Contenders for the 2021 Oscar categories are starting to settle in. Every year, heated debates rage behind the scenes as distributors, agents, and managers determine which categories their movie stars should pursue. It’s an old game, and one that Oscar strategists play to win. It can mean moving talent out of a leading role and into a supporting one, but when lead actors decide they have an improved shot in supporting, they often steal a slot from a costar — often a character actor with less screen time. That game is rightly called category fraud.
Last year, the decisionmakers behind “The Two Popes,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” placed veteran stars Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt, and Tom Hanks, respectively, in the Supporting Actor race, yielding nominations for all three and a win for Pitt.
This year’s story is going the opposite way, throwing relative unknowns into the weaker Best Actor race rather than overcrowded Best Supporting Actor. Rising British thespian Kingsley Ben-Adir (“The Comey Rule”) was expected to campaign for lead in Regina King’s fall festival breakout “One Night in Miami,” because his Malcolm X dominates playwright-screenwriter Kemp Powers’ true 1964 story. But Amazon’s awards team is also slotting unknown Eli Goree as Cassius Clay in lead as well, which is a surprise. (Both actors command the most screen time.) That leaves in Supporting two better-known actors who have also never been Oscar-nominated: Aldis Hodge as football star Jim Brown, and “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom, Jr. as singer Sam Cooke, who takes on Malcolm X in the movie’s central conflict and brings the movie to a surging emotional conclusion. Advantage: Odom, Jr.
The Amazon awards team used “The Help” as model, which featured an ensemble of actresses dominated by Best Actress campaigners Viola Davis and Emma Stone, while Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer went for Supporting, and Spencer won. “The Help” also won Best Actress at SAG for Davis, Best Supporting Actress for Spencer, and won SAG Best Ensemble.
Clearly, Amazon is figuring that less is more on the supporting side, as its two “One Night in Miami” stars will compete against the mighty crew from Aaron Sorkin’s well-reviewed “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Netflix is campaigning that starry ensemble in Supporting Actor, “Spotlight” style. (That year, Mark Ruffalo landed the only male acting slot, while Rachel McAdams swanned into Supporting Actress.) The supporting actor candidates in “Chicago 7” will campaign together, including the more established Sacha Baron Cohen (Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman) and Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne (moderate anti-war activist Tom Hayden).
By not going for lead, Oscar-winner Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”) and Baron Cohen (nominated as a screenwriter for the original “Borat,” not as an actor) will chase a Supporting nomination that might have gone to one of their costars: Jeremy Strong (Yippie Jerry Rubin), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Bobby Seale), Mark Rylance (defense lawyer William Kunstler), or Frank Langella (Judge Julius Hoffman).
There’s a chance in the Best Actor race that Ben-Adir and Goree could also challenge Baron Cohen as Borat, as well as Chadwick Boseman, who has two shots at winning a posthumous award: for his supporting role as an heroic soldier killed in Vietnam in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” and in lead for George C. Wolfe’s August Wilson adaptation, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Both are from Netflix, which won’t want Boseman to compete against himself. He’s got a better shot at Best Actor. (Posthumous awards are not uncommon; Peter Finch and Heath Ledger won them, for Best Actor in “Network” and Supporting Actor in “The Dark Knight,” respectively.)
Category switching is opportunistic. Campaigners devised Davis’ 2016 awards strategy for her role opposite Denzel Washington in “Fences,” her costar’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s Broadway Tony-winner. Davis won the Best Actress Tony and ordinarily would have competed (again) against “La La Land” frontrunner Emma Stone at the Oscars. After “The Help,” that was a chance her handlers were unwilling to take. Stone took home Best Actress, and Davis won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Back in 2005, “Syriana” star George Clooney campaigned for Supporting Actor, and also won. The year before, Tom Cruise vied for Best Actor for “Collateral,” while his equal costar Jamie Foxx went supporting; only Foxx was nominated. And for the 1981 drama “Ordinary People,” rising actor Timothy Hutton was pushed into supporting with established star Donald Sutherland in lead. He didn’t get nominated, but Hutton won.
These strategies don’t always work. In 2007, Kate Winslet’s reps pushed her to campaign for Best Actress for “Revolutionary Road” and Supporting Actress for “The Reader.” Voting groups ignored them, and put her in the Best Actress category for “The Reader.” She took home the Oscar.