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Are the Oscars a popularity contest?

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Lately there’s been some talk about what factors really matter when trying to win an Oscar. Last week those rascals Tom O’Neil and Pete Hammond over at The Envelope took me to task for declaring that Frank Langella, Sean Penn, and Mickey Rourke were the leading contenders for Best Actor this year. They argued that those three guys aren’t particularly known for their warmth, and Pete wondered how nicely Rourke in particular would “play with the Academy” over the next few months.

I see where they’re coming from: An awards campaign truly is similar to a political campaign at times, and one’s deportment certainly comes into play. I think it’s fair to say that Marion Cotillard’s tirelessness and charm in supporting La Vie en Rose didn’t hurt in her recent eventual Best Actress victory over Julie Christie. And who knows how many nominations Russell Crowe has squandered over the years by shoving awards-show producers or chucking hotel telephones. But then again, I wonder if Penn’s win for Mystic River (after he didn’t even bother to show up for the Golden Globes) proves that conduct doesn’t matter that much.

Last week you all proved that you’ve got strong opinions when so many of you took issue with my post on Obama’s victory and how it may affect this year’s race. (I really didn’t think I was opening such a can of worms with that one!) So I’m curious to hear what you think about this. Do you have to be a nice guy to win an Oscar? Does an actor’s off-screen behavior only make a difference in a close race? Or is it only about the performance and nothing else?

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