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The Lead or Supporting Category Two-Step this Oscar Season


The line between supporting and lead has always been a blurry one. Sometimes the sheer impact of a character and of an actor’s performance can propel them from a supporting lock to a lead contender. Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs and Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are probably the two biggest examples of that. In terms of screen time they’re both clearly supporting; Hopkins has only 16 minutes in a 118m film. But both were nominated, and won, in lead. Those two wins ended up being part of Oscar history; The Silence of the Lambs and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are only two of three films in 91 years of the Academy Awards to win the top 5 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay.

Has the era of Oscar campaigns and nominations become so difficult that studios have to resort to questionable, yet utterly transparent, strategy?

The Screen Actors Guild submission deadline was October 22nd so a handful of up in the air category placements were bound to be revealed as a result. But SAG requires an official submission and you can only vote for a person there (the Oscars do not). We’ve seen countless examples of actor placement at SAG not aligning where the Academy sees them. Benicio del Toro, Jennifer Connelly, Keisha Castle-Hughes and Kate Winslet all were placed in categories at SAG that didn’t match up where Oscar wanted them.

This year is seeing quite a few high profile examples of co-leads being pushed supporting regardless of screen time or impact that require some closer looks.

As I noted in last week’s Frontrunner Friday, it had been announced by Paramount two weeks ago that Emily Blunt would be submitted in lead for A Quiet Place. But Paramount did an about face just a week later, deciding that all actors in the film would be submitted in supporting. While the film is an ensemble piece, there are plenty of arguments to be made that actor/director John Krasinski is a lead. Blunt and Millicent Simmonds are both arguably leads. It’s a bit of a grey area but the sudden change was an odd one. Did Paramount get word of mouth about Blunt in Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns and back down? It seems that way.

Jonathan Pryce was originally going to be submitted by Sony Classics in lead for The Wife, the vehicle aimed at finally securing a Best Actress win for 6-time nominee Glenn Close. It was a legitimate placement; he is absolutely a co-lead and even has a separate storyline happening parallel to Close’s. Then like Paramount, SPC changed their minds and have now decided to push him in supporting. There is some karmic retribution to the idea of a gender flop; the Oscars are littered with ‘supporting wife’ roles essentially being co-leads with their male counterparts but put in supporting for a better shot at a nomination, or even a win. Alicia Vikander just did three years ago in The Danish Girl, a film that is actually told from her perspective.

Amazon is positioning the stars of Beautiful Boy, Steve Carell and the titular Timothée Chalamet, in lead and supporting, respectively. The film is based on the memoirs of the father and son Carell and Chalamet play and although the film leans on Carell’s story a bit more, Chalamet has plenty of storyline and sequences on his own to warrant being a co-lead. Both have been Best Actor Oscar nominees before; Carell for 2014’s Foxcatcher (for a role that BAFTA nominated him in supporting for) and Chalamet just this last season for 2017’s Call Me By Your Name.

In Green Book, Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali literally takes the back seat to Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen. The based on a true story film, which is based on the book by the son of Mortensen’s character Tony Lip, threads the needle of lead and supporting rather finely. It’s a fair argument that the film is from Tony’s point of view, it is. But the story of race relations in 1962, where a white Tony Lip drives the black virtuoso pianist Don Shirley through a combative tour of the South, only exists because of these two men. While Mortensen has scenes before Ali is introduced it’s still very close to a two-hander film. But, Universal (which also has Ryan Gosling to push for First Man) has chosen to position only Mortensen in lead (where he’s been nominated twice before – as his film’s sole nomination) and Ali in supporting. This move pretty much guarantees Mortensen a nomination and, in my estimation, puts Ali in the pole position for a second Best Supporting Actor win.

Oscar Podcast #69: Breaking Down the Acting Categories with guest Kyle Buchanan

It used to be much easier for a film to earn double nominations in a single acting category but in the last 30 years it’s only happened a few times.

In Best Actor the last time was for 1984’s Amadeus. Both F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were nominated, with Abraham winning. The film won seven other Oscars including Best Picture. Just the year before that Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney both earned lead noms for The Dresser. Both lost to Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies.

In Best Actress it hasn’t happened since 1991’s Thelma & Louise when both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were nominated. They both lost to Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs, a film that swept the top 5 Oscars.

1991 also features into Best Supporting Actor, which finally saw the first set of double nominees from the same film since 1991’s Bugsy. Just this last season Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson were both nominated for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri with Rockwell winning.

Supporting Actress has been far more open to ongoing double nominations, in fact, it still happens quite a bit. In the 2000s and 2010s alone it happened eight times with a winner resulting from three of them: Catherine Zeta-Jones (over Queen Latifah) for 2002’s Chicago, Melissa Leo (over Amy Adams) in 2011’s The Fighter and Octavia Spencer (over Jessica Chastain) in 2012’s The Help.

It’s likely going to happen again in a few months with The Favourite. After weeks and weeks (or months, depending on when you start your Oscar predicting) of wondering where Fox Searchlight was going to place Olivia Colman with Oscar winners Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, we finally have answer: Best Actress. It was a decision that I imagine was actually quite an ordeal for the studio. The film is a triple play for the three actresses and arguments of who is a true lead have gone many ways. They’ve even gone to the idea that there is no true lead (Weisz dominates the first third, Stone the final third, with Colman the single denominator for all parts but still in support of everything). This could have been an example like Hopkins and Fletcher where the impact and totality of the role dictated placement. Fox Searchlight just mounted two extremely successful Oscar campaigns last season, winning Best Picture for The Shape of Water and Best Actress nomination for Sally Hawkins and a win for Frances McDormand in Three Billboards. This year, alongside The Favourite they have Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? in the Best Actress lineup.

There are a few examples where a studio could have cheated but chose not to. Neon, despite positioning Oscar winner Natalie Portman front and center in all marketing for Vox Lux, is correctly pushing her in Supporting Actress. Portman shows up about an hour into the two-hour film (the first hour is her character as a teenager) but they could have easily just tried to slip her into the Best Actress race but they’re also clever enough to know this is a jam-packed race in that category this year so doing the right thing turns out to also be the strategic thing to do.

Annapurna has Stephan James in lead for If Beale Street Could Talk, opening the door for Brian Tyree Henry to gain some traction for his lauded, single scene in the film. Having to go up against a full-fledged co-lead would have made his chances non-existent.

Part of the umbrage that some Oscar watchers take with these sketchy category placements is that you end up with what’s likely going to happen in Supporting Actor this year – minimal screen time supporting players like Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born) and Daniel Kaluuya (Widows) going up against definitive co-leads like Chalamet and Ali who have enormous screen time. Then you have guys who fits right in the middle like Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther).

The Oscars are already an apples vs oranges battle but sometimes the acting categories look more like David vs. Goliath. But then, tell that to Judi Dench and Beatrice Straight.

About Erik Anderson

Erik thanks his mother for his love of all things Oscar, having watched the Academy Awards together since he was in the single digits; making lists, rankings and predictions throughout the show. This led him down the path to obsessing about awards. Much later, he found himself at GoldDerby, led by Tom O’Neill and then migrated over to Oscarwatch (now AwardsDaily), headed up by Sasha Stone before breaking off to create AwardsWatch. He is a member of the International Cinephile Society, GALECA (The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics), the International Press Academy and is the founder/owner of AwardsWatch.

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