The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Category fraud is cheating and it’s becoming more pervasive

Written by: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer

Last night, Regina King won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture. I’m thrilled about that. Not only because she’s genuinely terrific in If Beale Street Could Talk, not only because her awards momentum guarantees the movie will still be in the conversation all the way into February, but because she is facing competition with unfair advantages against her. Even if (and hopefully when) she wins the Academy Award next month, it won’t erase what will almost certainly become a win for a category tainted by rampant cheating and lazy critics groups enabling it instead of using their common sense.

It’s time to talk about category fraud.

I know we’re dealing with a lot of… call them “problems” with the current awards climate right now — too many precursors acting as a rubber-stamps of perceived Oscar frontrunners, continued lack of diversity among the voting ranks, presence of predetermined “narratives” that get solidified before most people have a chance to even see the movies surrounding them, the continued specter of that misbegotten “Best Popular Film” category, and so on. But with every passing year, the issue of performers in leading roles being campaigned as supporting roles continues to get worse, and if the Academy is going to institute another rule change any time soon, they should do something about this phenomenon that is becoming more blatant, and is resulting in actual supporting actors and actresses being shut out of recognition.

When the Academy Award nomination announcements are made on the 22nd of January, there is a very real chance that a majority of the nominees for Best Supporting Actress will be for leading roles, and The Favourite will be responsible for two of them. I don’t think anyone is going to deny that Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, and Olivia Colman do terrific work in Yorgos Lanthimos’ unexpected awards season powerhouse, and I imagine their sharp, witty acting is a big part of that. But for some ungodly reason, critics and awards guilds who should know better are going along with Fox Searchlight’s scheme to gaslight us into believing that only Colman’s Queen Anne is the lead character despite Weisz’s Sarah Churchill having at least as much screentime and Stone’s Abigail having more than both of them, and all three characters sharing a roughly equal prominence in the story to a level where no reasonable viewer could possibly imagine the main thrust of the narrative functioning without any one of them.

Yet here we are, seeing two performances in very clear leading roles being nominated over and over again for “supporting” prizes. If you’re thinking “well, that’s just your opinion, some people may not see Stone and Weisz the same way,” ask yourself if we would even be having this conversation if the movie was about, say, Sarah competing with a man for the Queen’s favor. And instead of Emma Stone, Sarah’s disgraced cousin Alexander Hill was played by, I don’t know, Taron Egerton? Do you think anyone would be talking about his chances in Best Supporting Actor? Of course not. He’s the leading man. Which brings me to how category fraud very frequently asserts itself in movies with LGBT stories that, sort of by definition, star multiple lead players of the same gender. We saw this with Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, Rooney Mara in Carol, and the unsuccessful push for Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right. Almost as if these awards campaigners see leading role recognition the same way Mike Huckabee views marriage and the Academy is fine with that. Super.

Thomasin McKenzie deserves to be recognized for her wonderful LEAD performance in Leave No Trace.

And the amazing thing is, The Favourite is not even the most galling example of cheating in the Supporting Actress category this year! That dubious distinction belongs to Leave No Trace, wherein Bleecker Street is actually trying to convince us that Thomasin McKenzie, despite being in nearly every scene, playing a character whose point-of-view the film assumes, plays a “supporting” role to Ben Foster’s Will. This is an example of another persistent bias feeding these patently dishonest distinctions among the acting categories; the habit of studios to push young newcomers in the supporting competition. Remember Haley Joel Osment, Hailee Steinfeld, and Tatum O’Neal? It’s a bizarrely condescending attitude to take towards young performers.

I don’t necessarily blame the studio campaigners for this. They’re hired to do a job, not honor the “spirit” of a competition. If I were a publicist working for Bleecker Street, I might have made the same cynical decision for the sake of boosting McKenzie’s chances at a nomination. I do blame critics groups who have decided that their integrity and trustworthiness as professional writers literally paid to write about movies with a measure of thoughtfulness and expertise are less important than appeasing studio executives. I do blame Academy voters for not giving a moment’s thought into their ballots when they just vote however the “FYC” screener tells them to.

do blame, to a lesser extent, the actors who go along with these dishonest campaigns. Okay, maybe not so much McKenzie. She’s young and this is her breakout role and I understand her not wanting to be seen as “difficult” about the publicity surrounding her big breakout role. But Weisz and Stone have no excuse. They’re both established, famous actresses. They both have won Academy Awards, already! What in the world possessed them to go along with something they have to know isn’t an honest reflection of their roles in The Favourite? It’s not as if actors are powerless against studios trying to shoehorn them into fraudulent campaigns. Remember Bruce Dern in Nebraska? Believe it or not, Paramount Vantage originally planned to campaign him for Best Supporting Actor, and some critics awards went along with it. But then he put a stop to that, telling them to campaign him as a lead actor and saying:

“My take is this — the story is about who Woody is and where he’s going. It’s probably 50-50 screen time with Will Forte, but Woody is a leading role. If I go supporting, I’m a whore. Because I never came to Hollywood to win an award. I came to do good movies. If I go supporting, it’s embarrassing to the Academy because it looks like I’m trying to sneak in somehow so I can eat all those chicken and peas dinners. I’d rather go the right way than backdoor my way into a supporting because of my age or whatever.”

Now that is brilliant. He didn’t demand to be campaigned as a lead because of ego, or because that would better his odds of winning an Oscar, but because he knew it was the right thing to do. He knew that Woody was one of the central characters in Nebraska and to insist otherwise would have been dishonest and unfair to actors in actual supporting roles trying to make it as one of the five nominees that year. And the best part is, he was rewarded for his integrity. He was among the Best Lead Actor nominees announced on January 16th, 2014. So what are Weisz and Stone’s excuses? Do they not feel even a little guilty actively shoving Michelle Yeoh, Nicole Kidman, Elizabeth Debicki, Mackenzie Davis, and Cynthia Erivo from the possibility of recognition that they might otherwise have received in a fairer competition?

One of the all-too-rare examples of the Academy choosing honesty over studio campaign shenanigans.

But the Academy doesn’t have to wait for permission from the performer in question to eschew Oscar category manipulation! Throughout 2003, Newmarket Films had the audacity to campaign Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider for Best Supporting Actress, which is just as if not even more absurd than claiming Thomasin McKenzie is a “supporting actress” in Leave No Trace since no other member of the cast comes even close to being as prominent as Kahu! As one commentator put it, “Who was she ‘supporting?’ The whale?” But the Academy didn’t play along with the charade. On nomination morning, enough members voted with their heads, and nominated her for Best Lead Actress. Where she belonged.

Just think for a minute what would have happened if they instead echoed the dishonest assertions from the film’s reps? Who would have been left out of that lineup? Shohreh Aghdashloo, who was by no means a household name and has not really been given another role as awards-baity as House of Sand and Fog? Or maybe it would have been Patricia Clarkson, who would have missed out on literally the only Academy Award nomination of her distinguished career so far? That’s the thing about category fraud that people forget. There are only five nomination spots every year, and when a lead performance gets shoved in because “that’s where they have the best chance,” they are inevitably preventing an actual supporting performance from being recognized. So the next time you look at someone like Steve Buscemi and wonder why he’s never been nominated for an Oscar, remember that despite getting a lot of positive notices for Ghost World, Ethan Hawke ended up being nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Training Day for his performance as the obvious central protagonist of that movie. Maybe ask why Gramercy campaigned William H. Macy’s role in Fargo as a “supporting” one despite being introduced well before Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson (which she won the Best Lead Actress Oscar for!), and how Buscemi might have benefited from a more honest assessment of the cast and story structure of that film. I could go on. The number of hardworking under-the-radar performers being passed over for the convenience of leading actors treating the supporting categories as a consolation prize instead of something meant to recognize a completely separate achievement is substantial, and shameful.

Is there a chance that the Academy will come to their senses as their nomination process opens up today? Maybe, but I’m not holding my breath. Oscar campaigns have only become more aggressive, disciplined, and well-funded, and critics organizations have become more craven and pandering to studios and consensus narratives. But maybe if enough people raise a stink over it this week, in the same way we successfully raised a stink over “Best Popular Film,” that might be enough to least push back against the worst of these fraudulent bids so that two important acting categories aren’t made into a mockery of themselves.