Water Works: Can Tears at a Festival Premiere Boost an Awards Campaign?

Brendan Fraser already had a fair amount of Oscars hype ahead of The Whale’s premiere in Venice in 2022, but it was his reaction afterward that, for many, laid the path toward his best actor win. While nobody’s taking anything away from Fraser’s powerful performance as a 600-pound recluse, several figures close to the A24 film have claimed that the viral video of the actor crying during the six-minute standing ovation achieved more than any marketing campaign they could have paid for.

Not only was the clip viewed hundreds of thousands of times, sparking headlines across news sites and blogs, but it ignited equally viral reactions from major A-listers (with major followings). Most notably: Dwayne Johnson, who recalled how Fraser had supported him joining The Mummy Returns, his first Hollywood role. “Rooting for all your success brother,” he added.

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In the months that followed, perhaps sparked by Fraser in Venice (and the online traffic he generated), there seemed to be a much keener media focus on celebrity festival waterworks.

In Cannes, if the headlines are to be believed, Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones and the Dial and Destiny) and Johnny Depp (Jeanne du Barry) were, simultaneously, “tearing up,” “moved to tears,” “holding back tears” and “fighting back tears” at their respective Palais screenings. Whatever the actual level of sobbing, it’s perhaps understandable — Ford was getting a major career retrospective and hero’s welcome for his final Indy outing at one of the biggest film events on the planet, which Depp helped open with his return to cinema following a supposedly career-busting legal fallout with his ex-wife Amber Heard. Even The Idol creator Sam Levinson joined the tear fest, choking up during his post-screening thank you speech.

Nobody has suggested that any of the Cannes sobs were anything other than genuine emotions or crocodilian, contrived to spark a positive reception or awards run (several publicists have explained that they’d “never heard” of stars actively crying — or being urged to—for the sake of a campaign). But they definitely did generate press attention.

“What’s is interesting, is that these are all men,” notes a publicity vet. “It probably has a lot more impact from a man due to gender stereotypes — it seems impactful for a man to cry, but I don’t think a female actor crying would get the same column inches or attention.”

And of course, there was something uniquely poignant about Fraser’s reaction: an unprompted physical response from a beloved former marquee star to the applause for his comeback as a Hollywood leading man more than 20 turbulent years later. For someone considered to be a genuine good guy and whose lengthy absence from the industry was seen as outside his control (he’s spoken openly about the impact of depression, alleged assault, injury and divorce), the empathy, particularly because of the specific dynamics of what precipitated this show of emotion, was real.

“He’s a touching individual,” notes one seasoned publicist. “This genuine tearful response to the reception of his film went a very long way.”

In an interview following the Venice premiere, Fraser blamed his watery cheeks on “smiling so hard my face leaked.” This leakage would continue during premieres of The Whale in Toronto and London, and once again when he won at the Oscars. Again, the overwhelming response from the industry and beyond was one of nothing but happiness for Fraser and joy at his return.

A year on from the Venetian tears — which narrowly lost out to Harry Styles’ “spit-gate” as the festival’s most memed moment of 2023 — and the landscape looks a little more arid. Thanks to the actors strike, star sightings — let alone sobs — are likely to be thin on the ground. Awards campaigners may have to revert to more traditional routes.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that not all festival waterworks are what they seem.

As one publicist recalls: “I thought a director friend was crying in Cannes, but it turned out he had the mother of all migraines from the stress.”

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