Bob and Justin's Mad Movie Blog

My name is Bob. My friend Justin and I are aspiring filmmakers and we have pretty similar tastes in movies. This will include our take on what's going on in film and television today as well as updating you on the status of our own work.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Best "Supporting" Actress?

Jennifer Hudson is outstanding in "Dreamgirls." Totally deserving of an Oscar nomination. The problem is she's in the supporting category. Anyone who's seen the movie can tell you she's the main character. When Kevin Spacey won for "The Usual Suspects" the same thing happened. He has more screen time than anyone else in that film, his character drives the story and yet he won Supporting Actor. The main reason I haven't added to the seeming avalanche of praise for Forest Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland" isn't because the performance is a let down. Far from it, he's outstanding. But James McAvoy is the lead and ultimately his character is the more interesting and complex, and most likely the greater acting challenge. If anybody from that movie should be considered for Best Actor it's him. Whitaker is a dominating figure to be sure (he's playing Idi Amin after all), but the lead? Here's a very good article from "The San Francisco Gate" that is yet another reminder that the Oscars really aren't about honoring the best achievements in film in a given year:


In "The Devil Wears Prada," plucky Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) comes to New York in pursuit of a journalism career, endures professional and personal torture at the hands of beastly boss Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), and emerges battle-tested, wiser and simply fabulous. Audiences will be surprised to learn that Andy is apparently not the film's protagonist.

In "The Last King of Scotland," idealistic young doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) wants to be anywhere but home, so he signs up to work in a clinic in Uganda. Unfortunately for him, the ascending Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) takes the Scottish physician in his bruising embrace. McAvoy is in nearly every scene, but it's Whitaker, who's onscreen perhaps a third as much, whom awards-doling organizations call the film's lead.

Presumably, no one dared tell Streep or Whitaker they weren't the primary figures in their films -- hence the deluge of lead nominations for them.

"I think it does serious damage to the integrity of the awards bodies," says Nathaniel Rogers of the Web site the Film Experience. "These decisions continue to make most awards look like easily manipulated gift bags for stars, rather than any serious recognition of acting craft. ... It's a horrible shift that seems to be getting worse each year."

Among other contenders, one could argue that Golden Globe-nominated lead actress Beyoncé Knowles is no more prominent in "Dreamgirls" than Golden Globe-winning supporting actress Jennifer Hudson (the latter in a role that won the lead-actress Tony and Drama Desk awards for Jennifer Holliday). Leonardo DiCaprio, nominated as the lead in "The Departed" by the Golden Globes, the British Academy and the Broadcast Film Critics Association, is up for the supporting honor from his own union, the Screen Actors Guild.

There's nothing new about actors and studios jockeying for position during awards season; sometimes it's a legitimate wrangling over who, between roughly equal-size roles, should get the lion's share of the promotion (Think "Pulp Fiction," and the trumpeting of John Travolta as lead and Samuel L. Jackson as supporting). But if Jamie Foxx wasn't the lead in "Collateral" (2004), who was? The story started and ended with him, and he was onscreen for virtually the entire movie. The same is true of Ethan Hawke in "Training Day" (2001). Both men received supporting nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but who were they supporting?

And why does any of this matter?

Hollywood is notorious for following rather than leading, jumping on genre bandwagons and being slow to react to real-world issues. But during awards season, the studios have found it much better to lead than to support. A 2002 study by Colby College economics professor Randy A. Nelson found that films receiving best actor or actress nominations could get box-office boosts of up to $750,000 for each honor. He later revised that estimate toward a cool $1 million. And wins in those categories, he said, could be worth $5.6 million in grosses.

Supporting nods, however, resulted in no discernable box-office bump.

"The main categories that the public seems to pay attention to are picture, actor and actress," says Brandon Gray, president and publisher of the Web site Box Office Mojo. "Last year, George Clooney got nominated and won (best supporting actor) for 'Syriana' and it had no impact on that movie's business. ... It looks like (lead actress nominations) helped 'Monster' with Charlize Theron and 'Monster's Ball' with Halle Berry.

"Those are modest examples, but they made most of their money after being nominated, and those were the most significant awards they were up for. Prior to its nomination, the box office for 'Monster's Ball' was about $4 million; its eventual take was $31 million."

Gray is quick to add that the link between box-office take and awards can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as studios often gear release patterns to maximize the honors' impact. Thus there is motive, but is there opportunity? The studios can spend like crazy to lobby for specific Oscar nods, but the final decisions are out of their hands.

"The actor's achievement is (automatically) eligible in both categories and it's entirely up to the actors' branch," says John Pavlik, director of communications for the Motion Picture Academy. "The leading and supporting categories are tabulated at the same time by Price Waterhouse. Let's say John Pavlik is up for an award and half of the voters think it's supporting and half think it's lead; whichever of those reaches the magic number first (about 20 percent of ballots cast) is the category he's nominated in."

So, if the votes come in for Polonius as the lead and Hamlet as support?

"If the actors as a group thought that Polonius was the lead in that particular performance of 'Hamlet,' that's the lead," Pavlik says.

Financial considerations don't explain the SAG Awards supporting nomination that DiCaprio received for "The Departed."

"We allow our actors to decide which category they wish to be considered for," says Kathy Connell, producer of the 13th annual SAG Awards. SAG rules stipulate that actors, their representatives or studios, with the actors' permission, make the submissions. "We're their union, and we think they know which category they should be considered for better than we ever could. ...

"Who is to say, for instance, in 'Babel,' who's lead and who's support? If you've done a 'Dirty Harry,' I think Dirty Harry is the lead. If it's James Bond, James Bond is the lead. There may be other (cases) in which there are dual performances; you may have multiple leads."

To be sure, "The Departed" has received much recognition for the work of its cast as a whole, but while it's not as clear-cut as it is in "Casino Royale" who the protagonist is in "Departed" (DiCaprio, Matt Damon or both), it's also not as murky as ensemble pieces such as "Babel" and "Dreamgirls."

"When DiCaprio is up for supporting actor for 'Departed,' it's pretty ridiculous when he's clearly the lead actor," Gray says, laughing. "It's absurd. Awards season is a political game, and those most interested in it are Hollywood and the media who dissect all the minutiae of the season."

Whatever confusion there might be hasn't generated complaints from SAG members.

"No, no," Connell says. "Occasionally one of the reporters will question it, but the actors have never complained."

That doesn't stop some industry observers from fuming about blurred borders.

"The most puzzling thing about it ... at least as far as (the) Oscars and SAG are concerned, is that actors vote on the nominations," Rogers says. "They don't seem to understand that honoring leading movie stars in these supporting categories prevents ... hardworking supporting players from receiving public appreciation. Below-the-title actors don't have the massive perks of stardom, and now they lose their one chance at industry honors, too? Shameful."

Michael Ordona is a freelance writer.

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