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Gaming the Oscars: How Actors Hedge their Bets When They Submit as Lead or Supporting

Here's a real risk of voter fraud: Awards campaigners can have creative definitions when they determine the category their stars should choose when chasing an Oscar.

Rooney Mara and Dev Patel in Lion


The Weinstein Company


Acting careers begin with the endless judgments of auditions, the “we’ll be in touch,” the doubt of wondering if it will all work out. But for an Oscar-buzzed actor, all that anxiety fades away, and is replaced by three words: Lead or Supporting?

For talent, picking the right Academy category can make or break whether you win, or even get nominated. There’s also the delicate matter of which movie to campaign for if you’re lucky enough to have more than one.

Agents, managers, distributors, and Oscar campaign strategists lobby and advise the talent on which way to go, but the decision lies with the one who, should they be so lucky, has to show up at the endless public appearances that will follow.

Kate Winslet in "The Reader"

Kate Winslet in “The Reader”

The Weinstein Co.

Ego’s a major player here. George Clooney now has four Leading Actor nominations, but his only Oscar came when he swallowed his pride and moving to supporting for “Syriana.” Many Oscar-watchers called this category fraud; although he starred opposite Matt Damon, Clooney was the movie’s top-billed actor (and executive producer).

While the Academy often winds up accepting the category once everyone decides which way to go, occasionally the voters go their own way. Famously, even though Harvey Weinstein was chasing Supporting Actress for “The Reader,” and the Golden Globes obediently went along, both BAFTA and the Academy Actors branch slotted Kate Winslet in Best Actress. She wound up winning both the BAFTA and the 2009 Oscar. 

Here are seven actors making campaign choices this season.



Paramount Pictures

Amy Adams
Lead Actress, “Arrival” and “Nocturnal Animals”

The five-time Oscar nominee is juggling two films that did well at festivals this fall, Paramount Pictures’ “Arrival,” a brainy sci-fi thriller directed by Denis Villeneuve, and Tom Ford’s twisty exercise in style, Focus Features’ “Nocturnal Animals.” She’s campaigning for Lead for both, but as often happens, the smaller indie ensemble film co-starring Jake Gyllenhaal will likely wind up supporting the bigger studio release with Adams as the marquee draw, with Jeremy Renner in a supporting role.

READ MORE: Amy Adams: Queen of Fall Festivals and Heading for Oscars

Rules Don't Apply

“Rules Don’t Apply”

20th Century Fox

Warren Beatty
Lead Actor, “Rules Don’t Apply”

The veteran multi-hyphenate (and AARP Magazine cover story) has opted for Best Actor for 20th Century Fox’s “Rules Don’t Apply,” in which he directs himself as enigmatic aerospace and Hollywood mogul Howard Hughes. However, it could also be considered a supporting performance; Hughes’ role in the first half of the movie is smaller than it is in the second. Fox’s For Your Consideration ads will also list romantic leads Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins as Best Actor and Best Actress, and Matthew Broderick and Annette Bening for Supporting Actor and Actress, respectively. Audiences will see the movie for the first time when it opens AFI FEST November 10th.

READ MORE: ‘Rules Don’t Apply’ Trailer: Warren Beatty Stars as Howard Hughes In 1950’s Hollywood Rom-Com


Viola Davis
Supporting Actress, “Fences”

As a sign that the 2017 Best Actress race is the most competitive in years, Paramount is promoting Denzel Washington’s “Fences” costar in the Best Supporting Actress category. Anyone who has seen the August Wilson play (which won Tonys in 2010 for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor for Washington, and Best Actress for Davis) knows that the popular “How to Get Away with Murder” star, who has been Oscar-nominated twice (“Doubt,” “The Help”) more than stands up to Washington’s unhappy, angry husband onstage. But she’s going for the win.

For the Best Actress nomination, she’d be up against Amy Adams (“Arrival”), Annette Bening (“20th Century Women”), Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”), Ruth Negga (“Loving”), Natalie Portman (“Jackie”), and Emma Stone (“La La Land”) — and the list goes on.  Her main rivals in supporting would be Michelle Williams, who is magnificent in a small role in Kenneth Lonergan’s tragic drama “Manchester by the Sea,” Naomie Harris as a Miami drug addict (“Moonlight”), and Felicity Jones as a mother fighting cancer (“A Monster Calls”).

READ MORE: ‘Fences’ Trailer: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis Are Powerhouses In August Wilson Adaptation


Isabelle Huppert
Lead Actress, “Elle” and “Things To Come”

This could be the year that the respected French star lands her first Oscar nomination. She’s juggling two well-lauded French festival hits, Mia Hanson-Love’s “Things to Come” (IFC Films) and Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” (Sony Pictures Classics). She’s following a strategy similar to Adams’: While Huppert will campaign for Lead Actress, look for the smaller film, “Things To Come,” to play its own supporting role. It’s what may help her land the nomination for the bigger release, “Elle.”

READ MORE: Why ‘Elle’ Star Isabelle Huppert Is the Actress Whose Oscar Time Has Come


Aaron Eckhart
Supporting Actor, “Bleed For This” and “Sully”

After years of anchoring B-movies with foreign appeal, Eckhardt reminds us what a compelling actor he is in two strong character roles. He’s the supportive co-pilot opposite Tom Hanks in Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” (Warner Bros.) and he’s the wily coach to Miles Teller’s comeback boxer in “Bleed for This” (Open Road). Like Adams and Huppert, one of his films may be a loss leader: While he’s the best thing in “Bleed for This” in the film’s richer role, he might land the nomination for “Sully,” the better-reviewed popular hit —which is more likely to be seen by Oscar voters.

READ MORE: ‘Incarnate’ Trailer: Aaron Eckhart Battles Demons of the Mind in New Blumhouse Exorcism Film — Watch


Helen Mirren
Supporting Actress, “Eye in the Sky”

The Oscar-winner (“The Queen”) has campaigned twice in supporting and twice in Best Actress. This time, even though Mirren could easily be considered the lead for her pivotal role as a tough colonel in “Eye in the Sky,” Bleecker Street is borrowing the route taken by Open Road for last year’s Oscar-winner “Spotlight,” which put its entire supporting cast in supporting. Like Davis, she’ll face less competition there.

READ MORE: Watch Helen Mirren Shut Down a Sexist Interviewer Back in 1975


Dev Patel
Supporting Actor, “Lion,” and Lead Actor, “The Man Who Knew Infinity” 

The star of “Slumdog Millionaire” has never been nominated for an Oscar, but he boasts two possible contenders this year. Weinstein is pushing “Lion,” a true story about a young boy who loses his family and tracks them down as an adult via Google Earth. Patel is earning raves in the adult role — but so is rookie child actor Sunny Pawar, whose arc takes up the first half of the movie. So Weinstein opted to put Pawar in Best Actor and Patel — a bankable, global movie star — in Supporting, along with Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara, who play his mother and girlfriend, respectively.

With this counterintuitive move, Patel has a far better chance at landing a top five slot against competition Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”), Jeff Bridges (“Hell or High Water”), Aaron Eckhart (“Sully”), Lucas Hedges and Kyle Chandler (“Manchester by the Sea”), and Peter Sarsgaard (“Jackie”).

Meanwhile, IFC Films is also backing Patel — for Best Actor in “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” in which he portrays a brilliant Indian mathematician facing discrimination. Why throw away Oscar money on a movie that played better for audiences than critics?  It shows the industry that they are willing to spend on an Oscar campaign — and, to chase a likelier shot for Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons (“Reversal of Fortune”) in Supporting as a conflicted Cambridge professor.

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