There’s more to Oscar than meets the eye.

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LOS ANGELES — With four best-actor nominations and no statuettes to show for them, Denzel Washington has made a habit out of Oscar disappointment.

His portrayal of Steven Biko in Cry Freedom lost out to Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man in 1988. His Malcolm X was beaten by Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman in 1993. In 2000, Washington was the odds-on favorite for his falsely imprisoned boxer in The Hurricane, but Kevin Spacey took the trophy for American Beauty.

Voters at Sunday night’s Academy Awards may give him the top prize for his corrupt L.A. cop in Training Day. But a bravura performance — even a string of them — isn’t always enough to sway the 5,607-member academy.

Winning best actor in a leading role means more than being the best actor in a leading role. It takes publicity, timing and the ever-elusive buzz. It helps to be liked in the business, overdue for the honor and part of a good film. Blind luck never hurts.

But that’s no guarantee of gold. Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole received seven Oscar nominations each but never won. Cary Grant never took home more than an honorary award. Deborah Kerr (From Here to Eternity, The King & I) was nominated six times and never won. Glenn Close has received six nominations but no trophy.

And Oscar doesn’t mind making even film legends wait. Henry Fonda was 76 when he finally won for On Golden Pond, his last film; Paul Newman was nominated seven times before claiming Oscar for The Color of Money, his eighth try. He was 62.

”It’s been a long time since an acting Oscar was based simply on a great performance,” says Hollywood acting coach Howard Fine. ”There’s media attention, the actor’s body of work, whether he’s ever won before. It’s a whole package the studios try to present.”

That package has come with a hefty price tag this year. Spurred by a wide-open competition, studios have mounted aggressive campaigns, spending a record$50 million in marketing for virtually every top race, from best picture to actor to director. This, despite all the evidence that a best-picture Oscar is the only award that dramatically affects box office performance.

”It’s a matter of pride,” says Walter Green, author of The Art of Excellent Filmmaking. ”Warner Bros. (which released Training Day) doesn’t have anything up for best picture. So it’s pushing hard for Denzel. It needs something to hang its hat on, even if it costs them millions and doesn’t give much in return.”

Washington has said that the supporting-actor Oscar he won in 1990 for Glory ”sort of takes the edge off” of the subsequent losses. And he and his competitors — Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind), Sean Penn (I Am Sam), Will Smith (Ali) and Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom) — have limited most comments about the category to the ”it’s an honor just to be nominated” sound bite.

Campaigning, subtle and overt

But look closely, and you’ll see Oscar campaigning in subtle and overt forms. While the other nominees’ films were released at Oscar time, Washington’s movie came out in the fall. So he missed no press junkets for his latest film, the health care drama John Q., which was released to coincide with the nominations for best actor.

He has attended the many awards leading up to the Oscars, including the American Film Institute awards (which he won), and the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards (which he didn’t). It’s no coincidence Warner released Training Day on DVD Tuesday, the final day of voting.

”You don’t want to be in the public’s eye too much or they’ll get sick of you,” says publicist Michele Robertson, who handled the campaign that helped Hilary Swank win best actress for Boys Don’t Cry in 2000. ”If you flood the market with ads a month before the awards, there can be a backlash. Sometimes it’s better to let your performance do your talking.”

Or your body of work. Sometimes, Fine says, ”the academy decides that someone’s career needs to be recognized with an Oscar. The movie they are nominated for might not be good enough on its own, but it might be enough to push their work over the top to get the statue.”

John Wayne, for example, was 62 when he received his only Oscar, for True Grit in 1970 — 40 years and 158 films into his career.

Others aren’t rewarded over time. The distinguished résumés of Kirk Douglas, Montgomery Clift and James Earl Jones do not include Oscars under the awards section. Douglas Fairbanks (senior and junior), Errol Flynn and Glenn Ford were never even nominated.

– Scott Bowles USA TODAY

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