Oscars: Campaigns Decide Whether to Vie in the Lead or Supporting Acting Categories

With the Oct. 22 SAG Awards submission deadline right around the corner, actors and actresses, directors, publicists and distributors are being forced to make some tough decisions.
Courtesy of Universal; Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox; Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures
Mahershala Ali in 'Green Book,' Olivia Colman in 'The Favourite' and Stephan James in 'If Beale Street Could Talk'

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not in the business of adjudicating in which acting categories — lead or supporting — a performance belongs. Academy members are free to vote to nominate actors and actresses in whichever category they deem appropriate. But that doesn't keep talent, publicists and distributors from trying to steer voters in one direction or another — via precursor awards (such as the Hollywood Film Awards, which works closely with awards consultants), screeners and advertisements (which list suggested categorizations "for your consideration"), among other methods.

This season, there is an unusually high number of "close calls" — talent who could just as plausibly be pushed in one category as another. But good news: The Hollywood Reporter can report that, with the Oct. 22 deadline for SAG Awards submissions (which require a stated category preference) right around the corner, most of those have now broken one way or the other.

One of the most closely watched situations has involved The Favourite, which stars three actresses — Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz — with similarly sized parts. Out of the gate at the Venice Film Festival, it was clear that the best notices were going to Colman for her performance as the 18th century Queen Anne, so the assumption was that past Oscar winners Stone and Weisz, who play the characters competing for Colman's character's affections, would campaign in whichever category Colman elected not to. (Colman was awarded Venice's best actress prize, but the fest doesn't have a supporting actress prize, and some past winners have wound up with supporting actress Oscar noms, such as I'm Not There's Cate Blanchett.) For Colman, then, the question was whether to angle for a nom in the rather thin supporting actress category, where she could have a fairly easy path to victory, or to go lead, and thereby reorient herself in the industry as not just a great character actress but a formidable leading lady, even if it makes winning slightly more of an uphill climb.

THR can report that Colman will be the film's sole lead actress competitor, while Stone and Weisz will both go supporting — a move that was tipped when Weisz was announced last Thursday as the Hollywood Film Awards' best supporting actress honoree (Weisz is also in contention this year for Disobedience, for which she will be pushed in lead and Rachel McAdams will go supporting), and that provides the film with the likeliest path to noms for all three actresses.

Another interesting case is the two-hander Green Book, which stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali as unlikely car-mates traversing the civil rights-era South. Both actors' performances received rave reviews out of the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film itself won the audience award, but it was unclear how they would be categorized, since two people from the same film are very rarely both among the final five for best actor. In the end, Ali, the best supporting actor Oscar winner for Moonlight two seasons ago, has opted to go supporting, in recognition of the fact that his character is never seen onscreen without Mortensen's, whereas Mortensen's has 16 minutes of additional screen time.

Breaking a different way is Stephan James of If Beale Street Could Talk, the first movie since Moonlight from director Barry Jenkins. The central performance in that film is KiKi Layne's, so nobody would have blinked if James, who plays her character's boyfriend, had gone supporting. But, after considerable back and forth, he is going lead — the argument being that it is a love story and his presence is felt even when he is offscreen for chunks of time — which is good news for Colman Domingo or perhaps Brian Tyree Henry, the latter of whom has only one scene in the film, but does impressive work and now has a clearer path to a supporting nomination of his own.

Some will raise eyebrows at the decision to classify Thomasin McKenzie as a supporting actress for her breakout turn in Leave No Trace, since hers really is the central performance in the film, which also stars Ben Foster, who is going lead. But young actresses usually wind up in the supporting category, and this 18-year-old New Zealander — the latest discovery of director Debra Granik, who previously brought us Jennifer Lawrence — is so good in the role that voters may just get on board.

Beautiful Boy's Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet, both past best actor Oscar nominees, are arguably co-leads for this father-son drama, but Carell has slightly more screen time, and his character arguably drives the movie more, in the sense that he is grappling with what is happening to his son and leading the effort to help him, so he is going lead and Chalamet supporting.

Natalie Portman doesn't show up in Vox Lux for over an hour, when it flashes forward several years, but when she does enter the picture she takes it over, which is why there was some question about how she would be campaigned. The answer is supporting — the Oscar winner is ceding the leading slot to 16-year-old Brit Raffey Cassidy, who plays two different, key parts in both the first and second segments of the film.

In the case of What They Had, an ensemble piece about a family dealing with its matriarch's descent into Alzheimer's disease, two previously Oscar-nominated actors have received particularly strong notices: Michael Shannon and Robert Forster. It would have been helpful to 77-year-old Forster, who is garnering his best buzz since Jackie Brown 21 years ago, if Shannon had taken a lead classification, but overall sentiment seems to be that the film's sole lead is Hilary Swank, who is essentially portraying the film's writer-director, Elizabeth Chomko.

There are a number of films this season about married couples experiencing problems — and, coincidentally or not, the campaigns for three of them have arrived at the same decision: to push the actress in lead but the actor in supporting. This applies to Private Life's Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti; Colette's Keira Knightley and Dominic West; and Wildlife's Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal.

In addition to the aforementioned example of Weisz, there are several other performers this year who are in the running for multiple performances. Emily Blunt is unquestionably a lead actress contender for Mary Poppins Returns, inhabiting the title role for which Julie Andrews won an Oscar in the category 54 seasons ago — but Blunt also gave an impressive but understated performance this year in her husband John Krasinski's acclaimed hit A Quiet Place, for which Blunt has also elected to go lead.

Meanwhile, past winner Nicole Kidman has both Destroyer and Boy Erased, and will be going lead for the former but supporting for the latter. But past nominee Lucas Hedges is indisputably the male lead of both Boy Erased and Ben Is Back, and will therefore have to compete against himself in the lead category, as will past nominee John C. Reilly for the two male two-handers in which he stars this year, Stan & Ollie (he's the Hardy to Steve Coogan's Laurel) and The Sisters Brothers (Joaquin Phoenix is the other Sister brother).

As for films still to come? Christian Bale will be the sole lead for Vice, a film about Dick Cheney, with the likes of defending best supporting actor Oscar winner Sam Rockwell, perennial Oscar nominee Amy Adams and Carell all going supporting. Meanwhile, the two past Oscar nominees who star in Mary Queen of Scots are splitting up, with Saoirse Ronan lead and Margot Robbie supporting.

Adding to the fun and confusion will be the announcement of the Gotham Independent Film Awards on Thursday morning. The Gothams do not have supporting acting categories, and therefore consider performances of all sizes for best actor and best actress (which could create some category confusion over the likes of Chalamet, James or Portman) — but also take some out of the running so that they can compete for best breakthrough actor and best breakthrough actress (McKenzie seems likely).