Friday, February 24, 2006

Oscars 06: Semantics ahead

Let us pause and define "lead" and "supporting" performances, since the Oscars force us to make the distinction. I believe a lead role is defined by its narrative placement, not its screen time. Narrative placement can be determined simply by asking "Who is this movie about?" The answer or answers are your lead characters, and thus your lead performances.

Example: Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin, who play mother and daughter in The Piano, have equal screen time. Hunter has no lines of dialogue; Paquin does all the talking. They are almost always on screen together. Hunter won best actress, Paquin won best supporting actress (right). That was appropriate. The Piano is the story of Hunter's character, how she lets herself love and be loved despite a painful past, despite having to make a huge sacrifice. The fact that she has a spirited, gregarious daughter is a detail, a texture, a shade, if you will (and I will). Paquin's character is one part of Hunter's character. In other words, Paquin's is a supporting turn despite having the most lines and face time.

Which brings us to Gyllenhaal's silly nomination as best supporting actor. Given this, it would make just as much sense to nominate Heath in this category, and then he would win outright. I think Gyllenhaal himself has a good shot at winning, but that's only because he's in this category.

An actor doesn't have to "file" for a specific category, but they sure do campaign for them, as Gyllenhaal did for supporting. Why do voters go along with it? If I were voting, I'd mark Gyllenhaal for lead or nothing (and it would be nothing). Now the sheer "weight" of his lead performance will probably steal the Oscar away from deserving supporting actors like Matt Dillon. Pity. Or is it?

Sometimes I shock myself with how much I have to say about this horseshit. Now, what say you? Are my definitions fair? Should Gyllenhaal have been denied a nomination altogether before being recognized in a supporting category for a lead performance? What other performances in recent memory have been mis-categorized, and therefore resulted in an unjust win or loss?

Pictured above: One of these things is not like the other. Safely out of competition with co-star Renee Zellweger, Cat-Zeta stole a supporting Oscar with a leading turn from her real supporting actress co-star Queen Latifah in 2003.


is that so wrong? said...

Oscar category fraud! I'd say that more often than not, much-deserving actors have been snubbed of a nomination because the Academy gets too horny for nominating over-publicized people in the wrong categories. Egregious category fraud last year: Jamie Foxx's supporting-nominated lead role in Collateral was due to disgusting Ray-mania, and thanks to that David Carradine and Peter Sarsgaard were wrongly left in the dust. Another lead role turned supporting for awards momentum can be found in Ethan Hawke's role in Training Day.

I think that sometimes the category flip-flop from "lead" to "supporting" or vice-versa works in the opposite direction, hurting actors that belong in a different category. Had Julia Roberts' role in Closer been considered supporting (which all 4 principal characters in this film are supporting as an equally weighted ensemble), she probably would have had a very deserving crack at an Oscar nom.... but she was thrust into lead consideration.

So many more to list.... so many more to rant about!

J.J. said...

Training Day is an interesting example. The film centered on Ethan. It's just that he had a more reactive role, while Denzel had a mandate to bebop and scat all over the place. Hence the way things worked out.

I don't think Julia had one iota of chance at snagging a nom for Closer, supporting or not. It was always Portman and Owen's game. But that brings up the intersting point of star power. I suspect Julia is naturally considered for the lead category because she's Julia.

Middento said...

I wouldn't be voting for Gyllenhall this time around anyway precisely because of the campaigning this time around. The constant cries of "Ooh! I'm sooo risky because I'm playing gay!! But I'm not! Heath and I were just playing!!" has made me ill.

To be fair, however, in the end this is not a movie about Jack-and-Ennis -- it really is a movie about Ennis and his inability to come to terms with love. (This follows the story.) Your actual criteria then hold true.

The real problem here -- one rectified by SAG, which (for me) is the only justification for that particular awards ceremony -- is how to recognize performances by actors in an ensemble. There are very clear situations where actors are "leads" carrying a picture entirely on them (see: Annette Bening in Being Julia) or when there is a clear distinction between leads and supporting roles (see: Annette Bening and Kevin Spacey vs. Birch/Suvari/Bentley - what ever happened to him? - in American Beauty). But this idea that one person in an ensemble is necessarily better than the rest -- or, indeed, is "supporting" characters who, quite frankly, are equal in weight and impact to the storyline -- is ridiculous. The Academy has tended to make some odd distinctions on ensemble acting, lifting some up to lead while relegating some to supporting (see Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects for the latter), but this is ridiculous.

So, while I may believe that Dillon's might be the best performance here (which you have helped somewhat convince me of), I'm not sure I agree that it's a supporting role. In such a case, I would therefore go for Giamatti -- which also gets the he-wuz-robbed! sympathy vote, also at play in the Oscars -- or, more controversially, Hurt. (The fact that he is in 10 minutes of the movie matters not to me: that is a good supporting role. Sure, Harris might have been a better choice, but Hurt is not unjustly in this category. Neither was Dench for Shakespeare in Love, also a just win.

I expect you don't agree, and await the blowback.

J.J. said...

Spoilers ahead. I considered how the short story, like the movie, starts and ends with Ennis. The short story is Ennis's flashback; the movie appears to be Ennis's struggle, ultimately, because he's alive at the end. But half the scenes are of Jack's home life and Jack's own struggle. I haven't seen the movie since early September, but I remember it giving the two of them equal attention, both together and apart, and the fact that one of them is gone by the end doesn't change their roles (think Titanic, I guess, which revolves around the abrupt change in Kate Winslet's life, but Leo is still leading even though he's the ultimately dead catalyst). Whenever someone talks about Brokeback, they talk about it as the story of two men, not one. This is a love denied story, and you can't have a love denied story with just one person at the center. There has to be stakes on both sides, and there is.

It might be cool for the Academy to lump the lead and supporting categories together (kind of like SAG). Have 10 nominees in a combined Best Actor category. Some would be outright leading men, of course, and some would be definite supporting and some would be in between. I think you'd cut down the snubs this way, and things would get infinitely more interesting. Like if they had done that this year, I'm sure Steve Carrell would've snuck in. Just a silly thought.

Anonymous said...

Off-topic, but I re-watched Crash Saturday night and I might have to rescind some of my indignation re: that movie's myriad noms. I have issues with the ridiculously insane Middle Eastern character and that whole plotline with the Mexican guy's daughter, but other than that it's pretty solid. Oh, and the Phillipe part at the end came out of nowhere. But otherwise, it says a lot of important things. (Actually the film's rich white Hollywood screenwriters are saying important things, ironically enough.) But Dillon, wow. He was scary. OK BYE BYE NOW.

Alanna said...

that last comment is me!


this is one of my pet topic peeves. as much as I loved Gyllenhaal in Brokeback, he would not have received a nomination were I in charge. Because it's a leading role and he wasn't one of the five best.

that may seem unfair to some. BUT it's a far worse sin to campain leads as supporting. Supporting actors for the most part are paid less, have less of the fame benefits, and have far more competition for their nominations to begin with (there being far more supporting characters in films than lead ones) and then to have to compete against leads?

It just ain't right.

maria said...

i think that they sometimes separate actors into lead and supporting so they won't have to compete ... ie roxy vs velma.

J.J. said...

Oh definitely. Gyllenheath is a prime example. You might argue the same for Tim Robbins and Sean Penn. They were each a third of the narrative, they were separated, and they both won. Double your pleasure. Poor Kevin Bacon.

And I agree with Nathaniel R. Leads trying to squirm into supporting categories only trivializes the work of supporting actors (as if the Oscars don't trivialize film work in general, but that's another story).