The Oscars need to find a way to fix the Supporting Actor category

At the 93rd Academy Awards on Sunday, Daniel Kaluuya won Finest Supporting Star for his great work as activist Fred Hampton in the gripping historic thriller Judas and the Black Messiah. His competitors included his co-star Lakeith Stanfield, chosen for the very same motion picture, where he plays an FBI informant who offers details resulting in Hampton’s assassination. Casual movie-watchers having a look at Judas and the Black Messiah due to the fact that of its awards attention may be amazed to learn that in spite of their Supporting Star elections, Kaluuya and Stanfield are the indisputable leads of the motion picture. The only method to validate classifying Kaluuya’s efficiency as “supporting” would be to firmly insist that Stanfield — the character with one of the most screen time — is the single lead. Rather, Academy citizens have actually made a de facto judgment that Judas has no leading efficiencies at all.

This confusion isn’t a brand-new phenomenon. It’s an issue constant sufficient to have its own name: “category fraud” — though to prevent providing a sense of quasi-legal value on a currently self-important awards body, I choose “category shenanigans.” Classification shenanigans have actually become part of the Oscars for years, typically concentrating on whether an efficiency certifies as a lead or supporting function. At one point, there weren’t any guidelines restricting the very same efficiency from showing up in both classifications if it got enough votes — which is precisely what occurred with Barry Fitzgerald, the 2nd lead of the 1944 priest drama Going My Method. Fitzgerald was chosen for Finest Star and Finest Supporting Star, both for Going My Method. (He eventually won in the supporting classification, while losing Finest Star to his co-star Bing Crosby.)

The Academy customized its guidelines to avoid that from occurring once again, though the repair didn’t develop any particular criteria about who in a movie is thought about the lead entertainer or a supporting entertainer. Eventually, the classification of stars is still as much as the citizens. Studios can just video game the system through their awards projects, basically specifying their main choices.

In the past, those choices have actually in some cases directed and allowed classification shenanigans, as studios and entertainers project for stars in the classifications where they believe they can win, instead of picking the classification that finest fits an offered efficiency. That’s perhaps what was at play with Kaluuya, whose project slotted him into the supporting classification instead of the lead. However there’s no blaming Warner Bros. for the Judas weirdness: the studio marketed Stanfield as a Best Star competitor, and lots of Academy citizens slotted him into the Supporting Star anyhow.

Lakeith Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

The interplay between studio gamesmanship and bizarre voter whims point to a larger problem, specific with the supporting categories: They’re increasingly populated with performers who are actually co-leads. Last year’s Best Supporting Star winner was Brad Pitt. Does he have substantially less screen time or point of view in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood than Leonardo DiCaprio? One of the actors he beat was Anthony Hopkins, playing one of the title characters in The Two Popes.

In 2019, Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor for Green Book, a movie about two men forming a friendship of equals, except so far as awards consideration was concerned. And the year before that, Sam Rockwell won for his “supporting” performance as the male lead of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

The last few Best Supporting Actress winners make more sense in that category. Laura Dern and Regina King give exceptional performances that are unambiguously secondary to the male-female couples at the center of Marriage Story and If Beale Street Could Talk. But it’s easy to see why Viola Davis in Fences and Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl triumphed not long before them: They were the co-leads of their respective movies, with a fullness of characterization and emotional arcs that more traditional supporting performances aren’t designed to match.

Granted, the line between lead and supporting is nebulous, and performances shouldn’t be defined by a stopwatch. Frances McDormand spends less time onscreen in Fargo than several other characters in the film, but her Best Actress nomination (and win) made intuitive sense. She’s the movie’s moral center, and she shifts the story’s gravity when she does appear. That’s even true — the gravity-shifting part, not the moral center part — of Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, where he won Best Actor for an appearance of less than 20 minutes. Winning a lead category with a smaller amount of screen time is arguably a flex — a testament to certain stars’ commanding abilities.

Winning a supporting category with a leading amount of screen time, though, feels like wielding that commanding star power to swat away smaller, more delicate performances. It’s also a way of marginalizing minorities, even as the Academy attempts to rectify years of bias. It’s hard to picture Oscar citizens overriding a studio’s desire to place, say, Leonardo DiCaprio or Adam Driver in the lead category, the way they did with Stanfield. Studios have arguably done this to themselves: Years ago, voters happily acquiesced to both racial dynamics and established star structures by agreeing that Jamie Foxx, playing a point-of-view character who appears onscreen more than anyone else in the movie, is somehow a supporting actor in Collateral.

leslie odom jr. sings into a mic

Photo: Amazon Studios

Of course, not every nomination in both supporting categories goes to a bona fide co-lead, and not every “supporting” co-lead goes on to win. But the fact that some genuine supporting performances still make it into these categories only highlights their lopsidedness. This year, Best Supporting Star included the two Judas leads; Leslie Odom Jr., one of four more or less equal leads in One Night in Miami; Sacha Baron Cohen for Borat 2, as the flashiest member of an ensemble; and Paul Raci, giving a traditional supporting performance in Sound of Metal.

While placing all members of an ensemble in the supporting category is a reasonable compromise for movies with an ambiguous lead, it’s still striking that only one of this year’s nominees was a true supporting actor. Raci’s character, a man running a sort of commune workshop for the deaf community, counsels hearing-impaired drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed), and only appears in one extended section of the movie. The story never slips into his point of view, and his scenes have greater weight because they aren’t a constant. Raci, whose career consists mainly of TV bit parts, has a directness and quiet, lived-in authority that recalls Robert Forster. It’s a remarkable performance, vital to the movie’s success, that doesn’t stand a chance against the actual stars of Judas and the Black Messiah — who do fine work themselves, with the range of emotional strife that a leading role affords.

Personally, I think Raci deserved the Supporting Actor award this year. But my issue was never just the probability that my favorite wasn’t going to collect a shiny trophy. Last year, it was difficult to begrudge Pitt the win for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, because it’s a great movie, Pitt is an utter delight in it, and he’d never won before. “Fair enough,” as Cliff Booth says to himself in one of Pitt’s finest moments.

The problem is that it’s increasingly difficult to picture any genuine supporting performers winning in categories full of co-leads and movie stars. (To the extent that Best Supporting Actress has a somewhat better recent track record in this regard, it has more to do with how the female leads of many movies credibly read as supporting parts.) It can still happen, of course. But treating both Black Messiah leads as supporting performances sets a bad precedent, seemingly requiring that performers be both big stars, and that they also act as soloists so voters can see them as leads.

At the same time, their double nomination loosens qualifications to the point where anything shy of a powerhouse-star turn can be fudged into a “supporting” part. This, in turn, may eventually leave less room for newcomers, character actors, and oddballs: one-scene wonders like Viola Davis in Doubt, discoveries like Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips, or the consistently rock-solid work of go-to supporting performers like Scoot McNairy, Shea Whigham, Elizabeth Marvel, or Stephen McKinley Henderson.

It’s hard to say how to address this situation: Expanding the acting categories to seven nominees, following the lead of the fluctuating Best Picture category? Requiring formal acting-category entries from studios? Adding another acting category that honors ensembles? It’s also silly to get too worked up over the Oscars. Their whole thing is subjecting the audience to the impulses of a chosen few. But if one of the awards’ practical functions is supposed to be celebrating the art of film, it will be a shame if category shenanigans allow Finest Supporting Star and Best Supporting Actress to fully transform into Best Approximation of a Lead. It will further marginalize a distinct yet unflashy pleasure of the movies: the way smaller parts, stars, and minutes can contribute, almost ineffably, to a stronger entire.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.