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In Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller plays shallow movie star Tugg Speedman, who makes a gritty Vietnam film in the hopes of finally winning an Academy Award. It's a shameless ploy Speedman has tried once before, when he took on another classic Oscar-baiting role: a man who's mentally challenged.
Alas, the Academy ignored his heartfelt performance in Simple Jack for a simple reason, according to Speedman's Russell Crowe-like costar (played by Robert Downey Jr.): "You never go full retard," he explains. "Check it out. Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man looks retarded, acts retarded, [but he's] not retarded. He counts cards. Autistic, sure. Not retarded. Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump. Slow, yes. Braces on his legs, but he charmed the pants off Nixon, he won the ping-pong competition. That ain't retarded. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard."
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Downey's character is on to something when it comes to panning for Oscar gold. An examination of the last 30 years of Academy Award nominees and winners reveals some clear and effective trends.
According to Jeanine Basinger, Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies and Founder and Curator of The Cinema Archives at Wesleyan University, the biggest key to winning an Oscar is "finding a role that plays against type" and in general, avoiding comedies and musicals.
"Go gay, be crippled, don't sing and dance on screen," Basinger advises. "Jimmy Cagney [who won for Yankee Doodle Dandy] is an exception to that, but he was playing a world-famous figure, so the rule really is don't sing and dance unless you're also playing a world-famous figure."
Other rules to live by, Basinger says, are "keeping out of comedy," "becoming a Vietnam veteran, preferably legless," and if you're an actress, removing all makeup while playing either "a prostitute or a nun."
Having a major comeback toward the end of your career (or life) is another great way to nab a little gold man, she says, as is playing a serial killer, starring in a movie about the Holocaust or Civil War, speaking with a funny accent, and putting on a lot of weight for a role. (Donning a prosthetic nose or doing something else to make yourself look as ugly as possible also works.) Dying on screen at the end of the movie ("either beautifully or horribly," Basinger says), or playing an alcoholic or person with serious depression (think Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas) can deliver, too.
Perhaps no one mastered the art of fishing for an Oscar with as much bait as Charlize Theron, who won Best Actress for 2003's Monster. In that film, Theron played a lesbian, gained a ton of weight, hacked several men to death in a serial-killing spree, and then died at the end of the movie by lethal injection. Her lover, played by Christina Ricci, struck a plea bargain with prosecutors and appeared to be her normal weight on screen. Ricci wasn't even nominated.
Like most industry insiders this year, Basinger's money is on Jeff Bridges for Best Actor. After all, the 60-year-old Bridges is the year's major comeback, he's never won before, and the character he played in Crazy Heart is an alcoholic.
Similarly, Mo'Nique ought to win because, while not quite a serial killer, she's the year's biggest monster—Hannibal Lecter reimagined as a welfare queen.
And Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds is another Oscar lock—he plays a monster, in this case a Nazi, with a fabulous German accent. Granted, it's his own Austrian accent, but it can't hurt.
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.