Up for two Oscars -- Stars like Frances McDormand, Matt Damon, and Joaquin Phoenix find running for more than one Academy Award is harder than it sounds

By Dave Karger
Updated December 15, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Up for two Oscars

You thought the Palm Beach County ballots were confusing? Imagine what the doddering Academy electorate will make of this year’s Oscar race. A handful of contenders — including Russell Crowe, Michael Douglas, and Matt Damon — posted two toutable performances, which means they will not only have to compete against each other, but themselves.

So why the double-edged sword? Academy rules dictate that actors can receive only one nomination per category, even if they earn enough votes for two. Worse, in this wide-open year when the Screen Actors Guild has received 70 percent more video submissions for its awards than in 1999, dueling performances might lead to vote splitting and no recognition at all.

Given the high stakes, studios and stars try to prevent any ballot confusion. ”Usually the star and his handlers go to one studio and say, ‘We would prefer you sit back on this one,”’ says Oscar strategist Tony Angellotti. ”Nobody wants to spend $200,000 (on a campaign) if the star doesn’t want it.” Two years ago, Tom Hanks asked Warner Bros. to scrap his You’ve Got Mail campaign to focus on his role in DreamWorks’ Saving Private Ryan. And he got the nomination.

Some stars shun politicking altogether. Take Frances McDormand, who’ll be pushed for Best Supporting Actress for DreamWorks’ Almost Famous and Paramount’s Wonder Boys. Says her publicist, Simon Halls, ”You don’t tell the Academy what they should vote for.” Perhaps McDormand should: Some believe a laissez-faire attitude backfired last year for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who earned raves for Flawless, Magnolia, and The Talented Mr. Ripley but no Oscar nod. ”He didn’t focus on which one he thought was best,” says one studio exec. ”That cost him.”

For Douglas, there’s an easy solution: diversify. Though he’s top-billed in Wonder Boys and USA Films’ Traffic, the newlywed is entering himself as Best Actor for Boys and Best Supporting Actor for Traffic.

But others, whose roles clearly fall into the same category, don’t have that luxury: Crowe headlines DreamWorks’ Gladiator and Warner’s Proof of Life, while Damon stars in Sony’s All the Pretty Horses and DreamWorks’ The Legend of Bagger Vance. (With ads promoting both his roles in the Dec. 5 Variety, Crowe says: ”That’s somebody else’s job and somebody else’s decision”; Damon will get a stronger push for Horses.) Likewise, Joaquin Phoenix’s roles in Gladiator and Fox Searchlight’s Quills can only be perceived as supporting. ”You have to go with your gut,” says his publicist, Susan Patricola, who okayed campaigns for both.

Perhaps the contender with the best shot at a double play is Steven Soderbergh, who directed Universal’s Erin Brockovich as well as Traffic. Unlike actors, directors can snag two nominations in their category, though it hasn’t happened since 1939, when Michael Curtiz earned nods for Angels With Dirty Faces and Four Daughters (he lost to Frank Capra for You Can’t Take It With You). It’s a situation most prefer to avoid: A source close to Hannibal, the sequel to the 1991 Oscar winner The Silence of the Lambs, says Ridley Scott lobbied for a 2001 release to clear the coliseum for his work in Gladiator.

In Soderbergh’s case, neither studio is backing down. ”We are the current movie,” says USA Films chairman Scott Greenstein. ”Erin Brockovich is more Julia Roberts’ movie, where Traffic is unquestionably anchored by brilliant direction.” Responds Universal PR chief Terry Curtin: ”Erin Brockovich is no less Steven’s vision than Traffic is. It’s Steven who shepherded Julia and the story.” As for Soderbergh himself? ”I tend not to agonize over things I cannot control,” he says. ”This is one of them.” Something tells us the studios would disagree.

Additional reporting by Liane Bonin, Clarissa Cruz, and Tricia Johnson