What Is Category Fraud? A Closer Look at This Year’s Big Oscar Controversy
What separates a lead acting role from a supporting one? Some argue screen time. Some say it’s the extent to which a character carries a film. And, when it comes to the studios’ opinion, the actor with the bigger name tends to get campaigned as lead despite a co-star’s equal-if-not-greater-than prominence in the film. But the lack of strict guidelines in Oscar categories and the unusual number of performances that challenge typical categorization have led to a lot of talk about category fraud, two words you’ve probably heard a lot this year. This happens when an actor’s lead performance gets campaigned or nominated in the supporting category – or at rare times, the opposite’s been true. This has happened a shocking three times this year.
In Todd Haynes’ Carol, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara play a pair of women in love in 1950s New York. The movie may be titled after Blanchett’s character, and Blanchett does give an unflinching performance, but Mara’s Therese Belivet is entirely on her co-star’s level. Mara brings a delicate and nuanced subtlety to the reticent Therese who, through her love affair with Carol, blossoms into a fully-formed woman by the film’s end. Mara undoubtedly deserves a spot next to her co-star on awards ballots, and the Cannes jury even awarded Mara Best Actress over Blanchett. The Weinstein Company doesn’t seem to agree though, instead opting to campaign her as supporting. Why? Usually studios split their stars to increase chances of taking home multiple Oscars – putting Mara up against Blanchett is a risky move with an outcome no one could predict. But even if the Academy decides Mara is more suitable for supporting, she could face another contender who also belongs in the lead category.
Swedish actress Alicia Vikander plays Gerda Wegener, the wife to Eddie Redmayne’s Lili Elbe, the first woman to undergo gender re-assignment surgery in Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl. The beauty of that film is how the title refers to both characters, establishing just how essential both Gerda and Lili are to the love story at the film’s center. Vikander is in the film as much as, if not more than, Redmayne and gives a performance that is far from supporting. She should be honored as a lead right up there with Blanchett and Mara, but again, Focus Features is also campaigning Vikander as supporting. With a jam-packed list of lead actress potentials, including Brie Larson for Room and Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn, Vikander has a better shot at winning supporting if Mara makes it into lead. But if Vikander and Mara end up side-by-side in either category, there’s no telling which direction voters will go.
The most recent example of unpredictable nominations came with Kate Winslet in 2009 when Weinstein pushed her as supporting for The Reader while Paramount pushed her as lead for Revolutionary Road. It was a smart strategy with the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, since Winslet won in both respective categories at the Globes and for supporting at SAG, but the Academy went their own way. Winslet’s role in Revolutionary Road got shut out of the Oscars, but she got nominated and won Best Actress for The Reader.
Category fraud has an even deeper history. Back in 1944, Barry Fitzgerald took advantage of the lack of Academy rules and was nominated for supporting and lead for the same film, winning for the former. (The Academy soon after changed the rules, limiting actors to one nomination per role.) There’s also Sigourney Weaver who was pushed as supporting actress in Alien. Jennifer Connelly and Christoph Waltz won Supporting Oscars for lead roles in A Beautiful Mind and Django Unchained. Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People and Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon. But had those actors campaigned for lead, would they have won? If Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People and Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon had been nominated as leads, would they have made history as the youngest actors to win in their supporting categories?
Age is another major factor in category fraud. Like Hutton and O’Neal, this year’s youngest actor getting dropped in the supporting field for his age (most likely) is 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay. In Room, Tremblay gives one of the best performances by a child actor in years. He spends more time on screen than lead actress Brie Larson, and much of the first half of the film follows his character’s perspective, but A24 is still pushing Tremblay as supporting. Having a 9-year-old go up against the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Redmayne and Johnny Depp is a completely impossible win.
A24’s decision is no doubt a smart move, but it still raises the question of what qualifies as a lead-worthy performance and if age should matter. It certainly does for older actors, like Anthony Hopkins who got his first Oscar nomination and win at age 54 for Silence of the Lambs, another debatable lead win when it comes to arguing screen time (Hopkins appears on screen for only 16 minutes).
Such category fraud is not as much of a loss for Tremblay as it could be for Vikander and Mara. But thanks to the Golden Globes nominations, there’s hope that one or even both could make it into the Best Actress running come Oscars time. Both actresses were nominated as leads for the Globes along with Blanchett, Larson and Ronan. This only happened due to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s rules, which require actors and films to compete in specific categories. The HFPA rejected the studios’ suggestions for Mara and Vikander to run as supporting earlier this year, thus making them eligible for lead. The Oscars, however, leave that choice up to voter’s discretion. But, if the actors branch can vote for Vikander and Mara in either category (and according to former AMPAS executive director Bruce Davis, they can vote in both categories), isn’t there a chance the actresses could get nominated in both, which as I said above, is against the rules? Thanks to the PwC accountants who handle Oscar ballots, that can’t happen. According to The Wrap, the accountants tally votes for supporting and lead at the same time and once an actor secures a nomination in one category, their votes in the other are immediately cancelled.
Though the Globes don’t always predict the Oscars, there’s usually significant overlap. Since Oscar voting closes on January 8, two days before the Globes ceremony, the winners won’t have any effect on who’s nominated, but there’s a chance the HFPA’s nominations could influence how the Academy votes. Now that Vikander and Mara are valued as leads in the second biggest film awards of the year, Oscar voters could be more inclined to view them as Best Actress contenders instead of Supporting players. Of course, I’m merely speculating (isn’t that all awards season is, really?), but at this point more fuel behind those two women as lead performers can only help. The Academy did it with Winslet and Castle-Hughes, so it’s not unlikely for the Carol and Danish Girl stars either.
There’s still the studio campaigns to consider though, and how much influence they may have on voters as A24 and Weinstein continue to push their actresses as supporting. Perhaps that’s precisely where the blame for category fraud lies. Should studios no longer be able to campaign for specific categories and instead only promote performances for consideration across the board? If the Academy entrusts its voters to decide for themselves, maybe the studios shouldn’t be able to insist who belongs where. Or maybe the Academy needs to make changes to their rule book, which brings us back to the debate of lead versus supporting. THR’s Scott Fienberg suggests splitting it 50/50 by screen time – 50 or more, they’re lead, 50 or less, they’re supporting. But should duration determine the artistic value of a performance? If a lead actor is shoved into supporting for appearing in a few scenes, then how do you evaluate performances within that category when screen time is a deciding factor? And even suggesting that studios shouldn’t have a say sounds ignorant of the big publicity game Hollywood is. Things might be best as they are without any set standards or rules since there’s really no fool-proof way to evaluate a performance.
While we all may be pointing fingers and shouting “category fraud!” at the top of our lungs (and likely will continue to do so), this debate marks a progressive moment in cinema. This year has given us a wonderful surplus of intricately written characters portrayed in powerful and evocative performances – and hey, two of them are by women! That alone defies the boundaries of awards classification. The best part of awards season isn’t watching the ceremonies, but the discussions around them. More than ever before we’re debating what precisely defines a “supportive” character and what it means to “lead” a film now that screenwriters and actors are giving us challenging performances that break old fashioned molds. We won’t know who’s going to win any major awards for a couple months, but until then and even after we can continue debating what makes a great performance and the best ways to recognize them.