Lead or supporting actor? That is the question various awards groups as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are turning their attention to as “for your consideration” season gets under way.
When it comes to deciding whether a performance should be considered a lead or supporting role, the Academy is scrupulously neutral. Although it sends members a reminder list of the year’s eligible films, the cast listed for each film carries no category designation. When the accountants total the votes, they calculate the leading and supporting categories simultaneously. In the case of a performance that earns enough votes to score a nomination in both the lead and supporting categories, the Academy simply slots the performance into the category in which it gets the highest percentage of votes.
Of course, by the time Academy members begin to deliberate, critics groups have begun to weigh in and the studios are busy campaigning to steer votes in predetermined directions. And then there are the intangibles — like the question of villainy. A juicy villain almost always rises to the top.
The most infamous case in point is 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs.” In terms of screen time, Anthony Hopkins’ insidious Hannibal Lecter played second fiddle to Jodie Foster’s troubled FBI investigator Clarice Starling. But the two were nominated as best actor and actress, and both won. In fact, “Lambs” pulled off the same trick — best picture, director, actor, actress and adapted screenplay — that “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” achieved 16 years earlier. And that movie also happened to feature a riveting protagonist, Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy, facing off against a chilling antagonist, Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched.
This year, a couple of villain turns already are moving to the fore. Even before it established itself as one of the surprise hits of the summer, Fox 2000’s “The Devil Wears Prada” vaulted Meryl Streep into one of the early front-runner spots in the best actress category for her performance as fierce fashion editor Miranda Priestly. Nevermind that the movie is really the story of how Anne Hathaway’s aspiring journalist comes to terms with the temptations of the glossy media world. It’s Streep who dominates “Prada” with her every purring, dictatorial command.
Even though it takes place in an entirely different moral universe, “The Last King of Scotland” follows a somewhat similar trajectory: A naive young man, a newly minted Scottish doctor played by James McAvoy, falls under the sway of power-mad Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, embodied by a fearsome Forest Whitaker, and then must decide whether to confront the evil in which he has become complicit. Fox Searchlight is suggesting that McAvoy, though he plays the reluctant hero and has the most screen time, be considered as best supporting actor, while Whitaker is getting the best-actor push.
It’s not just that Whitaker is the bigger star or plays the more powerful character. The respected actor has a couple of other things in his favor in his quest for best actor gold: It’s his character who provides director Kevin Macdonald’s movie with its title, and it’s his image that adorns the key art. Plus, the fact that Whitaker is currently appearing in a pathos-filled story arc on “ER” doesn’t hurt, either.
The bottom line, though, is that the Academy loves being seduced by villains. When both Tom Hulce, who played Mozart, and F. Murray Abraham, who appeared as his nemesis Salieri in “Amadeus,” competed as best actor nominees in 1984, it was Abraham who took home the Oscar, providing further evidence that come awards time, a good villain is hard to ignore.