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Daniel Kaluuya in front of his posse in Judas and the Black Messiah Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

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The Oscars’ broken category rules are undermining great performances

And they’re holding back legitimate supporting actors from ever winning again

At the 93rd Academy Awards on Sunday, Daniel Kaluuya won Best Supporting Actor for his terrific work as activist Fred Hampton in the gripping historical thriller Judas and the Black Messiah. His competition included his co-star Lakeith Stanfield, nominated for the same movie, where he plays an FBI informant who provides information leading to Hampton’s assassination. Casual movie-watchers checking out Judas and the Black Messiah because of its awards attention might be surprised to find out that in spite of their Supporting Actor nominations, Kaluuya and Stanfield are the unequivocal leads of the movie. The only way to justify categorizing Kaluuya’s performance as “supporting” would be to insist that Stanfield — the character with the most screen time — is the single lead. Instead, Academy voters have made a de facto judgment that Judas has no leading performances at all.

This confusion isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s a problem consistent enough to have its own name: “category fraud” — though to avoid conferring a sense of quasi-legal importance on an already self-important awards body, I prefer “category shenanigans.” Category shenanigans have been part of the Oscars for decades, often focusing on whether a performance qualifies as a lead or supporting role. At one point, there weren’t any rules prohibiting the same performance from turning up in both categories if it received enough votes — which is exactly what happened with Barry Fitzgerald, the second lead of the 1944 priest drama Going My Way. Fitzgerald was nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, both for Going My Way. (He ultimately won in the supporting category, while losing Best Actor to his co-star Bing Crosby.)

The Academy modified its rules to prevent that from happening again, though the fix didn’t establish any specific parameters about who in a film is considered the lead performer or a supporting performer. Ultimately, the categorization of actors is still up to the voters. Studios can only game the system through their awards campaigns, essentially stating their official preferences.

In the past, those preferences have sometimes guided and enabled category shenanigans, as studios and performers campaign for actors in the categories where they think they can win, rather than choosing the category that best fits a given performance. That’s arguably what was at play with Kaluuya, whose campaign slotted him into the supporting category rather than the lead. But there’s no blaming Warner Bros. for the Judas weirdness: the studio advertised Stanfield as a Best Actor contender, and plenty of Academy voters slotted him into the Supporting Actor anyway.

Lakeith Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

The interplay between studio gamesmanship and bizarre voter whims point to a larger problem, specific with the supporting categories: They’re increasingly populated with performers who are actually co-leads. Last year’s Best Supporting Actor winner was Brad Pitt. Does he have substantially less screen time or point of view in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood than Leonardo DiCaprio? One of the actors he beat was Anthony Hopkins, playing one of the title characters in The Two Popes.

In 2019, Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor for Green Book, a movie about two men forming a friendship of equals, except so far as awards consideration was concerned. And the year before that, Sam Rockwell won for his “supporting” performance as the male lead of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

The last few Best Supporting Actress winners make more sense in that category. Laura Dern and Regina King give exceptional performances that are unambiguously secondary to the male-female couples at the center of Marriage Story and If Beale Street Could Talk. But it’s easy to see why Viola Davis in Fences and Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl triumphed not long before them: They were the co-leads of their respective movies, with a fullness of characterization and emotional arcs that more traditional supporting performances aren’t designed to match.

Granted, the line between lead and supporting is nebulous, and performances shouldn’t be defined by a stopwatch. Frances McDormand spends less time onscreen in Fargo than several other characters in the film, but her Best Actress nomination (and win) made intuitive sense. She’s the movie’s moral center, and she shifts the story’s gravity when she does appear. That’s even true — the gravity-shifting part, not the moral center part — of Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, where he won Best Actor for an appearance of less than 20 minutes. Winning a lead category with a smaller amount of screen time is arguably a flex — a testament to certain stars’ commanding abilities.

Winning a supporting category with a leading amount of screen time, though, feels like wielding that commanding star power to swat away smaller, more delicate performances. It’s also a way of marginalizing minorities, even as the Academy attempts to rectify years of bias. It’s hard to picture Oscar voters overriding a studio’s desire to place, say, Leonardo DiCaprio or Adam Driver in the lead category, the way they did with Stanfield. Studios have arguably done this to themselves: Years ago, voters happily acquiesced to both racial dynamics and established star structures by agreeing that Jamie Foxx, playing a point-of-view character who appears onscreen more than anyone else in the movie, is somehow a supporting actor in Collateral.

leslie odom jr. sings into a mic Photo: Amazon Studios

Of course, not every nomination in both supporting categories goes to a bona fide co-lead, and not every “supporting” co-lead goes on to win. But the fact that some genuine supporting performances still make it into these categories only highlights their lopsidedness. This year, Best Supporting Actor included the two Judas leads; Leslie Odom Jr., one of four more or less equal leads in One Night in Miami; Sacha Baron Cohen for Borat 2, as the flashiest member of an ensemble; and Paul Raci, giving a traditional supporting performance in Sound of Metal.

While placing all members of an ensemble in the supporting category is a reasonable compromise for movies with an ambiguous lead, it’s still striking that only one of this year’s nominees was a true supporting actor. Raci’s character, a man running a sort of commune workshop for the deaf community, counsels hearing-impaired drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed), and only appears in one extended section of the movie. The story never slips into his point of view, and his scenes have greater weight because they aren’t a constant. Raci, whose career consists mainly of TV bit parts, has a directness and quiet, lived-in authority that recalls Robert Forster. It’s a remarkable performance, vital to the movie’s success, that doesn’t stand a chance against the actual stars of Judas and the Black Messiah — who do fine work themselves, with the range of emotional strife that a leading role affords.

Personally, I think Raci deserved the Supporting Actor award this year. But my issue was never just the probability that my favorite wasn’t going to collect a shiny trophy. Last year, it was difficult to begrudge Pitt the win for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, because it’s a great movie, Pitt is an utter delight in it, and he’d never won before. “Fair enough,” as Cliff Booth says to himself in one of Pitt’s finest moments.

The problem is that it’s increasingly difficult to picture any genuine supporting performers winning in categories full of co-leads and movie stars. (To the extent that Best Supporting Actress has a somewhat better recent track record in this regard, it has more to do with how the female leads of many movies credibly read as supporting parts.) It can still happen, of course. But treating both Black Messiah leads as supporting performances sets a bad precedent, seemingly requiring that performers be both big stars, and that they also act as soloists so voters can see them as leads.

At the same time, their double nomination loosens qualifications to the point where anything shy of a powerhouse-star turn can be fudged into a “supporting” part. This, in turn, may eventually leave less room for newcomers, character actors, and oddballs: one-scene wonders like Viola Davis in Doubt, discoveries like Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips, or the consistently rock-solid work of go-to supporting performers like Scoot McNairy, Shea Whigham, Elizabeth Marvel, or Stephen McKinley Henderson.

It’s hard to say how to address this situation: Expanding the acting categories to seven nominees, following the lead of the fluctuating Best Picture category? Requiring formal acting-category entries from studios? Adding another acting category that honors ensembles? It’s also silly to get too worked up over the Oscars. Their whole thing is subjecting the audience to the whims of a chosen few. But if one of the awards’ practical functions is supposed to be celebrating the art of film, it will be a shame if category shenanigans allow Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress to fully transform into Best Approximation of a Lead. It will further marginalize a distinct yet unflashy pleasure of the movies: the way smaller parts, actors, and moments can contribute, almost ineffably, to a stronger whole.

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