Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Lead or supporting?

By Edward Copeland
It's a debate that's been going on almost from the moment the Academy Awards instituted the supporting acting categories in 1936. Most often, people get put in the "wrong" category for marketing purposes. For example, the producers of Ordinary People had to know in 1980 that Timothy Hutton was a long shot to win lead in a year with Robert De Niro's Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, so they followed the old young performer conceit and stuck him in supporting actor where he won. Here are some examples through the history of the Oscars where I though people were in the wrong category. At the Tony Awards the use the criteria (though it can be overturned) that if you are above the title you are a lead, if you are below you are featured. This had led to cases where Joel Grey got left out of a nomination for the Broadway revival of Chicago and when the same role can be featured some years and leads others (such as the King in The King & I and the M.C. in Cabaret. Feel free to agree or disagree or add your own.

1936: In the very first year, they really sort of messed up by putting Luise Rainer up as lead in The Great Ziegfeld. She won anyway.

1937: Even though Roland Young was as much a lead as Cary Grant and Constance Bennett in Topper, he got relegated to supporting actor where he lost.

1939: An insanely strong years for movies and performances, somehow Greer Garson made the cut as lead in Goodbye Mr. Chips when she shows up late in the film and disappears soon after.

1940: Walter Brennan won his third supporting actor Oscar in five years for his great performance in The Westerner, but he was as much a lead as Judge Roy Bean in that film as Gary Cooper was.

1944: The Oscars themselves got screwy this year nominated Barry Fitzgerald's turn in Going My Way in both the lead and the supporting categories. He won supporting and they changed the rules after that so the same performance couldn't pop up in both. In the same year, they relegated the great Claude Rains to supporting actor for his title role in Mr. Skeffington, where he is barely off screen for most of the movie.

1947: Many people argue over this one but I think that Edmund Gwenn's Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street is a lead, but he won in supporting.

1950: Some people think that Anne Baxter was supporting in All About Eve, but I think they were right to put both her and Bette Davis in lead.

1956: I think the great James Dean was clearly supporting in Giant and who knows — if they'd stuck him there, he might have won.

1958: Really the entire cast of Separate Tables was supporting, which made David Niven's win all the more ridiculous. The same year, it can also be argued that Shirley MacLaine was really supporting in Some Came Running, though she snagged her first lead nomination for it.

1959: Practically the entire field of best actress contenders could have been considered supporting. Only Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn were true leads. Neither Katharine Hepburn nor Elizabeth Taylor can really be called a lead in Suddenly Last Summer and that year's winner, Simone Signoret in A Room at the Top, is definitely supporting — though she is great.

1962: One of the first instances of sticking the young in supporting. Mary Badham's Scout is really the lead of To Kill a Mockingbird, but she got stuck in supporting with another arguable young lead — Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker.

1963: Patricia Neal deserved an Oscar for her work in Hud — but it should have been in supporting actress. There really is no question here — she's not a lead.

1967: Both Anne Bancroft's turn in The Graduate and Katharine Hepburn's in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner are arguably supporting turns.

1968: Ron Moody's delightful Fagin in Oliver! is yet another supporting role that sneaked in the lead field. In the same year, Gene Wilder's Leo Bloom in The Producers was on screen nearly as much as Zero Mostel's Max Bialystock, though he got stuck in supporting. When the musical version hit Broadway decades later, both Max and Leo were nominated as leads. When the musical was turned into a lame movie, Matthew Broderick's Leo was campaigned as supporting, to no avail.

1970: Again, they were reaching to fill out the lead actress slate and that's how Glenda Jackson got nominated there for Women in Love and won.

1972: Many people believe that Marlon Brando and Al Pacino are in the wrong categories for The Godfather, that Pacino is the true lead and Brando supporting. I go back and forth on what I think and I've never settled on a decision. That same year, Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson were both nominated as leads for Sounder when young Kevin Hooks is the real star. Winfield is especially out of place, since he spends much of the film off-screen in prison.

1984: Haing S. Ngor won supporting actor for The Killing Fields, but I say he is a co-lead with Waterston, since the second half of the movie focuses on his character almost exclusively.

1988: Again, a young actor gets stuck in the supporting ghetto by virtue of his age. There can be no argument that Running on Empty was about River Phoenix's character, but he didn't get a shot at lead.

1989: To my eyes, Dead Poets Society is an ensemble about the kids and Robin Williams' teacher was supporting. The same year, I think a case can be made that Martin Landau was the lead of Crimes and Misdemeanors.

1991: We get to probably the most obvious of all cases of mistaken categorization: Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter is in the 2-hour film for less than 30 minutes, he doesn't enter right away and once he escapes, he's never heard from again until the film's coda. There is no doubt in my mind — Hopkins is supporting here and he should have won supporting.

1996: A less-argued case here, but one I feel strongly about. Frances McDormand should have been in supporting for Fargo. She doesn't enter the movie for 30 minutes and then she disappears for significant stretches. William H. Macy who was nominated for supporting actor actually has more screen time than McDormand. When you time it, the film is almost equally divided between McDormand, Macy and Steve Buscemi, so they are either all lead or all supporting in my book and I say supporting. Also in 1996, Geoffrey Rush's work in Shine is really more limited than you'd think for a lead performance. I've never timed it (because I didn't want to sit through it again) but I bet Noah Taylor has almost as much screen time as the younger David Helfgott.

2001: Another case where marketing trumpeted facts and Ethan Hawke got put in supporting actor for Training Day when he's in the movie before Denzel Washington and after him as well with no significant absences.

2002: A mess of issues involving The Hours, where there again is really no lead and it sure seems like the supporting-nominated Julianne Moore and the non-nominated Meryl Streep have as much if not more screen time than lead winner Nicole Kidman.

2004: One of the biggest miscategorizations and unnecessary nominations of all time: Jamie Foxx in Collateral. He's so clearly the lead in that movie, in it before and after Tom Cruise shows up. It's not like Foxx wasn't going to win lead for Ray, so this nomination boggles my mind.

2005: This year has one glaring questionable categorizations Is Jake Gyllenhaal any less a lead in Brokeback Mountain than Heath Ledger? I don't think so. Of course, I also think Gyllenhaal's work is noticeably weaker than Ledger's, but that's not part of this discussion.

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The Good:
When faced with an option of having his performance campaigned as a lead or supporting in SYRIANA, George Clooney revealed that he chose to go with supporting. Smart move. It protected David Straitharin's chances of getting a nod. The Best Actor category was already extremely competitive. Clooney's performance was a supporting one and I'm glad he had the senses to campaign it that way.

The Bad:
Universal Pictures made the decision to campaign Renee Zellweger as a lead for CINDERELLA MAN. Dumb move.
She would probably have had a good shot in replacing McDormand for the 5th slot in the supporting category.

The Ugly:
Everybody knows this one. Maria Bello. Category confusion. Bloody shame.
Agree about Bello and Clooney. I don't know why they would have ever wanted to push him as lead since he was so clearly supporting in "Syriana."
It would take a long time to go through the complete nominations and pick out all the instances of dubious categorization. But you can't even begin to address this topic without mentioning Tatum O'Neal's winning performance in Paper Moon, topping my list as the most blatant example of misclassification in the history of the Academy Awards. According to Damien Bona and Mason Wiley's Inside Oscar, even the film's director, Peter Bogdanovich, was scratching his head at The Academy's decision, stating "I don't understand how Madeleine Kahn, who's onscreen for maybe eighteen minutes, can be up against Tatum, who's in 100 of the 103 minutes of the film."
You are right -- I forgot about Tatum O'Neal -- another example of the bias against the young. It's a wonder Keshia Castle-Hughes managed to get her lead nomination for WHALE RIDER
A few more:

1935 - Techincally, The Academy wouldn't begin differentiating between lead and supporting performances until 1936, which is why Franchot Tone found himself a Best Actor nominee for Mutiny on the Bounty alongside co-stars Charles Laughton and Clark Gable - incidentally, still the only instance of a single film grabbing three nominations in the "Lead" category.

1941 - The Academy's bias against nominating character actors as leads was made manifest throughout the 40s. Charles Coburn's status as the lead of The Devil and Miss Jones was fairly clear-cut; his categorization as supporting is even more illogical than Gwenn or Rains.

1951 - The Academy had to scrounge to fill out the Lead Actress slate in what amounted to an uncommonly weak year for leading ladies. Shelley Winters was borderline in A Place in the Sun - not so Eleanor Parker in Detective Story, whose 24 minutes of screentime weren't enough to justify her classification as a lead.

1953 - Geraldine Page was an unknown outside of New York Theater circles at the time she made her film debut as John Wayne's leading lady in Hondo - as a result, she demoted to supporting.

1956 - Don Murray was nominated in the supporting category for Bus Stop by virtue of it being his first lead role. The film was marketed as a star vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, with Murray touted as a "new discovery".

1963 - I tend to think of Cleopatra as a Burton-Taylor film, don't you? Also, doesn't Rex Harrison's Caesar die about midway through it? I could go back and check to see exactly how much running time is left after Harrison checks out, but life's too short to sit through this lumbering turkey again.

1961 - As far as I can tell, Spencer Tracy is Judgment at Nuremberg's only lead performance. Maximillian Schell's character is rarely featured outside of the courtroom scenes, in which he is given about equal play with Richard Widmark's opposing counsel.

1965 - I'm not really sure how you distinguish Oskar Werner & Simone Signoret's status from that of the other performers (Vivien Leigh, Lee Marvin and Elizabeth Ashley among them) in the ensemble drama Ship of Fools.

1966 - Jack Lemmon was the established star, Walter Matthau the fast-rising character actor when they made The Fortune Cookie for Billy Wilder - this was two years before The Odd Couple established them as stars on equal footing. Nevertheless, they're still both leads in the earlier film, for which Matthau was relegated to supporting.

1976 - I know how vehemently you disagree with me on this - but I still say Holden and Dunaway are Network's leads and Finch is borderline (I still lean supporting).

1987 - After being nominated as lead for the two years previous, there was no way William Hurt was going to be sent down to supporting. That said, his and Albert Brooks's roles in Broadcast News are roughly the same size.

1994 - Is anyone really a lead in Pulp Fiction? I tend to think of it as an ensemble film with no true lead, but I suppose Travolta does come the closest since he links thre three main stories together - although he only shows up in the Bruce Willis piece long enough to get shot. It's debatable.

1996 - The National Board of Review cited both Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott Thomas as the year's Best Supporting Actresses for The Englich Patient in a tie vote. I tend to think they got it right -the film is divided pretty evenly between the flashback and post-war sequences, with the only constant being Ralph Fiennes.

1998 - As the title suggests, Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths' characters received equal screentime and equal emphasis in the sister-trauma-drama Hilary & Jackie. Watson was a previous Oscar nominee while Griffiths was still largely unknown apart from her appearance in the 1995 cult film Muriel's Wedding - so the studio made the obvious decision in order to avoid vote-splitting.

2000 and 2001 - Play a long-suffering wife in a biopic, you win Best Supporting Actress. I'm still not convinced this is entirely fair, since both Marcia Gay Harden and Jennifer Connelly seemed to be fairly constant prescences in Pollock and A Beautiful Mind respectively. But since the film wasn't techincally "about" them, but rather the men in their lives, The Academy shifted them to the supporting ranks. The same held true last year for Kinsey's Laura Linney, who was married to a historical/socio-cultural figure but apparently didn't suffer quite enough for Academy tastes to nab the Oscar she probably deserved. This year the debate centers around Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line, in year so weak for leading ladies that the Academy was actually forced to nominate her in the correct category. Not that that stops Manohla Dargis from crying foul...
A friend of mine says that the easiest way to solve this muddle would be to ask, "Who is this movie about?" In the case of "Collateral," the answer is clearly, "Jamie Foxx." In "Good Night, and Good Luck," it's clearly David Strathairn. In "Training Day," it's clearly Ethan Hawke, and in "The Godfather," clearly Al Pacino. You occasionally encounter situations where it's tough to make the call -- Maclaine and Winger in "Terms of Endearment" for instance -- but even there you find clues that point the way. (Almost by definition, the character that dies is supporting, and the character that survives after that death is the lead.)

Of course there are so many other factors in play here, mostly careerist ones, that such a yardstick will never be applied.
While I think that idea can work in some cases, I don't think it works in all. There is no law that says a film must have a single lead. Aren't Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro fairly equal in Heat as are Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole in Becket and countless other examples. How would you qualify something like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove? He has the most screen time because he's playing three characters, but in actuality there is no lead in the movie.
Obviously it's not a one-size-fits-all method of measuring the problem. But I find that it works for most conventional narrative films made in Hollywood.
HEAT is a great example of co-equal leads because both characters come to the same realization about themselves -- a leopard cannot change his spots -- and their lives fall apart because of it. So the answer to my question is, "The movie happens to both of them," therefore they're both leads.
You're both right. There's no standard formula that can be applied to everything with equal success; that said, it essentially boils down whose journey the story represents. The lead character's journey not only drives the narrative, but usually also translates into the most screen time, as is without any shred of doubt the case with Al Pacino in The Godfather.

The Godfather represents the journey of Michael Corleone, charting his progress from wide-eyed idealist to disillusioned self-sentenced prisoner of reality. In both the film and the book that inspired it, the theme is clear: The present and future are inextricably linked to the past, and individual identity is inevitably (and often tragically) shaped and informed by the sphere into which we are born. There are things about your life which you can choose, and things that you can't - none of us ever start out with a clean slate. That's why Michael is the focus of The Godfather - it is his journey that conveys the point that both Puzo and Coppola are trying to make about human nature, and his journey that drives the narrrative from beginning to end.
I am ashamed that none of you mentioned in 1973 that Tatum O'Neil won the Best SUPPORTING Actress Oscar for Paper Moon. The only reson she went for supporting was because she was a child.
Tatum did slip my mind when I did my original psot, but Josh R did correct that error in his first post.
While I can't say that "without a shred of doubt" Pacino is the lead in the original Godfather I do believe that the overall story of all three films is undoubtedly about him. However, with Brando being the most commanding presence in The Godfather it really is a difficult decision to make. Also because, up to a certain point in the film, the story is about both men. To me the film has always stood out as a great acting ensemble with some performances being more commanding than others.

The Godfather 2 is without a doubt Pacino's show, with the story focusing solely on Michael.
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