Off the Carpet: A most competitive, campaign-heavy season heads into the final turn

It's almost over. Voting for the 86th annual Academy Awards ends tomorrow at 5pm PT. Most ballots have already been turned in, of course, and many were probably coming in early, as paper ballots somehow again hit mailboxes a week ahead of the official opening of online polls on Feb. 14. What will one of the most competitive seasons on record have to show for itself on Sunday night?

When the dust settles, we'll certainly have seen one of the more campaign-heavy seasons to date. No one has just rolled over and some have pulled out all the stops. Just look at Paramount's push for “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which just went for it with a vibrant “Because It's Awesome” outdoor campaign. Warner Bros. tapped a more emotional vein in TV spots for “Gravity,” highlighting it as more than “just” a feat of craftsmanship. And though characteristically reserved on a matter such as this throughout the season, Fox Searchlight finally “went there” on behalf of “12 Years a Slave” with various “It's Time” notations in newspapers and commercials last week. (This is just me talking but I feel like that step wouldn't have felt necessary if it wasn't such a tight race.)

Then there's the late night circuit. I had to ask around to make sure it wasn't just me, but if you flipped through the channels over the last couple of weeks, the saturation of Oscar nominees making talk show appearances felt like it was at an all-time high. We're knee deep in the awards season at all times around here, but even I'm feeling beleaguered, like I can't escape these movies and these faces as of late.

Jimmy Fallon kicked off his stint hosting “The Tonight Show” with a big U2 performance on top of 30 Rock in New York, and the band closed out the show with an intimate rendition of their Oscar-nominated song “Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” The rest of the week featured guests like Bradley Cooper and Arcade Fire, while others like Jonah Hill and Martin Scorsese stopped by for sketch appearances. “American Hustle” director David O. Russell – who appeared on “The Daily Show” the very same day – was in the audience for Cooper's appearance. (Keeping a watchful eye?) Oh, and though not a nominee, Emma Thompson showed up for a funny charades bit with Cooper and singer Tim McGraw.

Over on CBS, David Letterman welcomed “12 Years a Slave” star Lupita Nyong'o last week. It was a charming appearance indicative of one of my favorite parts of this season so far: seeing this young lady have the time of her life. She's also set for an appearance on “Conan” this week. And speaking of which, Scorsese and Hill both made Team Coco appearances over the last couple of weeks.

Hill is all over the place, actually, showing up on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” along with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, Matthew McConaughey and June Squibb (who also participated in this hilarious “Meet the Nominees” bit). Hill and John Goodman were the only Oscar season players to host an episode of “Saturday Night Live” this season as well. Also on Kimmel just a couple of weeks after the Oscar nominations were announced was “Captain Phillips” star Barkhad Abdi, and McConaughey, remember, helped Jay Leno close out his final week of “The Tonight Show” two weeks back, as did Sandra Bullock.

Finally, Steve Coogan stopped by “Real Time” to talk Catholicism and “Philomena” with Bill Maher on Friday. That was a week after “Dirty Wars” director and “Real Time” regular Jeremy Scahill dropped by the show, while “12 Years a Slave” screenwriter John Ridley was on two weeks after the nominations were announced.

All of this reflects the six studios that have Best Picture skin in this year's Oscar game. And no, nominees on late night isn't a new thing, particularly during the Olympics, which brings a ratings boost. Rising waters lift all ships, after all; NBC has been averaging maybe two or three times as many viewers leading into the 11:30pm time slot as they normally would, some nights more. But other than that, why the seemingly out-of-the-ordinary influx of nominees on the tube?

One thing worth considering is the Academy's rule shift a few years ago, which limited campaigns to no more than four question-and-answer sessions during phase two and therefore curtailed the opportunity to get out the message. “Late night shows put your nominee front and center without breaking any rules,” one publicist told me.

Another reason could simply be the actual landscape of nominees. This isn't a year full of typically talk show-shy players like Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis (whose last late night talk show appearance in support of awards consideration was on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1990, though he's done Charlie Rose and Oprah here and there). “It's a banner year for willing participants,” another publicist said. “It's Amy and Cooper and Matthew and other desperate types.” And do we really think Leonardo DiCaprio would have popped up on the Hill-hosted “SNL” if he didn't feel like he was in the Best Actor mix?

But all of that is just one admittedly long-winded note on the season. Partly it's the ever-growing media attention of the Oscar race, but it seems to me, on the whole, everyone is everywhere, hope springing eternal. Just about everyone is readily available to press, too, few filming commitments keeping the talent at arm's length. And even when certain commitments have been a substantial hurdle, contenders have remained dogged. Jared Leto, for instance, has made the rounds despite 30 Seconds to Mars' tour dates (sometimes flying in from the UK for an event one day and back to the tour the next), while Martin Scorsese has somehow found time to balance location scouts in Taiwan for his upcoming film “Silence” with making it to Santa Barbara for a fete and for Fallon and the like.

All of this madness finally draws to a close in under a week. But it's been, to my eye, an exciting season. Two of the very best films of the year, indeed in many years, seem to be duking it out for the top prize. Many of the names involved across the Academy's various categories are top-tier talents deserving of notice. There's nothing that feels particularly egregious about it all.

(Though I admittedly don't take it all so seriously as to get up in arms about this stuff. Other than “The Artist,” which was such a soft entry (but so were most of the others) the last time I remember being annoyed by the trajectory of things was “Shakespeare in Love,” mostly because I was too naive at the time to realize “The Thin Red Line” had a snowball's chance in hell. But then I really like “Shakespeare in Love,” so…)

Basically I'm saying the competition is a healthy one to me. Some see desperation in a lot of these campaigns, and you'd be a fool not to concede there's some of that at play. But I've met too many with something at stake this time of year to write perceived desperation off as simply gluttonous; awards can mean being able to continue making the movies you want to make, so of course some of these people are in it to win it. But they can't all reach the finish line first.

Stay tuned throughout the week as we continue to bring our final analysis of the 24 Oscar categories. We'll have final predictions from myself, Guy and Greg at the end of the week, as well as one last pre-show Oscar Talk podcast with Anne Thompson. The next time I address the season in this space, we'll know all the answers. What do you think they'll be?