Shorter supporting performances tend to fare better in the Best Supporting Actress category at the Oscars as evidenced by Laura Dern’s win in 2020 for “Marriage Story.” With just 18 minutes and 36 seconds of screen time, Dern’s performance is three times shorter than Best Supporting Actor winner Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” But not a word was uttered about her supporting placement being fraudulent. Indeed, as a group, the category’s 2020 nominees were generally seen as totally uncontroversial in that sense.
What did generate controversy was the omission of Jennifer Lopez’s performance in “Hustlers.” What caused the decision to not nominate Lopez is unclear, but it is possible that some academy voters felt an aversion – even a subconscious one – to the length of her performance compared to that of her competition. She clocked in at 53 minutes and 9 seconds – almost half the film’s running time. Sure there are examples of recent Best Supporting Actress winners who won for longer performances, including Alicia Vikander, with 59 minutes and 37 seconds in “The Danish Girl,” and Viola Davis, with 53 minutes and 32 seconds in “Fences.” However, shorter performances have an overall statistical advantage in the category, especially in the three years since Davis’s win.
Leading up to Dern’s victory, Allison Janney delivered the shortest Oscar-winning performance of the decade in “I, Tonya,” with just 15 minutes and 37 seconds of screen time. Then Regina King won for “If Beale Street Could Talk” (25 minutes and 10 seconds) defeating both Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone for their much longer, arguably leading performances in “The Favourite”: they clocked in at 42 minutes, 51 seconds and 57 minutes, 20 seconds, respectively.
Meanwhile, after Mahershala Ali won for his 20 minutes and 36 seconds of screen time in “Moonlight,” the academy awarded three supporting male performances of between 38 and 67 minutes of screen time, each against much shorter competition. This seemingly gender-based dichotomy may very well be a result of the academy adding 774 new members to its voting body ahead of the 2018 ceremony – more than were invited in the first four years of the decade combined – and then adding 928 the next year and 842 the year after that. Ali and Davis’s performances will likely be the last respectively short and long ones to win in their categories for quite some time, and it is important to examine why.
While 30% of all Best Supporting Actor lineups have consisted entirely of performances with more than 20 minutes of screen time, that only applies to 10% of Best Supporting Actress rosters. The latter does include four of the last ten, which seems to indicate an increasing preference for longer performances. But that trend is growing at a much slower rate compared to the male category. Academy voters still significantly prefer proper supporting female roles, often maternal characters who have either small or no character arcs of their own. Though neither of them won, Kathy Bates and Scarlett Johansson demonstrated that bias by being nominated last year for their portrayals of mothers in “Richard Jewell” and “Jojo Rabbit.
Other factors went into Pitt and Dern’s wins, including the fact that many saw both of them as overdue for acting awards. But many of the new academy voters could have simply been the actors’ screen times and the corresponding narrative purposes of their characters. Pitt played an arguably leading character who had his own major storyline and point of view, while Dern played a static role that was designed to support the arcs of the film’s leads. By awarding Dern and leaving Lopez out of the lineup, the academy’s voting body demonstrated once again what type of supporting female performance it prefers.
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