As Oscar ballots come due early next week, Sandra Bullock is continuing her inexorable march to the Kodak Theatre podium.
Bullock's tour de force performance as Southern spitfire Leigh Anne Tuohy in "The Blind Side" -- aided by the fact that she appears in nearly every scene, as opposed to the other front-runner, Meryl Streep, who is in roughly half of "Julie & Julia"-- continues to carry weight with voters; an informal poll of strategists has her as the winner of the lead actress Oscar. It's hard to disagree. The Tuohy mother character that Bullock takes on is a great role, and she executes it perfectly.
Streep, on the other hand, has been as quiet as Bullock has been outspoken, barely making appearances on the awards circuit and infrequently addressing the media when she does.
But Bullock has benefited from Streep's absence, specifically from the faux rivalry she created with the blond one -- like the time she claimed to Tavis Smiley she would throw her shoe at Streep at the Golden Globes. Or the dead flowers Bullock says Streep sent her after Bullock won a best actress prize at said Globes. And let's not even get in to that weird kiss at the Critics Choice.
It's been a savvy tack for Bullock and publicist Cheryl Maisel, simultaneously keeping the actress in the public eye while also subtly painting her as the underdog. But what Bullock creates, she takes away. After cultivating the rivalry subplot for several weeks, she took an abruptly different tone when we caught up with her after the Oscar nominee luncheon last week.
"We've done it. We did it. It had its moments," she said when asked if there would be more coming on the theme. "Those are always unexpected [dramas] but if you keep it up it's just plain annoying."
A moment later, we began a question by mentioning Streep's performance.
Bullock: "Don't try to pit Meryl and I [said in a playful/sarcastic tone -- we think]. Go away from that. Move away."
24 Frames: "But you guys are the two favorites!"
Bullock: "There's five wonderful favorites. There's five completely different performances, all deserving. Someone's going to walk away with it. Everyone else is going to be happy for her."
(Sandy, we liked it better when you weren't pretending that everyone's a winner.)
How this shift will play probably won't matter. Bullock's decision to play ball with awards voters has resonated with them, even if it's spelled a kind of Sandra-Bullock-is-stalking-me ubiquity that's reminiscent of Mickey Rourke's omnipresence last year, with Streep playing the role of Sean Penn.
It's recently seemed unnecessary for Bullock to be so visible -- since the nominations came out, one couldn't turn on a late-night or morning show or, for that matter, Mario Lopez on "Entertainment Tonight," without seeing her -- when she was almost certainly going to win anyway.
Which may be why Bullock's taking her foot off the pedal now. She's no longer the underdog, and reminding voters too often of her performance could come off as confidence, not humility. Besides, the mostly silent response from Streep has given the whole enterprise an eerily lopsided feeling, with Bullock like a girl who badly wants a friend to come out and play but, having been unable to convince that friend, just pretends they're there anyway.
Streep, incidentally, has done herself no favors with her relative silence. Her approach has sometimes felt like the campaign two years ago for "Away From Her" star Julie Christie, who stayed quiet and out of Los Angeles for long stretches of the season while "La Vie en Rose" star Marian Cotillard diligently worked the circuit.
It also hasn't gotten the message out that Streep, for all the Oscar nomination love she's received, has been a bridesmaid so many times. "The problem with best actress is that you can give it to Meryl Streep every year," "Blind Side" producer Andrew Kosove said the morning the nominations were announced. "She’s the best actress in the world. It’s like Tiger Woods in a golf tournament -- eventually someone else has to be allowed to win.”
Actually, someone has -- for the past 28 years. Yes, Streep hasn't won an Oscar since 1982, when she took home the statuette for "Sophie's Choice." Since then she's been nominated 11 times but never come home with a prize, a streak to rival all-time lucky losers such as Peter O'Toole and Paul Newman.
That could have been a play for the Streep camp and those running her campaign at 42West (who did not reply to an inquiry for this post): Make it seem as if this is finally her year, the way campaigners did so brilliantly for Martin Scorsese with "The Departed" in 2006.
Instead, they didn't really get the word out. And without that -- and with the Bullock campaign working the underdog angle so wisely -- we'll probably see the former Miss Congeniality take the stage a week from Sunday. Which will probably bring out one more sarcastic/tear-filled speech. Just don't ask her about Meryl Streep.
Photo: Sandra Bullock. Credit: Peter Kramer / Associated Press