Of the four performance categories at the Oscars, Best Supporting Actor category is the most interesting in terms of screen time analysis. The record for longest winning performance in the category (one hour, five minutes, and four seconds by Timothy Hutton in “Ordinary People”) stood for 32 years. Then in 2013 Christoph Waltz (“Django Unchained”) won with a screen time total of one hour, six minutes, and 17 seconds. Six years later, Mahershala Ali (“Green Book”) prevailed with a performance of one hour, six minutes, and 38 seconds. The two of them brought the total number of Best Supporting Actor-winning performances with over an hour of screen time to six.
The most recent winner, Brad Pitt, was not far off, with 55 minutes and 12 seconds of screen time in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” His is the ninth-longest performance to win in the category and is only six minutes shorter than that of his Best Actor-nominated co-star, Leonardo DiCaprio. The common argument is that Pitt belonged in the leading category as well, based on his and DiCaprio’s close screen time totals and the equal narrative attention given to their characters. Indeed, the near record-breaking length of Pitt’s performance may not mean much considering his contentious placement.
Many argued that most of the performances nominated alongside Pitt could have also justifiably been placed in the Best Actor category. The only performance that was totally left out of those conversations was Joe Pesci’s in “The Irishman,” but plenty of strong cases were made for Al Pacino (“The Irishman”), Tom Hanks (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”), and Anthony Hopkins (“The Two Popes”), whose screen time totals each fall between 53 and 56 minutes.
The lineup’s screen time average is 50 minutes and 32 seconds, which is just 38 seconds below the category’s all-time highest average from 1953. That high number is due in part to “The Irishman”’s long running time of 209 minutes, with Pesci and Pacino’s screen times both falling under 26% of that total. Still, Hanks and Hopkins each appear in over 40% of their films, a distinction that applies to less than 9% of the performances ever nominated in either supporting category. Such relatively high screen time totals can be enough for some to call fraud.
Whether or not the 2020 Best Supporting Actor nominees belonged in the category, they nevertheless showcased the academy’s clear preference for longer supporting male performances. At 43 minutes and 22 seconds, Pesci’s performance is the longest to ever be the shortest Best Supporting Actor nominee of the year; the previous record being held since 1994 by Pete Postlethwaite (“In the Name of the Father”) with a comparatively smaller total of 33 minutes and six seconds. Pesci’s performance is also longer than every performance in the same year’s Best Supporting Actress lineup, which has not happened since 1998. Even by percentage, the 2020 supporting males have an average screen time of over 33%, which is the highest average in the category in 15 years and the 11th highest of all time.
70% of Best Supporting Actor lineups since 1937 have included at least one performance that clocks in at under 20 minutes. However, the last decade has signaled a dramatic new trend, with seven of the last ten Best Supporting Actor lineups not featuring any performances with less than 20 minutes of screen time. Indeed, 95% of the time, there had been at least one nominee in the category whose screen time falls under 20%, but the most recent group broke from that tradition as well, as did the 2015 nominees.
Academy voters are drawn to longer supporting male performances significantly more often than not. Even performances that were considered close to nominations but ultimately missed out were considerably long, such as Song Kang-ho’s 44-minute, 11-second performance in “Parasite” and Willem Dafoe’s 56-minute, two-second performance in “The Lighthouse.” One has to wonder what this will all mean for the shorter, indisputably supporting performances in the next decade.
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