The votes have been tallied and the Oscar statuettes polished, bringing an end to one of the most drawn out, high-profile Oscar races in recent memory.
Some of the biggest names in the business (Streep! Clooney! Pitt!) have vied with compelling newcomers in a contest that has had the contenders crisscrossing the country — and an ocean — in an effort to bring home Oscar gold.
"I can't think of a more exciting awards season in the past decade than this one," says Scott Feinberg, lead awards blogger for The Hollywood Reporter. "We've got household stars and the breakthrough newcomers, and many are still in the race."
Oscar campaigning is not new. Beginning in the autumn, when the bulk of the award-worthy movies are released and when precursor awards nominations loom, the studios begin their big push, including sending out DVDs, setting up screenings (often with key talent in attendance) and kicking up marketing plans. The activity is aimed at the 6,000 academy voters who choose the winners to be announced on Sunday night's telecast.
This year, new rules from the academy limited the number of screenings and parties once nominations were announced Jan. 24.
But what makes 2012 special is the amount of big-name talent working the campaigns from the beginning and well into the final days of voting, a testament to how clearly such work has paid off in the past.
"In this day and age, you don't wake up and win an Oscar," Feinberg says. "For the most part you have to go out there and do the work now. It doesn't matter who you are."
That's why we have seen so much of this year's class of nominees, which includes Michelle Williams, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep, Christopher Plummer, Glenn Close and Gary Oldman along with the cast of The Help and The Artist.
Since the beginning of December, the actors have marched a seemingly unending line of red carpets not only to participate in individual events but also to build momentum for their Oscar chances.
Their march travels through key film festivals — the Palm Springs and Santa Barbara fests have thrived off their awards season timing to attract top-notch talent. But most important are the plethora of awards shows, including the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the National Board of Review Awards, the Directors Guild Awards, the Producers Guild Awards and others crammed into the tiny window before Academy Awards weekend.
"There are 25 or so precursor awards" the artists attend, Feinberg says. "Because people have come to believe, rightly so, that winning at each step is important to winning that next award."
This continues until the ultimate awards night: the Oscars.
"This year it was this perfect storm of high-profile performers along with some great phenom stories being swept into the mix and staying in it till the end," says veteran awards consultant Tony Angellotti, who advises on campaigns for Universal and Disney/Pixar studios. "It became a movable feast of interviews, parties and functions all in the service of this magical thing called the Oscar."
Though all of the campaigns won't conclude with acceptance speeches Sunday night, some of the prolonged work deserves plaudits in its own right.
Best surprise: The artists behind 'The Artist'
Try to imagine this concept a year ago: The odds-on favorite for the 2012 Oscar race would be a silent, black-and-white French import. Yet The Artist is leading the competition for best picture, best director (Michel Hazanavicius) and best actor (Jean Dujardin). Bérénice Bejo, nominee for best supporting actress and Hazanavicius' wife, is the only underdog.
The movie drew attention with its premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival in May. But even with critical plaudits, its quirkiness made people question its viability to win the industry's top prizes long into the process.
"Everyone felt that something else was going to come along and beat it at some point," says Steve Pond, awards columnist for TheWrap.com. "It was like the film is charming, but not a best-picture winner.
"But this has been a very steady campaign, leading from the front. Front-runner can be a very tricky campaign to be in."
The stars have worked hard to keep the buzz around the film strong — a feat made more impressive by the fact that Hazanavicius, Bejo and Dujardin are based in France. During one 11-day stretch in Los Angeles, they were at events every night, starting with the Australian Film Institute Awards (Jan. 27) and ending with the academy's luncheon for Oscar nominees (Feb. 6), all in an effort by the movie's studio, the awards-savvy Weinstein Co., to keep the movie on people's minds.
Language barriers were just one of the major obstacles. Dujardin made a special effort to brush up on his English for an appearance on The Tonight Show (he hit it out of the park) and flew from France to New York just to perform an enthusiastic dance number on Saturday Night Live before getting back on a plane to attend the BAFTAs — the British equivalent of the Oscars — in London.
Even The Artist's canine star, Uggie, did his bit, gamely dominating the spotlight on awards-show red carpets.
Best campaign improvement: Meryl Streep
The acting legend has learned the hard way that you don't win Oscar gold just on reputation and standout performances. Streep, who has been nominated for the 17th time, has not won an Oscar in 29 years. Her most recent Oscar bids came in 2010, when her performance in Julie & Julia lost to Sandra Bullock's in The Blind Side, and in 2009, when she was bested by Kate Winslet in The Reader.
This year Streep has worked her Oscar-nominated performance in The Iron Lady to the max in conjunction with the wide release of the film.
"She revved it up a lot more than she ever did in the past," says The Hollywood Reporter's Feinberg. "There's a perception that she didn't really want it as much as the other people in past years did, and there's a misconception that she has seven or eight Oscars on the shelf so she doesn't care about winning more. But the reality is she has not won in a long time, and she does care."
She has made television appearances on everything from 60 Minutes to Jimmy Kimmel Live. She jetted out to Los Angeles for interviews, movie Q&As and award shows (including the Aussie film awards). She attended the London BAFTAs, where she won the best-actress prize, and the Berlin Film Festival.
Streep again faces stiff competition, this time from The Help's Viola Davis.
But, Feinberg says, "she's given herself as good a shot as she can."
Best double act: George Clooney and Brad Pitt
Of all the talent in the race, two of the biggest stars in the world have added another level of sustained excitement. Both are double nominees: Pitt is producer of the best-picture-nominated Moneyball and up for best actor for his role in the film. Clooney is nominated for best actor in The Descendants and for best screenplay in The Ides of March.
"Clooney and Pitt have been everywhere this year," Pond says.
"That's not something that has been the case — that your biggest stars are this willing to commit themselves to this cause," Feinberg adds. "Even when they are selling a movie, they are not doing as much as they have been doing this season. It was a full-time job."
The two friends and movie co-stars have dutifully made the press rounds. Pitt has been on covers from W magazine to Vanity Fair Italia, and the two stars appeared on separate covers of The Hollywood Reporter in successive weeks. And they played off each other at the high-profile events, such as when Clooney walked on stage at the Golden Globes with Pitt's walking cane.
On The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Pitt joked about taking his campaign negative against his best-actor rivals.
"I've got to get in there and mix it up a little bit," he laughed, adding that they should turn the Oscar competition into a physical one by giving the trophy to whichever nominee could hold on to it the longest.
Serious traces of negative campaigning seen in previous years have not been a factor this year. The academy has strict rules to keep it clean, even making it unacceptable for members to post negative comments on Facebook and other social media.
"It's been way more congenial than in the past," Angellotti says.
Pitt and Clooney's deportment despite being competitors certainly has highlighted the fact that the Oscar race was truly a gentleman's (and lady's) game in 2012.
"People love to pit Brad and I against each other," Clooney said backstage at the Oscar luncheon. "The truth is we're buddies."
Best fresh face, male : Gary Oldman
Oldman is a surprising newcomer on the awards roster. Despite his distinguished career, his nod for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is his first nomination, making this his first brush with the circus surrounding it.
"With just a shift of perception, you could either be incredibly overwhelmed by it or embrace it and run with it," he said at the Oscar luncheon.
He has embraced it. Before the event, he read a Jersey Shore recap on Jimmy Kimmel Live and followed it up with more interviews and Q&A appearances in Los Angeles and New York, where he was a guest on the Today show and Charlie Rose.
"Gary Oldman has never campaigned for anything other than this, yet he has been out there since Day One. He's been going to everything," Pond says. "I asked him: 'What's the deal? You've never done anything before.' And he said, 'Well, you have to do this.' And he's somehow managed to enjoy it."
Best fresh face, female: Octavia Spencer
Members of The Help's ensemble earned key nominations, including Davis (who received a nomination for 2008's Doubt) as best actress while newcomers Spencer and Jessica Chastain took their first Oscar nominations in the best-supporting-actress category. Though Chastain has had to curtail her awards work to shoot a movie, Spencer has been a constant and perpetually smiling figure at events.
"It's an eye-opener to see what's all involved in this," Spencer said backstage at the Oscar luncheon. "You're definitely fatigued."
But she makes no bones about enjoying the flurry of key events she has attended in the run-up to the Oscars — especially when they involved the likes of Pitt, Clooney and Streep.
"I think I've sort of mauled everyone," Spencer said with a smile.
Best octogenarian race: Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow
More than likely an Oscar record will be set in the best-supporting-actor race with Plummer (Beginners) and von Sydow (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) vying for the crown. Both are 82. If either man takes it, he will be the oldest actor to bring home an Oscar for acting.
Though both have been very much on the campaign trail, one event Plummer missed highlights the importance of staying the course. When Plummer was a no-show for the Oscar luncheon in January, the spotlight suddenly shifted to von Sydow, who received a hearty standing ovation from a key academy-member-filled audience.
In the instant-news cycle of the Internet, the seemingly small event mushroomed.
"The buzz switched to Max just because Plummer was a no-show," says Goldderby.com editor Tom O'Neil. "People are paying attention to this stuff and expecting you to be at these things."
Feinberg says von Sydow "certainly has a lot of catching up to do to beat Plummer. But that one day was a great opportunity for him to have the spotlight for himself."
The feel-good story: Demián Bichir
A Better Life's star pressed the flesh for his little-seen indie movie long before Oscar voters knew what the movie was. But his strong performance, the film's emotionally wrenching look at the timely subject of immigration, as well as Summit Entertainment's early mailing of the Better Life DVD to Oscar voters ("It would have gotten lost otherwise," Feinberg says) led to a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Bichir and then a career-changing Oscar nomination.
Bichir has had to juggle his Oscar campaign work with the opening of his new play, Swimming With Sharks, in Mexico City. So after a 10-hour interview session with assorted reporters after getting the nomination, he went into a dress rehearsal. He also has shuttled between productions and awards events in Los Angeles. ("I bring my eye covers and try to sleep on the plane," Bichir says.)
But the Mexican actor was warned by his friend Benicio del Toro (who won best supporting actor in 2001 for Traffic) about the pitfalls, but ultimate joys, of the new season.
"Benicio was very clear about it," Bichir says. "He told me, 'Just enjoy the craziness. Because it's really crazy.' And he was right. It's been a lot of fun and crazy. This is a big deal."