Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Who am I?; on 2012 and Category Placement

When the nominees for the 2010 Oscar nominees were announced I remember being particularly incensed when Hailee Steinfeld earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in True Grit. Sure, I was irked by the obvious fact that I did not find her work riveting and it had earned a nomination in a year of especially great performances (I was harsher on the AMPAS then) but my true annoyance went deeper. For a performance which manned the entire film but for one scene I felt the campaigning of Steinfeld in the supporting category to be one of the most egregious cases of specious category placement.

It’s easy to make an argument with any batch of Oscar nominees and pick out potentially unsettling examples of category fraud but this year I feel as if the issue has become slightly difficult to assess not because of the prevalence of the category fraud incidences this year (or, better, not because of the prevalence alone) but because this year – more than any in recent memory – I’m uncertain as to when category fraud is occurring and when it is not. Forget even the actual nominees, taking a glance at the pool of potential contenders for the 2012 Oscar season I can’t recall when I’ve found it so difficult deciding where to categorise some performers for their work in my own year-end awards. On so many occasions, I found myself vacillating between whether they were supporting or leading performances…

…Which really is the crux of it all, right? For what is a true leading or a true supporting performance? The question that may be exasperating and frustrating us in turn for years to come. Category fraud indicates not a straddling of the line between supporting and leading – that’s just when actors are campaigned for awards in the wrong category. Richard Burton’s first Oscar nomination for My Cousin Rachel for supporting actor 1952, where he is so obviously the protagonist, is bizarre to the point of being hilarious. But, the fifties weren’t all about the obviously fraudulent. Katharine Hepburn’s nomination for Best Actress in Suddenly Last Sumer often makes me ponder, it’s one of the few films to earn dual Best Actress citations and as much as Violet Venable towers above all in the film I do wonder if she’s really a true lead – whatever that is. How do we decide?

For example, I eventually came to a decision on these five 2012 performances, but initially I was between two minds as to where they belonged....

Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained
Which is the most significant part of discerning lead or supporting status – screen time or dramatic thrust? Waltz has a great deal of screen-time but King Schultz isn’t a true lead in terms of dramatic thrust. (What really ARE his inclinations?) But, even as dramatically the character seems unmotivated that seems more a story issue than a placement one. When I consider how it is he who sets the film in motion and despite his absence from that extended coda remember how he dominates the forward plot movement (even if it’s not *about* him) the supporting category placement begins to look more and more specious. So much of Django’s story arc is messily unfolding category placement might be problematic in theory but ultimately deciding where to put Waltz seems simple. Verdict: Leading, by a fair margin

Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy
The initial reason for me debating on the difficulty of category placement this year was found when I thought to myself – why are people calling Helen Hunt’s work in The Sessions an easy case of category fraud but making no quibbles about Kidman? In some ways The Paperboy might be regarded as an ensemble venture at large. But, specifically, I’d say the main thrust is the relationship between Miss Charlotte Bless and Jack Jansen. Jack is easily the film’s lead, and when I consider the attention paid to Charlotte’s arc (she spends significant time away from Jack, performing actions that aren’t related with him) even as she leaves the film with about 15 minutes to go it’s still the character who has dominated the narrative apart from Jack. Could I be a victim of simply being too arrested by the disarming Charlotte? Possibly, but I’m unconvinced of it being an obviously supporting role. Verdict: Leading, by an inch or two

...more 2012 performers that may be in the wrong category...
below the jump

Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook
Does this character create their own arc in their films or is all they do tied to a more leading character who dominates the narrative? That’s an easy way for me to decide on personal category placement and despite all the running around that Jennifer Lawrence does in Silver Linings Playbook I never manage to extract an individual arc for Tiffany in the film. She enters the film’s narrative as someone of importance for Pat and all our future meetings with her are through Pat. If I recall correctly, all her scenes are with Pat which convinces me further that charm and screen-time and all, she’s in the wrong category.Verdict: Supporting

Garrett Hedlund in On the Road
One way that I tend to decide on whether I think a performance is leading or supporting when the “truer” lead is of the same sex is by imagining if one of them is of the other sex. Imagine if Dean Moriarty was a woman haunting the life of Sal Paradise. It would be an easy buy as a Best Actress contender, right? There always seems to be that hesitance in categorising two “lead” performances as lead ones if they’re both male or both females, so we end up with an awkward category switch for one. I remember a few years back some critics were incensed that Jessica Lange was campaigning in the lead category at the Emmy’s for Grey Gardens, thereby preventing her co-star Drew from winning. But, I thought, had it been a story of a father and daughter in a decrepit house there wouldn’t be any hesitation to call them both leads. Dean’s arc in On the Road is richer than professed lead Tiffany, in Silver Linings Playbook and the film is very much invested in his machinations. Verdict: Leading, by a comfortable margin

Helen Hunt in The Sessions
I know Hunt is considered as arguably the most obvious example in this year’s Oscar race, but I’m reticent to shout j’accuse just yet. It’s odd, with Kidman – although potential evidence to the contrary – I feel confident saying that that’s a lead performance. With Hunt I hesitate. The screen-time thing is one issues, as are the glimpses (albeit, very brief) which we are privy to of her separate from Mark. What gives me greatest pause, though, is considering how even the glimpses away from Mark into Cheryl’s world are employed only as impetuses for us to learn more about Mark or about Mark’s relationship with Helen. It’s only that brief tag-along baptism scene which disputes the notion, and even then – screen-time and all – I feel Helen is in the right category. Verdict: Supporting, by a hair

Other 2012 performances that others have claimed have been campaigned wrongly. Persons have argued that Shirley MacLaine (Bernie) and Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild) are leading but they’re both clear supporting roles to me. Same goes for Dench in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Cotillard (Rust and Bone) and Roberts (Mirror Mirror) are just a bit more tricky, but I say leading roles, both of them

And, still, even as I’ve given my verdicts I wouldn’t deny that there are possibly formidable arguments to make in the opposition regarding some of these category placements. And, I feel as if it’s not getting any simpler – films keep getting more and more “leads” and the situation is ripe for differences in opinion. It’s shame awards’ races tend to dictate category placement….so often I disagree.

What say you? Has this year shows the difficulties in category placement? Or is the fraudulence more obvious for you?


Anonymous said...

what are your thoughts on philip seymour hoffman in 'the master'?

Jay H said...

What are your thoughts on Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe? It has been my biggest category placement mind bender of the year so far

Squasher88 said...

I disagree about Garrett Hedlund. I think he's comfortably supporting. Doesn't he weave in an out of the narrative and it's Sal's story all the way, no?

Walter L. Hollmann said...

This was EXACTLY what I was going through when making my longlists, with one exception: Nicole is OBVIOUSLY lead! So glad we agree on this, and are both puzzled by everyone else buying into the lie.

I do think Dench is the lead, though. Best Exotic may be an ensemble piece, but Dench is truly at the center of it all, not just in her romance, but in her handling of her sudden independence, and her relationships with everyone else, including Dev Patel. Many of the characters disappear or remain on the periphery, but not her.

Amir said...

I totally agree with you on Lawrence. I love her performance and I think she's superior to all five women nominated in the supporting category, but I think the line of thinking was to steer clear of Hathaway's path.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

anon unfortunately i've yet to see hoffman's work in the master.

jay he's easily leading for me. has he been campaigned as supporting? that would be strange.

shane i shall rewatch if i get the inspiration (doubtful, i'm not sold on the film) but it's the tale of two men and a friendship which gets destroyed. a lot of the film is him and sal and dealing with their issues and when he leaves the narrative seems often to be waiting for him. it's debate in theory, but i feel leading.

walter and i keep wonder, could nicole have broke into best actress? maybe not but still...

amir well you'll have to wait on where i am on lawrence :) it's so embarrassingly supporting in the form of no individual arcs it's really an odd placement for me.