It happens every year around this time.
Big-name performers from critically acclaimed movies have made their first steps toward Oscar gold, with initial responses beginning at film festivals and limited releases. Along with these campaigns for that elusive nomination, each year brings a new batch of something these actors would prefer we didn't talk about at all: Category fraud.
Referring to the practice of placing a leading performance in a supporting category, the "fraud" is a common way that studios increase an actor's chance for a nomination or a win. While the phenomenon is receiving more and more attention from journalists, this year's awards cycle might just have the most egregious cases of this entertainment gerrymandering, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
This awards season is shaping up to have some of the most political campaigns ever
There's no doubt that an Oscar can bring attention and, most importantly, money to a prestige project. Studios campaign on behalf of their actors, recommending them for specific categories (and in cases of category fraud, this is almost always supporting). The Academy is under no obligation to fulfill these recommendations—for instance, the Weinstein Company pushed Kate Winslet for Supporting Actress in 2008's The Reader when she ended up winning for lead—but more often than not, they follow the suggestion.
This year, two fantastic actresses, Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander, are gunning for spots in the Best Supporting Actress category, despite the fact that they are widely considered co-leads in their respective films. Let's look at Rooney as an example.
In the engrossing love story Carol, the entire plot line is framed through the perspective of Rooney's character, Therese. As she begins to fall for an older woman (Cate Blanchett), it's her coming of age story that the viewer experiences. However, because Cate is the bigger name (and an two-time Oscar winner no less), she's being placed in the Lead category, leaving Rooney to campaign for Supporting to avoid any competition between the two stars.
By honoring lead performances as supporting, the fraud can leave smaller roles in the cold
Carol is a great example to showcase this practice for a wide variety of reasons. For starters, when the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, it was Rooney Mara who took home the prize for Best Actress, not Cate Blanchett.
Additionally, considering this is a romance between two women, it's not hard to see how different things could be if it were a traditionally heterosexual narrative with an otherwise similar script. Both the male and female actors would be campaigning as leads, and there would be absolutely no question of any "supporting talk" sneaking in there.
Considering the Best Supporting categories were invented in 1936 for the character actors who would consistently turn in astounding performances without any recognition, it just seems unfair to overlook the already overlooked professionals who do a lot with a little.
It's not all about screen time, but is there any way to make the nomination process more fair?
There are no fixed rules on how to discern between a lead and supporting performance, so the supporting categories often become where Academy voters go for more unconventional performances (even if they dominated their films). That's why kids seem to end up here even when their performances are center stage, and if Room's nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay does get a nomination, it will almost certainly be in supporting for this very reason.
Of course, there are a few notable cases of inversion. Even though his scenes were few, Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor for The Silence of the Lambs, and the decision that was widely praised for a character that looms over the film even when he's not on the screen. But that's just another indicator of how murky the Academy's metrics really are. When voters fill out their ballots, they can put actors in the categories they see fit, it just so happens that, most of the time, they stick to what the studios tell them.
In the end, it seems we're no closer to a more buttoned-up solution. Putting parameters on screen time or scene numbers would eradicate the case-by-case evaluation necessary for a subjective medium like film. If studios couldn't campaign for a specific acting category, the vote could be split between the two and end up with no nomination at all.
It may not be satisfying, but category fraud is a strategy that is here to stay, and many talented actors (like Miriam Margolyes, a.k.a. the head of Hufflepuff) will continue to be ignored. It's time for a change (or perhaps a new category altogether), but something tells me the Academy will just keep sweeping this under the red carpet.