Joe Reid January 17, 2013
Another set of Oscar nominations, another round of second-guessing about what it means to be a supporting actor. For the purposes of movie awards, more and more, the definition of what a supporting actor/actress is seems to be “whomever we’re choosing not to campaign as a lead.” This year alone, we’ve got Philip Seymour Hoffman, one half of one of the year’s most intense give-and-take pairs in “The Master,” placed in a subordinate category to his co-star Joaquin Phoenix. Helen Hunt is a borderline call for “The Sessions,” but an argument could be made that she’s a lead. Christoph Waltz was actually being campaigned as a lead in “Django Unchained” until the critics groups (who should know better) started tipping their hand that he might stand a better shot as a supporting contender.
Lead roles that are categorized as supporting for awards purposes is neither novel nor are its motives all that difficult to understand. An actor with a lot of screen time, or star power, or both is going to have a lot easier time competing for trophies against true bit players. And ever since Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, who were both nominated for “Thelma & Louise,” lost Best Actress in 1991 to Jodie Foster for “The Silence of the Lambs,” studios have been petrified to put co-stars in the same leading actor/actress category, lest they split the votes and deep-six each other’s chances.
And so “category fraud” is an accepted practice. That doesn’t mean we can’t complain about it! Here are some of the most egregious examples of miscategorization and how the studios managed to fool the voters.
1. Al Pacino, “The Godfather” (1972)
Marlon Brando was the huge movie star at the time while Pacino was a young upstart. Thought it’s understandable why the studio would have campaigned Brando in the lead category, it really doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Don Corleone (Brando) gets some memorable lines, but he’s bedridden and absent for one huge chunk of the movie and dead for another. Meanwhile, it’s Michael (Pacino) who experiences the main character arc of the movie — guess what? He’s the godfather the title is referring to — and Michael who is the film’s true lead.
2. Ethan Hawke, “Training Day” (2001)
The funny thing is, nobody would remember the category fraud in “Training Day” if Hawke hadn’t gotten a late-breaking surprise nomination. Hawke was an afterthought in a campaign that was designed for one thing only: to win Denzel Washington his second Oscar. It was so successful that it swept Hawke along for the ride, but the studio was taking no chances and placed Hawke, who played the film’s protagonist, in the Supporting Actor category.
3. Jamie Foxx, “Collateral” (2004)
This followed almost the same path as “Training Day,” only less successfully, since pretending that protagonist Jamie Foxx was supporting to against-type bad guy Tom Cruise didn’t even get Cruise a nomination, much less a win. Absent a Cruise nomination, Foxx’s miscategorization just ends up looking stupid. And greedy, since Foxx was already steamrolling to a win in Best Actor that year for Ray.
4. Jake Gyllenhaal, “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
This one takes some balls. The entire reason this movie exists is to tell a love story between two people, yet you’re gonna tell me one was more prominent than the other? By 2005, the accepted wisdom was that campaigning two leads from the same movie was Oscar death, so no one really blinked an eye when Heath Ledger — the recipient of better reviews — was declared the true lead while Jake was demoted.
5. Samuel L. Jackson, “Pulp Fiction” (1994)
Here’s another case where a Best Actor campaign for one man dictated the Supporting Actor (mis)placement of another. The lead campaign for John Travolta was a no-brainer in 1994; he was the comeback story of the year. And the rationale for him getting placement over Jackson makes a sort of sense on the surface. After all, Vincent Vega (Travolta) gets a whole section of the movie with Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) that Jules (Jackson) isn’t a part of. But the two major sections where Vincent and Jules are together — jacking those kids for Marcellus’s briefcase and the diner robbery — prove it would be a fallacy to call them equal scene partners. Jackson towers over Travolta in both sequences, nearly blowing him off the screen. He’d earned his shot as a lead.
6. Cate Blanchett, “Notes on a Scandal” (2006)
There’s an argument to be made that Judi Dench shoulders a bit more of the storytelling burden in “Notes.” However, this is a classic two-lead movie where the studio just looked at Supporting Actress as the path of least resistance to a nomination for Blanchett, especially since Best Actress that year was being stacked with names like Streep, Winslet and Mirren. That year had one of the ten most decorated acting lineups in history, after all.
7. William H. Macy, “Fargo” (1996)
Nobody knew who William H. Macy was in 1996, beyond “that guy who’s on E.R. sometimes.” Nobody knew who Frances McDormand was either, I suppose, but at least she had a previous Oscar nomination (for “Mississippi Burning”) to her credit. Even considering that McDormand owns the movie with one of the most memorable characters in film history, it’s still puzzling that Macy wouldn’t be listed as a lead. The movie is about a crime and an investigation, and Macy shoulders the crime half of it. Try explaining what “Fargo” is about to someone. “Well it’s about a guy who has his wife kidnapped, so he…”
8. Casey Affleck, “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)
This one’s a puzzler. Maybe the idea was that Brad Pitt was a much bigger star and thus would more easily be able to campaign against the Clooneys and Depps in the lead category. But a) Pitt’s role is really small in this movie, b) Affleck got all the best reviews and c) no one was rushing to nominate Pitt in either category anyway. “Jesse James’s name comes before Robert Ford’s in the title” is basically the only argument you could make, and it’s not a good one.
9. Martin Landau, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989)
On some level, sure, if you’re in a Woody Allen movie and are not, in fact, Woody Allen, you’re probably not going to be considered a lead. Except who even thinks about Woody Allen’s half of this movie? The whole show here is Landau and his moral dilemma. It’s his film entirely.
10. Haley Joel Osment, “The Sixth Sense” (1999)
Sure, he was just a kid. Sure, Bruce Willis got his name above the title. But Osment’s character is in every way the focal point of “The Sixth Sense,” and if he had been even ten years older, there would be no question that he’d have been campaigned as a lead. This is the award campaign way, however. The kid stays out of the picture when it comes to the Lead Actor/Actress category. Oftentimes, this leads to an imbalance in the Supporting categories, where true supporting performances have to compete with not only lead roles but lead roles played by adorable kids. Look to Oscar-winners Tatum O’Neal (“Paper Moon”) and Patty Duke (“The Miracle Worker”) for proof of that. No wonder people thought Hailee Steinfeld would win for “True Grit.”
11. Timothy Hutton, “Ordinary People” (1980)
Hutton’s case deserves a special mention outside of the usual kids nominees. Hutton was 20 when he became the youngest Best Supporting Actor winner ever. It’s one thing to treat children as children — it may not be fair, but it’s the way of the world — but speaking as a teenager who wanted to be treated like an adult at all times, Hutton’s demotion is particularly galling.
12. Julianne Moore, “The Hours” (2002)
13. Benicio Del Toro, “21 Grams” (2003)
14. Albert Brooks, “Broadcast News” (1987)
These nominees all suffered for being in three-lead movies where their co-stars were taking up all the oxygen in the Lead categories. In Moore’s case, the decision to campaign her as supporting was easy (if fraudulent), as she was already a strong favorite to be nominated in Best Actress that year for “Far From Heaven.” Del Toro took a back seat to Sean Penn, who campaigned for “21 Grams” but was left off the ballot in favor of his “Mystic River” performance, and Naomi Watts for semi-understandable reasons. Penn was a bigger star, and Del Toro had already established himself as a supporting player with his win in 2000 for “Traffic.” Albert Brooks … Well, it’s hard not to carry over some of that “Broadcast News” narrative and observe that Brooks got a Supporting nod while William Hurt was nominated in Lead because Hurt has the leading-man good looks while Brooks was short and shlubby and sweaty.
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