At the 93rd Academy Awards on Sunday, Daniel Kaluuya was named Best Supporting Actor for his great work as activist Fred Hampton in the gripping historical thriller Judas and the black messiah. His contest included his co-star, nominated for the same film, Lakeith Stanfield, in which he plays an FBI informant who provides intelligence leading to Hampton’s murder. Casual movie viewers checking out Judas and the black messiah Given its awards, attention might be surprised to find that Kaluuya and Stanfield, despite their supporting cast nominations, are the definitive leading actors in the film. The only way to justify classifying Kaluuya’s performance as “supportive” is to insist that Stanfield – the character with the most screen time – play the sole lead role. Instead, the academy’s voters de facto gave a verdict on it Judas has no leading performances at all.
This confusion is not a new phenomenon. It is a problem that is consistent enough to have a name of its own: “Category Scam”. However, in order to avoid that an already important registry gets a feeling of quasi legal importance, I prefer “category gimmicks”. Category gimmicks have been part of the Oscars for decades, and often focus on whether a performance qualifies as a leading or supporting role. At one point there were no rules prohibiting the same performance from appearing in both categories if it received enough votes – that is exactly what happened to Barry Fitzgerald, the second leading role in the 1944 priestly drama I go my way. Fitzgerald was nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, both for I go my way. (He ultimately won the minor category and lost Best Actor to his co-star, Bing Crosby.)
The academy changed its rules to prevent this from happening again. However, the fix didn’t set specific parameters for who is considered the main or supporting cast in a movie. Ultimately, the categorization of the actors still rests with the voters. Studios can only play the system through their prize campaigns, essentially indicating their official preferences.
In the past, these preferences have sometimes guided and enabled the gimmicks of the categories as studios and performers advertise actors in the categories they believe they can win rather than picking the category that best fits a particular performance. That was arguably what had to do with Kaluuya, whose campaign put him in the support category rather than the lead. But there’s no fault to Warner Bros. for that Judas Weirdness: The studio put Stanfield up as a contender for Best Actor, and many academy voters chose him as a supporting actor anyway.
The interplay between studio game art and the bizarre whims of voters suggests a bigger problem that applies specifically to the supporting categories: They are increasingly populated with performers who are actually co-leads. Last year’s Best Supporting Actor winner was Brad Pitt. Does he have significantly less screen time or perspective in Once upon a time in Hollywood as Leonardo DiCaprio? One of the actors he hit was Anthony Hopkins, who played one of the title characters in The two popes.
In 2019, Mahershala Ali won the Best Supporting Actor award for Green book, a film about two men who become friends on an equal footing, except for the award ceremony. And the previous year, Sam won Rockwell for his “supportive” performance as the male lead of Three billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri.
The final winners of the best supporting actress make more sense in this category. Laura Dern and Regina King give exceptional performances that are clearly subordinate to the male-female couples in the centerf marriage history and If Beale Street could talk. But it’s easy to see why Viola Davis is there fences and Alicia Vikander in The Danish girl triumphed not long before them: they were the co-leads of their respective films, with an abundance of characterizations and emotional arcs that more traditional side shows are not meant to feature.
Granted, the line between leadership and support is hazy, and performance shouldn’t be defined by a stopwatch. Frances McDormand spends less time on screen Fargo than some of the other characters in the film, but her nomination for Best Actress (and her win) made intuitive sense. She is the moral center of the film and she shifts the gravity of the story when it shows up. In fact, that’s true – the gravity shifting part, not the moral center – by Anthony Hopkins in The silence of the Lambswhere he was named Best Actor for a performance of less than 20 minutes. Winning a lead category with less screen time is arguably a flex – a testament to the ability of certain stars.
However, winning a supporting category with a leading Screen Time feels like using that commanding stellar force to knock off smaller, finer performances. It’s also a way of marginalizing minorities, even if the academy tries to correct years of prejudice. It’s hard to imagine Oscar voters overriding a studio’s desire to include Leonardo DiCaprio or Adam Driver in the main category, like they did with Stanfield. The studios arguably did this to themselves: years ago, voters agreed to both racial dynamics and established star structures by agreeing that Jamie Foxx, who plays a point of view character who appears on screen more than anyone else in the movie, somehow a supporting actor in security.
Of course, not every nomination in both supporting categories goes to a real co-lead, and not every “supporting” co-lead wins. The fact that some real fringe benefits still make it into these categories only highlights their one-sidedness. That year the two were named best supporting actor Judas leads; Leslie Odom Jr., one of four more or less equal leads in One night in Miami;; Sacha Baron Cohen for Borate 2as the most conspicuous member of an ensemble; and Paul Raci, who gives a traditional side performance in Sound of metal.
Although placing all ensemble members in the minor category is a reasonable compromise for films with an ambiguous lead, it is nonetheless noticeable that only one of this year’s nominees was a true supporting actor. Raci’s character, a man who runs a kind of community workshop for the deaf, advises the hearing impaired drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and only appears in an extended section of the film. The story never slips into his perspective and his scenes carry more weight because they are not a constant. Raci, whose career consists mainly of TV parts, has a directness and a calm, lived authority that is reminiscent of Robert Forster. It is a remarkable achievement that is vital to the success of the film and has no chance against the actual stars of Judas and the black messiah
Personally, I think Raci deserves the supporting actor award this year. But my problem was never just the likelihood that my favorite wouldn’t collect a shiny trophy. Last year it was difficult to give Pitt the win Once upon a time in HollywoodBecause it’s a great movie, Pitt takes great pleasure in it, and had never won before. “Fair enough,” said Cliff Booth in one of Pitt’s most beautiful moments.
The problem is, it’s getting harder and harder to imagine real supporting actors winning in categories full of co-leads and movie stars. (To the extent that the best supporting actress has had a slightly better track record in this regard lately, it has more to do with how the female leads in many films are credibly read as supportive parts.) That can still happen, of course . But treat both Black Messiah Leads as supporting performances set bad precedent and apparently require that the performers are both big stars and that they also perform as soloists so that voters can see them as leads.
At the same time, her double nomination loosens the qualification to the point where anything that shies away from a powerhouse star turn can be turned into a “supportive” part. That, in turn, may leave less room for newcomers, character actors, and oddballs: one-scene wonders like Viola Davis in doubt, Discoveries like Barkhad Abdi in Captain Philipsor the consistently solid work of artists like Scoot McNairy, Shea Whigham, Elizabeth Marvel or Stephen McKinley Henderson.
It’s hard to say how to approach this situation: expanding the acting categories to seven nominees, followed by the fluctuating “Best Picture” category? Do you need formal entries in the acting category of studios? Add another acting category honoring ensembles? It’s also silly to get angry about the Oscars. Your whole business is to expose the audience to the whims of a select few. But if one of the practical functions of the award is to celebrate the art of film, it’s a shame when the category’s gimmicks allow the best supporting actor and actress to completely transform themselves into the best approximation of a lead role. It will further marginalize a distinct but inconspicuous pleasure of the films: the way in which smaller parts, actors and moments can contribute almost indescribably to a stronger whole.