Awards analysis is provided by Sean from @MathTeacherMovies.
Since the beginning of the Oscars, actors have been nominated in Best Actor when they are clearly in a supporting role or Best Supporting Actor when they are clearly the lead. This is known as category fraud and sometimes it’s glaringly obvious and other times it can be hotly debated either way. So how and why does category fraud happen? Are there different types of category fraud? Is there anything to fix? Can people be wrong about category fraud… meaning… category fraud fraud?
One reason for category fraud is when the actor receiving the nomination is overshadowed by a tremendously popular performance or a huge movie star. For example, Jamie Foxx was the true main character in Collateral but he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor because he was behind the even larger movie star in Tom Cruise for the same film. Tatum O’Neal was a co-lead with her father Ryan O’Neal in Paper Moon, but won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress because she was a newcomer amongst someone well known in Hollywood.
Timothy Hutton was the main character in Ordinary People but he was an unknown actor opposite outstanding performances from Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore. Because of this, he was nominated for and won Best Supporting Actor. He should have been nominated for Best Actor, but he had zero chance of winning.
Denzel Washington’s star power and performance in Training Day was huge. Although most consider him to be the main character, he was actually co-lead with Ethan Hawke. Hawke really held the perspective of the story and was merely nominated for Best Supporting Actor because he was overshadowed by Washington.
Sometimes the actor will get overshadowed by being a part of an ensemble even if they are the clear main character. This is evidenced through George Clooney’s Best Supporting Actor win as one of the many main characters in Syriana. The same happened to Al Pacino as the main character of The Godfather but was overshadowed by a large and legendary cast with a huge but nonetheless supporting performance from Marlon Brando.
There is often the claim of category fraud when the line between supporting and lead is blurred. One of the most prominent examples of this was the recent film The Favourite where Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone were nominated for Supporting and Olivia Colman winning for Lead. Some cinephiles argue that category was at play here but the rules can be difficult to track: you will get a different answer anytime you ask a cinephile who is the leading actress in The Favourite.
This is also the case with Brokeback Mountain. Jake Gyllenhaal was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for no particular reason except that he just felt like the supporting character to Heath Ledger. This is similar to Louise Fletcher winning the Oscar for Best Actress for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Some would argue she had a supporting role while others considered it a leading role.
The final reason that category fraud could exist is quite cynical: some believe that actors are put in their particular category to have a better shot of winning. This was most evident through Lakieth Stanfield’s recent nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Judas and the Black Messiah. We are all grateful that we now get to call him an Oscar nominee, but Lakieth Stanfield was clearly the lead. He simply had a better shot of receiving a nomination for a supporting role. This was also the case with Kate Winslet who won Best Actress for her supporting role in The Reader because of a packed supporting actress race that year. This scenario was very apparent for Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl and Viola Davis in Fences. They were both easily considered lead roles in their movies but won awards for supporting roles. While they now have the honor of being Oscar winning actresses, they should have been nominated for leading roles.
With category fraud comes accusations of category fraud that are false and they are always centered around the screen time of the character which is not an accurate assessment.
Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor for The Silence of the Lambs while being on screen for a limited amount of time, and yet he is one of the two main characters of the movie because it is about him and his character has a lasting impact throughout the film.
On the other hand, Mahershala Ali won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Green Book. While many think that he is a main character, Ali’s character is a supporting character who has no focus, arc, or growth and therefore is an actual supporting character much to the detriment of that film’s goals.
The words category fraud are thrown around quite a bit but it’s not as intentional as most would think. When the Academy votes, they vote for the actor and then which category they think he or she should be in. For example, Lakieth Stanfield didn’t submit his name under Best Supporting Actor, voters of the academy put him there, which was still strange. The only thing that the studio and actor can choose is how they promote every actor for an award and try and convince the academy who to vote for but there is no registration.Therefore, the system needs to change so that actors need to be voted in specific categories instead of letting the voters choose the categories.