They’re Leading Actors, Except When It Comes to the Oscars

In Hollywood, it pays to be on top. That is, unless it interferes with your Oscar campaign.

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Kyle Buchanan
, New York Times

In Hollywood, it pays to be on top. That is, unless it interferes with your Oscar campaign.

Welcome to awards season, the only time of year when actors wave aside matters of ego and star billing to argue that they were less essential to their films than you might have thought. Why would these movie stars diminish the standing that their agents fought so hard to secure? Because sometimes, a supporting-actor route presents the easiest path to Oscar.

Here are just some of the strategies employed by this year’s major contenders, all of whom hope their humility will be rewarded with hardware.

The Co-Stars Who Don’t Want To Compete

Power plays are the name of the game in “The Favourite” (due Nov. 23) so perhaps it’s appropriate that the Oscar campaign for the film involves a certain amount of scheming, too.

In this royal comedy, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz play two ladies at court who manipulate the diminished Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) to suit their own ambitions, and to judge from screen time alone, all three women are evenly matched leads. Yet to throw the three of them into the same best actress race might split the vote in what is shaping up to be a very competitive category.

The film’s distributor, Fox Searchlight, has come up with a unique fix: The studio is positioning Colman as the sole lead and the marketing will suggest that voters consider Stone and Weisz for supporting slots. While that order upholds the royal hierarchy, it seems outrageous to argue that Stone and Weisz are not the protagonists of “The Favourite,” since they do all the film’s plotting.

Still, with this strategy, Fox Searchlight is probably mindful of Oscar history. No movie has placed more than one woman in the best actress category since Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were nominated for “Thelma and Louise” in 1992, yet a twofer is so common in the best supporting actress category that “Up in the Air,” “The Fighter” “The Help” and “Doubt” all managed it in the last decade. To split up the women of “The Favourite” in this fashion may be the only way to get all three nominated.

— The supporting-actor gambit feels more questionable when it comes to “Green Book” (Nov. 21), a 1960s road-trip dramedy with Mahershala Ali as a virtuoso pianist who hires a lightly racist palooka (Viggo Mortensen) to serve as his chauffeur while touring the Deep South. “Green Book,” based on a true story, wouldn’t work if these two actors were anything less than equals; in fact, during the film’s centerpiece scene, Ali’s character argues to a bigoted restaurateur that he deserves the same seat at the table as Mortensen.

But Universal will push Mortensen as the film’s sole lead, while Ali will contend in the supporting-actor category. I’m told that Ali made the choice himself, based on the fact that he enters “Green Book” 15 minutes later than Mortensen, and this distinction may earn him his second Oscar (after his supporting win for “Moonlight”). Ali is that strong in the role, and his screen time will swamp other contenders in his category. It’s the same strategy that was used by Viola Davis, who positioned herself as a supporting actress for “Fences” and won her first Oscar, even though she’d previously taken home a lead-actress Tony for the same role on Broadway.

Still, it has been 11 years since “The Last King of Scotland” star Forest Whitaker became the last person of color to win best actor, and 16 years since Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball” became the only woman of color to win best actress. You can’t fault Ali’s strategy for going supporting, nor the rarefied space he would occupy if he won: The only other black actor who has collected two competitive Oscars is Denzel Washington. While I might wish that Ali would throw his hat into the leading race, the onus is not on him but on Hollywood to provide our most talented black thespians with roles that are unambiguous leads.

The Deferential Scene Partner

When “Beautiful Boy” earned one of the year’s highest per-screen averages in its opening weekend last month, it wasn’t just because audiences were clamoring to see first-billed Steve Carell: Many moviegoers were turning out to watch Timothée Chalamet in his first major role since the star-making “Call Me by Your Name.” The fact that the 22-year-old actor was doing in-person appearances further goosed the box office.

Despite Chalamet’s ascendancy, and despite the fact that he and Carell evenly split “Beautiful Boy” as a drug-addicted youth and his concerned father, the Oscar campaign will position Chalamet as a supporting actor. How are these actors not considered co-leads? Because the 56-year-old Carell, a showbiz veteran, is perceived as Chalamet’s senior when it comes to Oscar categorization.

— The same principle is at play with the summer drama “The Wife,” for which Glenn Close will be run as a best actress candidate while her onscreen husband, Jonathan Pryce, is touted for the supporting-actor category. The irony here is rich: Both actors have the same amount of screen time in “The Wife,” in which Close plays a woman living in the shadow of her spouse, an author who has just won the Nobel Prize.

But Pryce has never been nominated for an Oscar, while Close is gunning for her seventh nomination and first-ever win. To position Pryce as her support doesn’t simply propel him into a race that may be easier for him to penetrate; it also fortifies both the narrative of the film and Close’s Oscar campaign: This is a woman who has long deserved major recognition, and no one ought to get in her way.

The Strategizing Double-Dipper

In October, the publicity firm hired to manage the Oscar campaign for “A Quiet Place” announced that Emily Blunt would be campaigned as a lead actress for the spring sleeper hit about a family trying to survive the postapocalypse. A week later, the story changed: Actually, Blunt will go supporting, since she and her husband, director and star John Krasinski, have decided that “A Quiet Place” was a true ensemble with no clear lead.

Was Blunt adopting the humble credo of the actors from the best picture winner “Spotlight,” who all positioned themselves for supporting-actor consideration? More likely, she was trying to get out of her own way: Disney plans a big Oscar campaign for December’s “Mary Poppins Returns,” in which Blunt plays the title role that won Julie Andrews a best actress Oscar.

Still, the question is whether the academy will take heed, and all of these strategizing stars would be advised to keep that in mind. In 2008, Kate Winslet was faced with a similar campaign problem: She had two strong roles, in “Revolutionary Road” and “The Reader,” and she argued that the latter was a supporting performance, so as not to get in the way of her primary campaign for “Revolutionary Road.”

In the end, though, the academy proved cool to that film. Not only was Winslet snubbed for “Revolutionary Road,” but voters also decided to ignore her wishes and nominated her for best actress for “The Reader.” A happy ending was secured when Winslet managed to win the Oscar for that film, but the message was clear: When it comes to categorization, no one outranks the academy.

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