As the Oscar race starts to come into focus at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, heated debates are raging among distributors, agents, and managers about which categories their movie stars should vie for. It’s a game that Oscar strategists play to win. Increasingly, that means moving talent out of a leading role and into a supporting one.
The decision makers behind “Ford v. Ferrari” (Fox/Disney), “The Lighthouse” (A24) and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (Sony) are all trying to figure out where to put their lead actors. Netflix has already decided to place the veteran stars of its two-hander “The Two Popes” into two categories: never-nominated Jonathan Pryce (as protagonist Pope Francis) with more screen time will be lead, with Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins (as antagonist Pope Benedict) in supporting. And Sony is placing Matthew Rhys in lead, Tom Hanks in supporting for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” It’s fair. Rhys plays an Esquire writer who profiled Fred Rogers. The movie is really about him.
This practice is not new. Many cooks devised Viola Davis’ awards strategy for her role opposite Denzel Washington in “Fences,” his 2016 film adaptation of August Wilson’s Tony-winning play. But the final call in these matters is usually the star. Davis won the Best Actress Tony on Broadway and should have competed against “La La Land” frontrunner Emma Stone at the Oscars. Sure enough, Stone won Best Actress, and Davis took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
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Back in 2005, “Syriana” star George Clooney campaigned for Supporting Actor instead, and also won. Sometimes it’s a question of who’s the bigger star. The year before, Tom Cruise contended for Best Actor for “Collateral,” while his equal costar Jamie Foxx went into supporting. Only Foxx got nominated. And for the 1981 drama “Ordinary People,” Timothy Hutton was pushed into supporting as well with Donald Sutherland in lead; Sutherland didn’t get nominated, and Hutton won.
This ploy doesn’t always work. In 2007, when Kate Winslet decided to campaign for Best Actress for “Revolutionary Road” and Supporting Actress for “The Reader,” the voting groups just put her in the Best Actress category for “The Reader” — and she won the Oscar.
Among the 2020 movies trying to figure out this issue are Disney/Fox’s “Ford v. Ferrari,” which stars equally matched Matt Damon as car designer Carroll Shelby (three acting nominations, one Original Screenplay win for “Good Will Hunting”) and Christian Bale as race car driver Ken Miles (four acting nominations and one win, for Supporting Actor for “The Fighter”). Rumors are swirling that Damon and Bale will both compete as leads, or that either Damon or Bale will go into supporting. The decision has not yet been made.
Any actor considering the supporting actor category also must consider Quentin Tarantino’s bromance “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” as Brad Pitt is currently favored to win for his cooly masculine stuntman Cliff Booth. It makes sense for Pitt to take this route, partly because Booth plays a subservient role in the film to TV star Rick Dalton (Best Actor Oscar-winner Leonardo DiCaprio). And Pitt may want to save a Best Actor slot for his starring role in sci-fi epic “Ad Astra” (Fox/Disney), which played well in Venice.
Another movie starring equally matched actors is Robert Eggers’ claustrophobic, Herman Melville-inspired two-hander “The Lighthouse.” Both Robert Pattinson, who continues to grow with every film, and veteran Willem Dafoe, who’s on a roll these days, are brilliant as they navigate Eggers’ tricky Melville-inspired dialogue. In “The Lighthouse,” two strangers are stranded on a storm-buffeted rocky island; the older lighthouse keeper bullies his strapping new assistant, until both men drive each other mad. Dafoe has been nominated four times since 1987’s “Platoon,” and notched back-to-back nominations for “Florida Project” and “At Eternity’s Gate,” as Vincent Van Gogh. Pattinson has never been nominated. Both are arguably leads. But Pattinson scored some strong reviews for his supporting role as the French Dauphin in “The King,” opposite Timothee Chalamet. Dafoe, meanwhile, also plays a supporting role in Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn.”
The problem, really, is that when lead actors (or actresses) decide they have a better chance in supporting, they take a slot away from another deserving performer, usually a character actor with less screen time. Yes, everybody in Hollywood knows how this game is played. But category fraud is still category fraud.