The true experts on handicapping the Academy Awards -- the Hollywood publicists who attend dozens of academy-member screenings during the height of Oscar season -- say that actors' off-screen performances have almost as much impact as their on-screen dramatics.
In recent years, Oscar hopefuls have been aided by making high-profile appearances on the critics' awards-banquet circuit, as eventual winner Gwyneth Paltrow did last year in support of "Shakespeare in Love."
"It's hard to get nominated if you're not out doing any publicity," says Tony Angellotti, a veteran Oscar publicist. "It's still partially a popularity contest. Albert Finney is a classic example of someone who disappeared every time he was nominated, which signaled to the academy that he didn't care about the award. So if he didn't care, why vote for him?"
At times, though, the academy is willing to forgive and forget. The year after George C. Scott refused his best actor Oscar for "Patton," he was nominated again in that category for "The Hospital." And even Vanessa Redgrave's "Zionist hoodlums" acceptance speech for her best supporting turn for 1977's "Julia" hasn't stopped the academy from nominating her two more times -- for best actress for "The Bostonians" and best supporting for "Howards End."
Talent counts, but in today's media-saturated world, the quickest way to make it into the Club is by establishing an academy-friendly image. Take media-savvy newcomers Billy Bob Thornton and Matt Damon. Their recognition -- a total of five nominations in the last four years -- stands in stark contrast to Sean Penn, who has only one Oscar nomination after 18 years of critically lauded roles. Despite raves for his star turn in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown," Penn's Oscar chances are considered dim because of his outspoken attitude and disdain for awards.
"It really makes a difference if you're out there, working the room, like Michael Caine's doing now or Billy Bob did with `Sling Blade,' " says entertainment writer David Poland.