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The Big O: Lead or Supporting Actress? Depends on Which Category is Likeliest to Hit Gold

The Big O: Lead or Supporting Actress? Depends on Which Category is Likeliest to Hit Gold

As of today, Patricia Arquette stands as the favorite to win a supporting-actress Oscar for her 12-years-in-the-making portrait of devoted motherhood in Boyhood.

That is, if you believe the expert prognosticators who annually predict the nominees and eventual winners at (Full disclosure: I am one of the participants on the website.)

That Arquette, 46, would finally be recognized by the Academy after being underappreciated for much of her nearly 30-year career — although she does hold an Emmy for her work on the TV series Medium — will make fans of True Romance and Flirting With Disaster quite happy. The fact that she is part of a popular acting clan, including siblings Rosanna and David, doesn’t hurt, either.  

However, a few sticklers might have an issue with her competing in the supporting category, since she could perhaps better qualify as the female lead of Richard Linklater’s summer art-house sensation, given her amount of screen time and the fact that she has her own story arc alongside her movie son’s.

While it is ultimately up to Academy voters filling out the nomination ballots to decide if a performance is lead or supporting, that does not stop a studio from designating a certain category in campaign ads and on DVD screeners.

Besides, one can’t really blame IFC Films, the movie’s distributor, for taking advantage of a perceived weak lineup of actresses in secondary roles — which is especially disappointing after last year’s outstanding collection of nominated women (Lupita Nyong’o, Sally Hawkins, Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Roberts, and June Squibb).

What might have forced the decision to shy away from declaring Arquette a lead? Perhaps the announcement earlier this month that Still Alice, the source of Julianne Moore’s much-lauded performance as a linguistics prof suffering from early Alzheimer’s, was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics after a successful world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Moore, who is a charter member of the Overdue Club with four previous Oscar nominations and zero wins, is considered neck-and-neck with Reese Witherspoon’s applauded comeback as Wild’s long-distance hiker in the lead category.

Meanwhile, Amy Adams — another member of the club and even more overdue with five Oscar nominations and no win — is shaping up as a dark-horse lead candidate as real-life painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton’s yet-unseen Big Eyes.

Any hope of going up against that trio, along with other likely prospects, such as Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, Hilary Swank in The Homesman, and Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything, might block Arquette’s chances of even making the ballot.

Besides, the expected supporting competition appears far less daunting: Laura Dern as Witherspoon’s mom in Wild, Emma Stone as Michael Keaton’s daughter in Birdman, and a selection of actresses to choose from in the yet-to-be-screened Sondheim musical Into the Woods. While Emily Blunt’s Baker’s Wife would seem to be a lead, judging from the stage version, and Meryl Streep’s Witch and Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella as supporting, the thinking is that Streep’s part — which could get a little supersizing. given her stature — could go either way.     

This sort of game-playing between what constitutes a lead or supporting role has gone on for a while now. Just last year, Julia Roberts — clearly a co-lead in August: Osage County — was demoted to supporting to avoid competing against co-star Streep as a lead. Considering what happened the last time two actresses from the same movie attempted to both squeeze into the best-actress list — Annette Bening made the cut while co-star Moore was overlooked in 2010’s The Kids Are All Right — there might be good reason for concern.  

Then again, the chances of a supporting triumph can actually improve in a much more substantial part. You can argue that Jennifer Connelly in 2001’s A Beautiful Mind and Rachel Weisz in 2005’s The Constant Gardener were leads, but that didn’t stop them from taking the gold as a supporting actress. And would Catherine Zeta-Jones have won her Oscar for 2002’s Chicago if she joined fellow nominee Renee Zellweger as a co-lead? Not if the actual winner, Nicole Kidman in The Hours, had anything to say about it.  

Not that the voters have to listen to such official suggestions. While Kate Winslet was making a push for supporting actress in 2008’s The Reader — the thinking being, she might be up for best actress in that year’s Revolutionary Road as well — the Academy went ahead and nominated her as a lead. And she won anyway.

Are such campaigning ploys cheating? Not really, given how rare great female supporting roles — let alone leads — are these days.       

It’s not like in Hollywood’s golden era, when studios relied on a deep pool of scene-stealing character actors in smaller parts to enrich their movies. Oscar-nominated actresses ranging from Eve Arden and Gloria Grahame to Thelma Ritter and Marjorie Main enjoyed long and successful careers as supporting players.

But the film industry in the 21st century is much less interested in stocking movies with terrific women when mostly male-driven action and comic-book adventures are the norm. That means it is often harder to fill out the list of potential supporting actresses deserving of attention. And so studio Oscar strategists take advantage of that opportunity.  

Still, there is a sense that somehow it cheapens the process behind the Academy Awards, which remains cinema’s — if not all of showbiz’s — highest honor. No less than Robert Osborne, Academy Awards historian and primary host of cable TV’s Turner Classic Movies, addressed this issue with The Hollywood Reporter during the controversy over Winslet’s placement, pointing out that the supporting category was created in 1936 specifically to honor actors who had limited screen time.

His statement: “Bottom line: Does it really matter who gets nominated where? Yes, I think it does. Particularly, if it means the inclusion of someone in a slot where they don’t belong shuts the door on someone who genuinely deserves to be there.”

However, if Hollywood doesn’t give enough work so that more women appear onscreen in award-worthy supporting parts and someone takes advantage of a perceived opening, whose fault is that?

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