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By Other Voices

Oscar 2004: Supporting Actress–Anything Goes

To be (a lead) or not to be?

Shakespeare will forgive me, but this endlessly disturbing question has plagued the Oscar race since 1936, when the Academy first established the Supporting Acting Oscars in an effort to distinguish between lead and secondary roles.

This season, there are at least three controversies:

Is Natalie Portman, who gives this year’s breakthrough performance, a lead or supporting in Closer? I think lead, though I’m certain that Columbia will campaign for her in the secondary category so that Julia Roberts can have the lead field for herself.

Is Cate Blanchett, as Kate Hepburn inThe Aviator, a co-starring or lead role? I think supporting. But if Blanchett is lead, thenKate Beckinsale stands better chances to be nominated in the supporting league, asAva Gardner. There’s another implication: If Blanchett is a lead in The Aviator, she might receive a second, supporting nod this year, for The Life Acquatic.

There’s buzz about Lynn Redgrave’s performance in Kinsey, basically a cameo, an impressive monologue in one scene. But if Redgrave (who had been nominated twice, but never won) is nominated, how will it affectLaura Linney, also a supporting hopeful who plays a much more substantial role as Kinsey’s wife in the same film?

A decade ago, at the Palm Springs Film Festival, I had the pleasure of meeting Susan Sarandon, an honoree for Dead Man Walking. I asked Sarandon about her reaction to her first nomination, for Atlantic City. “The greatest surprise,” she said, “was to find out that I was nominated for Best Actress, because I voted for myself in the Supporting category.” Indeed, the biggest surprise in 1981 was Sarandon’s lead nomination because Paramount had been pushing for a supporting nod.

In 1994, Samuel L. Jackson was upset by Miramax’s decision to place him in the supporting league in Pulp Fiction. Jackson (and others) felt that his was a co-starring role with John Travolta, who was positioned for the lead Oscar. In the end, Miramax proved the victor as both Travolta and Jackson were nominated in their respective categories.

Two years ago, Julianne Moore received two nominations, a lead for Far From Heavenand a supporting for The Hours, in which she had a co-starring role with Nicole Kidmanand Meryl Streep. A British journalist examined the screen time of the three actresses and concluded that Moore actually had more screen time than Kidman, who won Best Actress. But Moore and her publicists, as well as the studios behind her pictures, knew that if she had been nominated for Best Actress for both The Hours and Far From Heaven, she would have split the Academy vote…and the rest is history.

Welcome to the annual confusion over the definition of a lead versus supporting role and the politics behind it.

By default, the Supporting Acting Oscars are the most democratic categories, wide-open fields in which anything goes-and the size of the role is almost irrelevant. There are no clear guidelines. It’s basically every man/woman for himself/herself, and every studio on its own, which makes the supporting category one of the most problematic and politically charged in the race, giving headaches to actors, publicists, critics, and Academy voters alike.

Some historical perspective is in order. For eight years, there were only two acting awards: Best Actor and Actress. In 1936, when the Academy created the Supporting Actor and Actress categories, new rules were required to clarify the distinction between lead and supporting roles. At first, the Academy asked the studios to designate the relevant category in their annual reminder lists, which gave them considerable power.

In 1938, internal studio politics accounted for John Garfield’s placement in the supporting league, for his stunning debut in Four Daughters. Warner was pushing hard for Actor nomination for James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces, particularly after Cagney was cited by the New York Film Critics. To prevent competition between their contract players, the top brass decided to demote Garfield to the secondary category, even though he was a lead.

The criteria defining lead versus supporting roles were always controversial. In 1942,Agnes Moorehead was nominated for a supporting role in The Magnificent Ambersons because RKO believed she had no chance to win the lead. The competition that year was fierce with Mrs. Miniver’sGreer Garson (Louis B. Mayer’s favorite lady) considered to be the front-runner. But Moorehead’s role as the neurotic spinsterish aunt was of considerable size, and, indeed, she was cited as Best Actress by the N.Y. Critics.

The Academy instructed its members: “Actors marked in the Reminder List by a star are considered Leads and can be nominated only for the Best Acting Awards.” However, members were given the option “to nominate any supporting player for both the Supporting and the Best Performance Award.” Hence, in 1944, Barry Fitzgeraldbecame the first (and only) player to be nominated for the same role (Going My Way) in both the lead and supporting leagues. When the final votes were tabulated,Bing Crosby, also nominated for that film, won Best Actor and Fitzgerald Supporting Actor. Many were disappointed, as clearly Fitzgerald’s role was a lead. Once again, the N.Y. critics cited Fitzgerald’s work as Best Actor.

Trying to resolve this problem in the following year, the Academy changed its rules, stipulating that, “performance by an actor or actress in a supporting role may be nominated for either the lead or the supporting category.” The new rules allowed for players to be nominated in both the lead and supporting categories in the same year, but for different roles.

In 1950, a further clarification was introduced: “If a performance by an actor or actress should receive sufficient votes to be nominated for both the Best Actress and Supporting Award, only the achievement which, in the preferential tabulation process, first received the quota shall be placed on the ballot.”

Nonetheless, confusion prevailed. In 1950, Anne Baxter persuaded Fox to campaign for her for lead nomination in All About Eve, thereby running against Bette Davis, who was the film’s star. Had Baxter been nominated for a featured role, Davis would have won Best Actress. However, having already won Supporting Oscar in 1946 for The Razor’s Edge, Baxter aspired to get the Oscar seal of approval as leading lady. As a result, Davis and Baxter canceled each other out, leaving the award to the least expected nominee, Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday.

A serious dispute erupted in 1956, when Dorothy Malone “volunteered,” under her studio’s “suggestion,” to lower her standing in Written on the Wind and go for the supporting award. Malone received co-star billing, but Universal designated her performance as supporting because her chances to win were better in this league, which turned out to be true. However, Malone’s switch was seen as “grossly unjust” by performers who deserved recognition as supporting players.

This resulted in another new rule in 1957, under which the Academy, not the studios, would determine the appropriate classification. The Academy would consider the information provided by the studios, but should any screen credit be questioned, the matter would be submitted to a special committee for arbitration.

Nonetheless, unexpected nominations continued to be made. In 1961, Piper Laurie was nominated for Best Actress, as Paul Newman’s alcoholic girlfriend in The Hustler, in which she received co-star billing with George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason. It was a surprise, as both Scott and Gleason were nominated for featured roles.

A major change was introduced in 1964, when the Academy decided that “the determination as to whether a role was a lead or supporting should be made individually by members of the Acting Branch at the time of the balloting.” Branch members could nominate any player in either lead or supporting league, regardless of studio billing. The Academy felt that its members should have the right to exercise judgment without “interference” from the studios.

Consequently, politicking through ad campaigns increased, and the prospects of winning in a particular category often determined the specific designation. This became clear in 1966, when Walter Matthauwas nominated for a supporting role in Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie, despite the fact that his role was substantial and the film was based on team acting by Matthau andJack Lemmon. But Matthau’s prospects were better in the supporting category, because there were two strong leads that year: Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons, and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Oscar results validated this peculiar rationale when Scofield won Best Actor and Matthau Supporting Actor.

It goes without saying that players attribute greater importance to lead nominations and Oscars because they are more prestigious and influential. Peter Finch was upset at his publicists’ suggestion that he try for the supporting award in Network. Finch’s publicists predicted that William Holdenwould receive a Best Actor nomination forNetwork, which he did. However, holding thatNetwork represented his best work, Finch determined to go for the top award or be out of the competition altogether. In a coup de grace, Holden and Finch didn’t cancel each other out. Finch won the Oscar posthumously; his untimely death perhaps the ultimate trump card.

The Academy is not alone. The criteria separating lead from supporting roles are just as confusing and unclear in other groups. In 1985, Peggy Ashcroft’s performance Mrs. Moore in David Lean’s A Passage to India, received rave reviews, but even the critics were divided as to which category she belonged. The N.Y. Critics cited Ashcroft as Best Actress, but the L.A. critics as Supporting. The Academy followed the L.A. group and honored Ashcroft with Supporting Oscar. Judy Davis, Ashcroft’s co-star in Passage to India, was nominated for Best Actress. The rationale: Had Ashcroft been nominated for the lead, she and Davis would have canceled each other out.

As I pointed out last week in my column, Women as Second Bananas, 2004 is a banner year for actresses playing supporting roles. This year offers a richer crop than the usual in what’s shaping up to be a particularly fierce competition. As of today, here are my predictions, arranged by category in alphabetical order:

……..Cate Blanchett, The Aviator
……..Minnie Driver, The Phantom of the Opera
……..Cloris Leachman, Spanglish
……..Laura Linney, Kinsey
……..Virginia Madsen, Sideways
……..Natalie Portman, Closer
……..Meryl Streep, The Manchurian Candidate
……..Barbra Streisand, Meet the Fockers
……..Kate Winslet, Finding Neverland

Possible Contenders
……..Anjelica Huston, The Life Acquatic
……..Regina King, Ray
……..Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda
……..Lynne Redgrave, Kinsey
……..Belen Rueda, The Sea Inside

November 30, 2004
– by Emanuel Levy

Updated twice weekly, the site features five regular columns: Current Reviews, Oscar Alert (of films and performances), Film Commentary (on timely and relevant issues), DVD of the Week (both classic and new), and Festivals/Events (such as essays on Brando’s career and this year’s centennial celebration of George Stevens and Cary Grant).

Samuel Butler once observed that, “Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself.” About Emanuel Levy …

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon