Brad Pitt has the potential to be nominated for two Oscars this year: one for his acclaimed starring role in "Moneyball," and another in the supporting race for "The Tree of Life." But Pitt is in an enviable position; his role in "Moneyball" is clearly a leading performance, while in "The Tree of Life" his more limited screentime – the story is divided between him, his wife, his sons, the cosmos, and a couple of dinosaurs – makes a Best Supporting Actor campaign easy to justify.
But what happens when an actor has multiple eligible performances vying in the same category? Academy rules dictate that only one performance may be nominated per category, which means actors and awards campaigners must make difficult decisions, or else do some fancy footwork.
Pitt's wife in "The Tree of Life" is played by Jessica Chastain, who seems to have a major role in every other film being touted in this year's Oscar derby. The 30-year-old actress also appears as an outcast Southern belle in "The Help," Michael Shannon's wife in "Take Shelter," Virgilia in Ralph Fiennes's update of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus," and a Mossad agent in "The Debt." If we rule out her arguably lead performance in "The Debt" – which is probably an Oscar nonstarter anyway – that leaves her with four supporting performances to choose from.
Michael Fassbender has a pair of leading roles competing for awards attention. "A Dangerous Method" looks good on paper; Fassbender plays famed psychologist Carl Jung, and Oscar voters are suckers for actors in biopics (six of the last ten Best Actor winners have played real people). Otherwise, he could be nominated for "Shame," a controversial film whose explicit sexual content may turn off the usually conservative Academy, but it's the kind of audacious performance that could inspire passionate support.
Ryan Gosling earned a Best Actor nomination five years ago for "Half Nelson." This year he could be nominated either for playing a reluctant getaway driver in "Drive" or a conflicted campaign manager in George Clooney's "The Ides of March." The latter film may be his better option; "Ides" is likelier to be nominated for Best Picture, and that is usually the safer bet for an acting nomination.
All three actors would do well to consider the outcomes for other actors who recently faced the same dilemma:
Nicole Kidman, 2001: Many thought she gave the superior performance in the haunted-house thriller "The Others," but "Moulin Rouge" was the film with greater overall support that awards season. She received Golden Globe nominations for both films, but Oscar voters preferred her work in "Moulin Rouge," which earned eight total nominations including Best Picture. Though she lost her Best Actress bid to Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball"), Kidman won the following year for playing author Virginia Woolf in "The Hours."
Billy Bob Thornton, 2001: For a while, it seemed like his stronger film was the Coen Brothers' black-and-white film noir "The Man Who Wasn't There," which won the directing prize at Cannes and earned a Best Picture bid at the Golden Globes, but perhaps his focus should have been "Monster's Ball," which won his co-star Berry an aforementioned Best Actress Oscar. "The Man Who Wasn't There" ended up with only a cinematography nomination, and Thornton was not nominated for either role.
Sean Penn, 2003: That year, he starred in both Alejandro Gonzelez Inarritu's "21 Grams" and Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River," both of which were major Oscar contenders, but Penn fared better than Thornton did two years earlier. "21 Grams" earned acting nominations for Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro, while "Mystic River" was nominated for Best Picture and won Penn his first Oscar for Best Actor.
Jamie Foxx, 2004: He actually played the lead role in Michael Mann's thriller "Collateral," but at the time he lacked the star-power of his co-star Tom Cruise, who gave the showier performance as a psychotic hitman and got top billing. As a result, Foxx earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the film, clearing the way for him to win Best Actor for his role as singer Ray Charles in the biopic "Ray."
Leonardo DiCaprio, 2006: He adopted an African accent to play a smuggler in "Blood Diamond," but he also had the lead role in Martin Scorsese's gangster epic "The Departed." Because "The Departed" had a large ensemble cast (including Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson), he gambled on a supporting-actor campaign. He ended up with a Best Actor nod for "Blood Diamond" (which he lost to Forest Whitaker for "The Last King of Scotland"), but not only was he not nominated for "The Departed," neither were Damon or Nicholson. The film's only acting nominee was Mark Wahlberg; did category confusion get in the way?
Kate Winslet, 2008: Like DiCaprio, she tried to campaign one of her lead performances in the supporting category, but Oscar voters didn't take the bait. She aimed for a Best Actress nomination for the domestic drama "Revolutionary Road" and a Best Supporting Actress bid as an illiterate German on trial for war crimes in "The Reader." The strategy worked for a while; she won twice at the Golden Globes and received nominations for both at the SAG Awards (winning for "The Reader"). But at Oscar time the Academy rejected her performance in "Revolutionary Road" altogether and instead gave her a Best Actress nod for "The Reader," and after five previous nominations, she finally won.
Leonardo DiCaprio, 2010: Poor Leo. It happened again to the actor just last year, when he gave strong performances in Martin Scorsese's psychological thriller "Shutter Island" and Christopher Nolan's sci-fi action drama "Inception." But the earlier film was regarded mostly as a genre exercise by Scorsese, and despite its box office success its February release left it a distant memory by the time Academy voters got their ballots. And though "Inception" was nominated for Best Picture, the mind-bending film was considered more an achievement in writing and directing than acting. DiCaprio was snubbed for both films.
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