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This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Never have there been as many disputes over awards categorization of actors as there have been this year.
Consider Alicia Vikander, the 27-year-old actress from Sweden who has won raves for her portrayal of the wife of a painter (Eddie Redmayne) who reveals he actually is a she in The Danish Girl. (The title is meant to refer to either character.) Focus Features announced its intentions to campaign for Vikander for the Oscar and all other prizes in the supporting actress category, in which many supportive wives have been nominated and even won (A Beautiful Mind‘s Jennifer Connelly). But some cried B.S., including the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the group that hands out the Golden Globes), which unlike the Academy requires distributors to request formally a specific placement on the ballot then votes whether to approve it; the HFPA rejected Vikander’s placement, meaning she will compete for a Globe in the lead actress category. But Vikander and Focus are staying the supporting course for the SAG Awards, for which actors appear on the ballot in whichever category they request (SAG-AFTRA declines to make placement requests public), and for the Oscars. However, Academy voters can nominate actors as lead or supporting players as they deem fit.
Rooney Mara, the 30-year-old American nominated for a lead actress Oscar for 2011’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, finds herself in a similar boat. The Weinstein Co., distributor of her latest film, Carol, has been pushing her across the board in the supporting actress category, which has raised many eyebrows in light of the fact Carol is a love story between two women — the other is Cate Blanchett, being pushed as a lead — and Mara’s character has more screen time; additionally, Mara was awarded the best actress prize over Blanchett at May’s Cannes Film Festival. The counter-argument — that Blanchett plays the title character and therefore is the lead — failed to convince the HFPA, which rejected the placement and deemed the actresses co-leads. Mara herself “prickled slightly” when asked about the topic in October by The New York Times and indicated she would prefer they be campaigned as co-leads. For the SAG Awards and Oscars, however, the distributor’s plan remains in place.
Then there’s 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay, whose performance opposite Brie Larson in Room — as a precocious child trapped in a shed with his kidnapped mother — has been called one of the greatest given by a child actor. Although this clearly is a case of equal screen time during the first half of the movie — and, thereafter, more for Tremblay than Larson — distributor A24 has been campaigning for Larson in the lead actress category and Tremblay in the supporting actor category. Why? Tremblay’s character generally is more passive than Larson’s, who drives the action — plus, kids almost never land noms in the lead categories. In this instance, the HFPA agreed with A24’s placement of Tremblay — but overturned the distributor’s submission of Jason Segel as a supporting actor for The End of the Tour, placing him in the lead race and effectively ending his hope of landing a Globe nom.
What is at the root of such gaming of categories? A desire to improve Oscar chances, of course. Sometimes it’s driven by distributor interests (The Weinstein Co. clearly feels it has a better shot at landing two noms if Blanchett and Mara compete in the categories for which it is pushing them instead of against each other for lead), and sometimes it’s driven by the preference of talent — but it’s never coincidental.
Oscars for supporting performances weren’t introduced until the ninth ceremony in 1937 and for many years were regarded as markedly less desirable than awards for lead roles; in fact, supporting winners received plaques rather than the iconic statuettes through the 16th Oscars. During those early days, which fell in the heyday of the studio system, lead actors and character actors were delineated more clearly as the studios developed then placed under contract hordes of both and almost never permitted members of one group to pass as the other. (Indeed, the Academy issued an annual directory to its members in which actors were classified as “leading men” or “leading women” and “characters and comedians.”)
Consequently, nearly all of the early supporting Oscar winners were true character actors. Toothless Walter Brennan, who had risen from the ranks of extras (who got to vote for the Oscars in those days) to the big leagues, won three of the first five supporting actor prizes. Other early winners tended to be overweight (Thomas Mitchell, Hattie McDaniel, Jane Darwell) and/or homely (Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut, Karl Malden, Anne Revere) and/or older (Barry Fitzgerald, Charles Coburn, Walter Huston, Ethel Barrymore) — in other words, like “real” people, not movie stars.
Things began to change, perhaps, when Frank Sinatra was pushed for and won a supporting actor Oscar for 1953’s From Here to Eternity. Sinatra, the world’s hottest sensation the previous decade, had been down on his luck but fought for the role and knocked it out of the park, and his win marked the beginning of a major comeback. If a supporting Oscar was good enough for — and could have that type of effect on — Ol‘ Blue Eyes, well, then, it was good enough for anyone, most reasoned. Increasingly, distributors and talent realized that practically nobody remembers which Oscar someone won, only that they won an Oscar — which, regardless of category, can boost a film’s gross and an actor’s asking price.
The supporting stigma was gone, or at least going, and soon studios began pushing other big names from large casts as supporting contenders, including three from 1961 films: Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift for Judgment at Nuremberg and Warren Beatty for Splendor in the Grass. Said Beatty at the time: “I think it is unfair for any actor who plays a lead role to compete, or attempt to compete, with other actors who did supporting roles. For this reason, I refused when Warner Bros. asked to put me in the supporting category … but they went ahead and did it anyway. Then my representative asked the Academy to cross my name off the list, and they said it was too late. … I think it would be unfair if I were nominated in a supporting role.” He was not, but Garland and Clift were.
Only once that I know of has the Academy formally rejected a stated category preference: when Peter Sellers was being pushed for a supporting nom for a cameo in 1962’s Lolita, but the Board of Governors insisted he compete as a lead — perhaps in response to criticism over the aforementioned noms. Since then, the Academy has left it to voters to reach their own conclusions. Famously, in 2008, Kate Winslet was in the running for two substantial roles in movies from different distributors, and some sort of deal was struck to push her for lead for Revolutionary Road (her then-husband Sam Mendes‘ film) and supporting for The Reader (a Weinstein film) in hope she would land noms for both. The HFPA and SAG accepted those categorizations — she won Globes for both films and a SAG Award for the latter — but then Academy acting branch members revolted and nominated her in lead for Reader and not at all for Road. They do have a mind of their own sometimes! (In the end, Winslet took home a best actress Oscar for Reader.)
While indisputably supporting performances have continued to be nominated in the supporting categories (Hermione Baddeley for less than three minutes in Room at the Top) and occasionally win (Beatrice Straight for less than six minutes in Network, Judi Dench for less than eight minutes in Shakespeare in Love), during recent years actors in truly small roles increasingly have been crowded out of supporting nominations by co-leads when campaigners were able to convince voters they gave supporting performances. (Examples include Connelly in A Beautiful Mind, Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago, Thomas Haden Church in Sideways, Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech and Patricia Arquette in Boyhood.) And this sort of behavior — called “category fraud” by some — has been rewarded: In more cases than not, the supporting nominee with the most substantial part has won the award. (I call this, perhaps politically incorrectly, the “tallest midget phenomenon.”)
This is far from the only way to get creative with — in other words, manipulate — categories. Anthony Hopkins was so overdue for recognition and so great in The Silence of the Lambs that his campaign decided to push him not for supporting but for lead, even though he was onscreen for only 16 minutes — and he won. (That wasn’t an original idea: David Niven was nominated for and won best actor for the same amount of screen time in 1958’s Separate Tables.) Also, the campaign for 2005’s Crash pioneered the technique — subsequently replicated by Babel and Little Miss Sunshine — of arguing that every member of its large cast was a supporting performer because there was no clear lead. Some dispute the legitimacy of this — an actor in a supporting role can’t be supporting no one, goes the argument — but the proof is in the pudding: All three of those films landed at least one acting nom, which is why Spotlight is using the same strategy this year.
Between the varying methods employed by the HFPA, SAG-AFTRA and the Academy, is there a truly equitable way of determining whether a performance is lead or supporting? I’m not sure any of them is flawless. My inclination would be to implement a uniform standard — for instance, if you’re onscreen for 50 percent or more of a film’s running time, you’re a lead, and if you’re onscreen for less than 50 percent, you’re supporting — which for the Oscars would be open to appeal to the three representatives of the acting branch serving on the Board of Governors. For now, though, it’s still less controversial for the Academy to do nothing than to do something about it, so I wouldn’t hold my breath for a change anytime soon.
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