Best Leading Actor? – Categories and Campaigning at the Oscars

Yesterday, I learned on Twitter (via Gold Derby) that for their respective performances in Nebraska and Foxcatcher, Bruce Dern and Steve Carell would both be campaigning in Best Leading Actor. Now, whether or not this will stay true through the entirety of the season I don’t know, but it does raise an interesting question about categories and campaigns: what motivates actors (and studios of course) to change their category up or down?

Sometimes there’s the issue of ‘splitting votes’, wherein if two (or more) actors are nominated in the same category, that the votes being split across some or all of them will cause the film in general to go unrewarded. A friend of mine argued that the sheer number of actors nominated in Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather in 1972 – there were three, Paccino, Duvall and Caan – is a factor in Joel Grey winning for Cabaret – the sheer number of performances nominated for The Godfather that the vote was split three ways, and no individual performer had enough support to win. This kind of thing is what tends to cause films with multiple leading actors to drop one of them down into supporting instead. It happened with The Master; while the film was unseen everyone’s ballots had both of its main men (Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix) in Best Leading Actor, then as more was learned about the film, people thought Hoffman would go leading, and then once the film was released, and campaigns began, it was instead Joaquin who campaigned in leading and Hoffman – in spite of the size of his role, went into supporting, in theory because if both were nominated in Best Leading Actor (which probably would have happened had they both submitted there), the chance of either of them winning would have been even less likely.

This is exactly the kind of predicament being faced by all of the leading men in Nebraska and Foxcatcher; the former has both Will Forte and Bruce Dern in Leading, and the latter has Steve Carell and Channing Tatum. Whether or not it will stay like this remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if both films had one of their leads campaign in supporting.

Similar thoughts have arisen with reference to Meryl Streep’s performance in August: Osage County, and the rumours that she will campaign in supporting. Of course, the issue of vote splitting in Best Leading Actress (between her and Julia Roberts) is an issue, as it would be in supporting (between her and Margo Martindale). Perhaps the difference is, if Meryl were to campaign in supporting, she’d be more likely to win; she has the second biggest role in the play that Osage County is being adapted from, and easily the showiest, playing a matriarch that spirals out of control and becomes addicted to prescription drugs.

Taking Meryl as an example, it’s clear that sometimes changing the category of your performance can be done to more easily secure a win for the performer in question. Some call it ‘category fraud’, and these were accusations levelled at the feet of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s campaign for The Master, although sometimes it is just good sense to not have your performances clash. It could be selling the film and its performances short, but it can sometimes be necessary  Of course, with Meryl, and indeed with all of the performers I’ve mentioned from this season, the notion of the categories is still utterly hypothetical, but it has given a chance for me to, however briefly, touch on vote splits and the idea of securing an ‘easy win’ for an actor.

What do you think? Was The Master category fraud? How will Dern, Carell and Meryl campaign? Have your say in the comments.

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