A lead by any other name

In recent years, we’ve seen a whole slew of Oscar contenders who dropped down to supporting rather than vie for a nomination in the lead categories. This strategy worked for two Best Supporting Actress champs: Jennifer Connelly (“A Beautiful Mind,” 2001) and Rachel Weisz (“The Constant Gardener,” 2005).

When I think of what constitutes a lead performance I use three criterion:

How prominent is this character’s role to the development and themes of the narrative?

How much is the actor in the film compared to the other actors?

Are we seeing the story through the eyes of this character? is it their story?

A lead need not satisfy all three of these elements and it does get complicated when a character is played by multiple actors (“Atonement” comes to mind). However when an actor plays the most central character, has the most screen time and the story is told from their perspective then it really should be case closed: Lead.

Which brings us to Hailee Steinfeld from “True Grit”. It is clearly her character’s story and she is involved in propelling the narrative forward in most instances. She is in nearly every scene; indeed she is only missing from 20 minutes of the 110 minute film. With her narration opening the film and guiding us through the developments it is clearly told from her perspective as well.

So what does it matter? She gave a great performance (she really did) and got nominated? Who cares if it’s for the wrong award?

By allowing a lead turn into the supporting category, this leaves room for only four truly supporting performances. This year, neither of the superb supporting players from “The Black Swan” made the cut. Missing are Mila Kunis‘ mesmerizing and daring performance as Lily and Barbra Hershey‘s heartbreaking and menacing performance as Nina’s stage mother.

The academy should consider expanding the number of nominees. Every time that someone in lead is allowed to contend in supporting means a great supporting performance is denied a nomiation. Category fraud is not a victim-less crime.

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