Year in and year out, one of the subjects that always comes up during awards season is category fraud - those times when an actor is placed in a supporting category despite being a lead, to increase their chances of winning or (much more rarely), when an actor is put in the lead category despite having a supporting role, for reasons that have never made much sense (it certainly doesn't seem like it would increase their chances of winning). A couple of weeks ago, this topic was booted back and forth in a terrifically interesting comment thread at The Film Experience, and this inspired me to continue this month of Oscar Top Ten Lists with:
Ten Conspicuous Cases of Category Fraud
But first, a bit of hedging. Though we all agree that category fraud is terrible, or at least hugely frustrating, it's damn hard to pin it down when it happens. This year, of course, most people are comfortable saying that Viola Davis is a lead in The Help, but some of us are holding out that she's no more a "lead" than Octavia Spencer, who is just as comfortably getting placed in supporting categories here there and everywhere. On the other hand, very nearly everybody agrees that Bérénice Bejo has no business in the supporting category for The Artist. But not everybody.
In fact, I suspect that you could find somebody, somewhere, to defend every single placement in Lead or Supporting in the history of the Academy acting competitions, except maybe for the cases where a juvenile acting was dumped into Supporting on account of their age. So even if I tried my damnedest to cherry pick some of the most obnoxious examples possible, I guarantee that a counter-argument could be mounted.
Also, I have heard enough well-reasoned though totally unpersuasive arguments for why Anthony Hopkins is plainly the lead of The Silence of the Lambs that I shall keep him off this list, even if it seems self-evident to me that isn't; and if I don't count him as category fraud, I can hardly count Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, for whom the same arguments essentially apply on both sides. I will say, though, that Fletcher in particular benefits from the specious idea that because she is the "leading" female in a male-dominated cast, she is "a lead", even though for me that's obviously a single-lead movie.
This isn't the space to get into a theoretical discussion of what "supporting" means for acting, if it indeed means anything outside of the context of the Oscars and other awards now that the star system is gone; but I will say that I am generally wary of arguments that favor prominence in the story over screen time, for the reason that a supporting character and a supporting performance are not necessarily the same thing. Put it another way: any argument that leads us to declare Orson Welles a lead in The Third Man scare me off: while Harry Lime is absolutely the most important character in that movie, he is defined, in many ways, but how much he is absent, and the fact that Welles is supporting is key to how the film's structure works. And yet, I can absolutely guarantee that at some point, someone has mounted a passionate defense of how much he is the self-evident lead of that film.
Incidentally, I decided not to include anything from the last five years; it was recently enough that I'm sure we all remember when this person or that was thrust, obviously and aggravatingly, into the wrong category.
Seriously, Though, Here's the List of Ten Conspicuous Cases of Category Fraud at the Oscars, Ordered Chronologically
The Great Ziegfeld, 1936
When the Supporting categories were introduced, it was at a time when "Lead" and "Supporting" weren't factors of a performer's function in a movie, but signs of an actor's position in studio hierarchy. That is, there actors whose job was to lead, and those whose job was to support, and for most of the next 20-odd years, it worked pretty well, which is why there is very little category fraud in the early days. Still; things could be gamed, as happened in the first year of the supporting categories' existence, when MGM wanted to promote their new acquisition Rainer as an exciting new leading lady, despite her having only the second-most prominent female role in a movie that is dominated by one and only one character in the first place. I will not dogpile on the quality of the winning performance - the 102-year-old Rainer has been around too long to deserve that kind of thing - but it is good to point out, I daresay, that however much we like to piss and moan, the problems with the Oscars are much older than most people who currently complain about how bad the Academy Awards are nowadays.
Separate Tables, 1958
Maybe the most galling example, to me, of a winning case of category fraud: Separate Tables is an ensemble film that could be plausibly said to have no leading performances at all, but even if it did, Niven would still be fifth or sixth on most reasonable people's list of the characters ranked by importance. But this was still in a time when if a star of Niven's caliber was going to win, it surely wasn't going to be as a supporting acto, even if he doesn't end up giving as much to the film as Wendy Hiller, who won in Supporting Actress. This is, not incidentally, the shortest performance to win in the Lead categories.
A peculiar case. Cleopatra was originally going to be a pair of two-hour movies, the first about Cleopatra's affair with Julius Caesar and the second about her affair with Marc Antony. Harrison would plainly have been the lead of this pair, as he is plainly the lead of the first half of the existing Cleopatra (which feels powerfully like two movies smashed together); for my money, he is so much heads and tails over Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton that he probably deserves to be the lead of the picture, at that. But given the prominence of the Taylor/Burton pairing in the time of the film's release and into the present day, and given as well the fact that Harrison is not seen and barely referenced after the halfway point of a very long picture, calling him the film's "lead" seems more like a sop to the prickly actor than anything else.
The Fortune Cookie, 1966
Leading performances ending up in a supporting category are far more common than the other way around, but partially because of the aforementioned vagaries of the studio system, it took a while for that to establish itself as a problem. One of the most notorious early examples came when Matthau won for "supporting" Jack Lemmon in their first on-screen pairing, despite sharing prominence and screentime in approximately the same balance as any of their later pictures, every one of which is rather self-evidently a case of two male co-leads. And for this we can only credit Matthau's relative lack of prominence at this point; because of course if you're not famous, you can't play the main character in a movie.
Paper Moon, 1973
Remember in 2010, when Hailee Steinfeld was nominated in Supporting Actress for True Grit despite the character driving the plot, providing the audience with our POV, and present in every single scene? This is pretty much exactly like that. O'Neal, of course, was 10 years old and would never have won in Lead, or even gotten nominated... except she might have, given how week Lead Actress looks nowadays (apologies to the Glenda Jackson fans out there. Also, are you certain that you exist?). Worst of all, it savaged what could have been a far more interesting and competitive Supporting Actress field, without this terrific juvenile lead performance making Madeline Kahn's role in the same film, or Linda Blair's in The Exorcist seem so insubstantial in comparison.
Dead Poets Society, 1989
On its own, I'm not even certain that this one is so hugely obnoxious. A bit sketchy, yeah. But it's only in light of Williams's Best Supporting Actor victory eight years later for playing, functionally, an awfully similar character in Good Will Hunting that this one starts to feel really bizarre. What could have changed between 1989 and 1997 to make this change from an essentially leading conceit to an essentially supporting conceit? Simple: Williams had, in the interim, recast himself from a comic superstar dabbling dramas, to a has-been comic superstar turned character actor. It's sort of exactly like the old "star" vs. "stock company" hierarchy, only by the 1990s, we called it the A- and B-list.
An unusually crystal-clear example of the Academy not caring every body notices them getting it straight-up wrong, and I'd like to see anyone try to square this circle: William H. Macy is onscreen more than Frances McDormand. His character appears throughout the movie, hers first show up around the 30-minute mark. He instigates and drives most of the plot. He has the more distinctive arc. And yet Macy was nominated for Supporting, and McDormand won for Lead. There are a lot of ways to fix this: swap the designations, make them both Supporting, make them both Lead (the last seems, to me, obviously the smartest). But leaving it balanced the way it is is nothing but an unusually obvious "fuck you" from the voters to anything resembling good logic, and not even the old "one person is more famous" routine can explain it: McDormand was hardly a household name in 1996.
A Beautiful Mind, 2001
The most classic example of modern times: there is almost no obviously logical reason that Connelly, playing the loving wife role that Greer Garson handled so many times, shouldn't be a self-evident lead, except that everybody knew that Halle Berry was winning for Monster's Ball. I tend not to be upset by it the way a lot of people are: Connelly's absence from Best Actress left space for Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge! or Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones's Diary, and while it's an open question how much either of them "deserved" it, they're both unconventional enough nominations to be worth it; while Connelly's victory only really served to keep Maggie Smith for picking up Oscar #3 and making Meryl Streep fans madder than they already are. But it is, especially in light of her eventual win, one of the most befuddling and indefensible mis-nominations in modern memory.
Training Day, 2001
Jamie Foxx, nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Collateral, 2004
I include them both because it's almost exactly the same situation: a younger actor, by no means unknown, is paired with a famous movie star in a two-hander in which the the older man plays a villain who reveals himself to the younger co-star who doubles as the audience POV character only slowly; the older and younger star are both onscreen for nearly the entire movie, and if you believe in the concept of "co-lead" at all, it's a flawless case study in what that would look like. It doesn't hold perfectly: Foxx was demoted partially to make room for his hugely undeserved nomination and win for Ray, while his co-star Tom Cruise wasn't nominated; Hawke's co-star Denzel Washington was nominated and then won in Best Lead Actor. Either way, it's a pretty straightforward and offensive extension of the twin beliefs that you can only have one star per gender in a movie, and when push comes to shove, that star is obviously the one who has the bigger paycheck.
Brokeback Mountain, 2005
Cate Blanchett, nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Notes on a Scandal, 2006
Two examples of a problem that is only going to get worse as society becomes more progressive: homosexual love stories (and I agree, calling Notes on a Scandal a "love story" is a stretch; stick with me here), and what to do with them. If Heath Ledger was a woman and Judi Dench a man, it would be so obvious what to do with Gyllenahaal and Blanchett: as the (anti)-romantic co-lead, they get a Lead nomination, just like hundreds of romantic co-leads have for decades. But, since they are co-leads with the same shaped genitals, the rule that they cannot possibly share prominence kicks in, and we end up with what is one of the most indefenisible cases of category fraud not involving a minor, in Gyllenhaal's case (Blanchet's is still pretty blatant, but not quite as much). Hopefully, they'll figure it out pretty soon; but since it's quite a big deal right now - in 2012 - that they're about to hand out the second Best Actress trophy to a black woman in their history, I think it is best not to sit with bated breath.