On the third day of Oscar…
To celebrate the approach of the Oscars, we’ll be running a little thought of the day, counting down until the 24th in a blog feature we’ve imaginatively titled "12 Days of Oscar."
Last Sunday, somebody asked me two very simple questions about the nominations in the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories. Is Ruby Dee in American Gangster enough to get the award? And isn't Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men too much to be "supporting?" I tossed off the standard quickie response: Support is in the eye of the beholder, or in fact in the eyes of the studios (referred to in AMPAS legal language as "the film's owners" in case you weren't clear that this is a business), who do the nominating.
Then, to support Ruby Dee's chances, I trotted out the standard example of Judi Dench's Supprting Actress win for Shakespeare in Love with about ten minutes of screen time. (If I'd been really on my toes, I'd have cited Beatrice Straight, whose winning role in Network is even shorter).
The question of when supporting becomes leading gets messier. Among the weirdly large parts that got called supporting, George Sanders won Supporting Actor in 1950 for All About Eve, for his dry-as-a-martini turn as Addison DeWitt. Sure, he's supporting Bette Davis, but it would be a stretch to say that any other male in the film has a bigger part. Some Eve fanatic is going to say "Gary Merrill!" but let's be honest: Merrill's a nice guy and all, but we can hardly call his part in that film a leading role.
And is George Burns really supporting Walter Matthau in The Sunshine Boys? Or is it just that the competition that year in Best Actor was tight enough, especially with the studio putting up Matthau for Best Actor? (Matthau was in the running against Al Pacino for Dog Day Afternoon, Maximillian Schell for The Man in the Glass Booth, James Whitmore for Give 'Em Hell, Harry, and winner Jack Nicholson for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)
And that's the key: Studios often strategize their categories. Bardem may have nearly as much screen time as Josh Brolin or Tommy Lee Jones, but the lead competition is stiff this year, and besides, Anton Chigurh doesn't feel like a lead performance. We don't identify with him, or like him. We like watching him. Of course, the same could be said of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, but Daniel Day-Lewis is on screen in practically every scene in that movie. Imagine if he'd been put up for Supporting Actor. Paramount Vantage would have been run out of town on a rail.
One final caveat: The Academy has given themselves an out in case some studio crosses the line. Among the rules, there is this:
In the event of any dispute concerning credits, the Academy reserves the right to declare any achievement ineligible or, alternatively, to reject all claims to credit, list credits as being in controversy and withhold any award until the dispute is resolved.
Which basically means they can throw out anything or anyone they don't think legitimately fits the category. That's what led to the whole kerfuffle over the Greenwood score for There Will Be Blood, and the crisis that almost occurred over the song "Falling Slowly" from Once.
So, what counts as support? Whatever the studios and the Academy say counts. So there.
Image: Nadine Nakanishi