Viola Davis (‘Fences’) just latest in line of leading ‘supporting’ performances at Oscars

Much has been made of the placement of “Fences” star Viola Davis in the Supporting Actress category, with some aruging it’s tactical and others saying it’s appropriate. For the initial Broadway production of August Wilson‘s domestic drama back in 1987, Mary Alice (who originated the role of Rose), won Best Featured Actress in a Play. But for the 2010 revival, Davis contended in and won the Best Actress in a Play race. While both actresses were billed below the title — which usually signals a supporting performance — in 2010 the administration committee ruled that the role was really a leading one.

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Ironically, Davis’ co-star and director, Denzel Washington, won his Best Actor Oscar in 2001 for the smaller role in “Training Day.” That film’s leading player, Ethan Hawke, contended in supporting where he lost to Jim Broadbent, who was the co-star in “Iris” opposite Judi Dench.

That Davis decided to go supporting at the Oscars has all but guaranteed her the win. Should she feel the need to defend her decision, she only need to point to three other performers who recently prevailed in the supporting races for sizable roles.

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Alicia Vikander – “The Danish Girl” (2015)
This Hollywood newcomer was at the heart of film and even referred to as the title character. However, she was placed in supporting to have a better chance at Oscar glory. She won both the Oscar and SAG races in that category. Conversely, she lost her lead bids at both BAFTA and the Globes; she had also contended in supporting at both those kudos for “Ex Machina.”

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Christoph Waltz – “Django Unchained” (2012)
While top-billed Jamie Foxx played the title role, Waltz was undoubtedly a co-lead, much as Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight were in “Midnight Cowboy” (both of them lost Best Actor to John Wayne for “True Grit.”) Waltz has the majority of the film’s dialogue, and it was even rumored that Will Smith turned down the role of Django because he felt he wasn’t the main character. Waltz danced off with the Supporting Actor Oscar.

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Benicio Del Toro – “Traffic” (2000)
This one is a little more tricky. With this film being a true ensemble, no performer was truly the main character or lead role so all could be classed as supporting (a la “Spotlight”). However, Del Toro was focused on enough for many to believe he was more of a lead than any other featured actor/actress and, subsequently, he won the Best Actor award at SAG. However, he was placed in supporting by all other awards groups and eventually won that award at the Oscars.

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