On Actors and “Supporting” Actors


There are a few things that consistently bother me about the way the Oscars nominate and hand out awards. One is when a foreign film (Amour) or an animated film (Up) are nominated for both Best Picture and either Best Foreign Film or Animated Film respectively. Doesn’t logic dictate that therefore they MUST win their respective categories? If not, then the film that beats them should clearly have had their Best Picture slot over them, no?

Logical entanglement aside, it’s another more subjective issue that bothers me now, the disparity between “Supporting Actors” and just plain “Actors.” I feel like the two are getting increasingly entangled, and the line is drawn between the two for purely political reasons.

Case in point this year would be Jennifer Lawrence winning Best Actress. I like Jennifer Lawrence. I like the way she fell on stage and seemed genuinely shocked by her win. I like the way she flipped off the cameras during photos afterwards (as seen above). She’s quite hilarious and charming and was fantastic in Silver Linings Playbook. A movie in which she was in no way the lead.


Rather, that film was about Bradley Cooper’s character, Pat. It was his story, and he was rightly nominated for Best Actor. But it’s hard to argue that Lawrence wasn’t in a supporting role in that movie. She had a great deal of screen time, yes, but she was not the lead actor in the film, unlike Jessica Chastain and Quvenzhane Wallis. You could argue that Emmanuelle Riva split time with her male co-star, who had more lines, and that Naomi Watts shared time with Ewan McGregor, but the films were still about them.

So, is it about screen time then? All the Best Supporting Actresses this year had far less screen time than Lawrence, especially Anne  Hathaway who more or less won for eight minutes of powerful scenes in a nearly three hour movie.

I don’t buy it.

Why? Well look to 2011 when young Hailee Steinfeld was nominated for True Grit. The film was about her. It was her story. Yet somehow, because Jeff Bridges is Jeff Bridges, he gets a Best Actor nomination despite being in an obviously supporting role to Steinfeld. Somehow, the two got switched, and this is one of the most egregious examples of this I can think of.

true grit

It just seems odd to me that Lawrence one when so many past Best Actress winners have been far and away the very obvious stars of their film. Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Helen Mirren in The Queen. I had to go back to 2005 to find another example of something similar where Reese Witherspoon won for Walk the Line, even though that was very obviously Joaquin Phoenix’s movie with her supporting him.

I don’t know, perhaps I’m making too much of a fuss of this. Maybe a film can have two leads even if the central focus of the movie is on the other person. But it just seemed odd to me and I wonder if anyone else agrees.

  • BPM

    I don’t see the problem, per say.

    Lawrence was clearly the lead “actress” in the movie, just as Cooper was the lead “actor” in the movie. Whether the movie was ABOUT Cooper or not is irrelevant in the eyes of the award.

    I’m with you on the Best Animated/Foreign Picture also being up for Best Picture. I would just scrap the former two categories, and just expand the Best Picture field as needed. If an animated movie is good enough, it should be recognized as a potential Best Picture. If it’s not, there’s no reason to shoe horn it into category where it only qualified because it just so happens to be animated and they need to fill the category out.

  • Alex

    I was always of the understanding that the Best Actor/Actress nods typically go to whomever is the top billed actor/actress, and support nods always go to the other people. True Grit still belies that classification though.

  • Stephan

    I agree with the author of this article. He is proving a point, Lawrence is in the story, it does show her dancing and her with Cooper. She has screen time and everything, but the reality of it is that Cooper was making a movie about his disorder in the movie, trying to rediscover himself until he meets this women. She then in turns tries to help him out, get to know him and do this dance thing with him, but the movie does not direct its line of sight upon her. It shows her as a supporting role. She is his sidekick, antagonist, trying to help him out which is why she is the supporter. The main focus and thesis of the story is about him finding out what is happening with his wife, and him trying to do his thing to get her to appreciate him.

  • Michael Kaufman

    There are no specific rules regarding this. Its whatever the producer of the film puts up the actor for.

    Anthony Hopkins and David Niven won Best Actor Oscars even though each was in their film for about 15 minutes.

  • How much screen time is completely irrelevant. It’s who the character is in the movie and if the actor/actress portrayed that character in the best way possible to move the audience in a way no other actor/actress could in their roles for that year.

    Anne Hathaway’s character in Les Mis was her own strong character and told her OWN story. Amanda Seyfried, or Helena Bohnam Carter or even the little girl might’ve had stories but they weren’t as strong a performance to captivate us as an audience to earn a nomination.

    Now when looking at Jennifer Lawrence’s character in SLPB … you could make the argument that she gave an amazing performance, but really there wasn’t a “main” actress that the movie was about because it was Bradley Cooper’s story – not hers. Had it been told from both of their perspectives then she might’ve got a Lead Actress nomination instead of the nomination for Best Supporting.

  • LOL I got my actresses backwards … ignore my comment all together.

  • DaveyJ

    I was totally confused by Christoph Waltz’s character being a supporting actor, but I haven’t heard other people say that. Isn’t his character a main character? He got almost as much screen time as Django, maybe more and more memorable lines, so why is he a supporting actor?

  • uncoolaidman

    Steinfeld was in the best supporting actress category because that was what the filmmakers chose. That’s the category they put in the “for your consideration” ad. They knew she’d have no chance to win in the best Actress category, and that she might not even get a nomination. I’m not sure the Academy has any outlined rules for it.

  • seriouslynotagrammarnazi

    Just wondering, did you use voice recognition software for this article? In several instances you used “one” where you should have “won” instead.

  • Imreallynotthissnarky

    It’s funny that my comment must await moderation, but the article was clearly not proofread.

  • Kevin

    To DaveyJ, I agree somewhat. When you watch the movie Waltz is clearly leading in plot, story and narrative and Foxx is just watching him like if he was part of the audience as well. So yes, for at least the first half he is the lead actor. However, Django is ultimately the main character because everything that happens in the story is because of him and as part of the story, once he’s done learning from Waltz he is ready to fully embrace being the leader of not only the movie but also his own life. That’s why Foxx is the lead and Waltz is supporting because he’s (litterally) supporting Django throughout the movie.

    Also, I completely agree with this article, it always bothers me every year of where the line is drawn between lead and support. That True Grit swap bothered me to no end, its just politics. I’ve been bothered since Judy Dench won for only 13 minutes of screen time.

    Anne Hathaway gave a REAALLY powerful performance though guys, anyone whose seen the film has got the believe that.

  • DaveyJ1

    @Kevin thats a good explanation. I do wonder though why Anthony Hopkins won the Oscar for leading role for Silence of the Lambs when he was in the movie for, what was it, a little more than 10 minutes?

  • Reid

    It’s not really the academy that decides whether someone is a supporting actor or actress. the Studios send in the actors or actresses under the different acting catagories. Time on screen doesn’t have anything to do with it. Anthony Hopkins was on screen for like 10 minutes in Silence of the lambs.

    the studio might have thought that the girl from True Grit had a better chance of winning at supporting actress.

  • Erin

    From my experience acting in Theater, the leads are the people without whom there would be no story. The word “lead” does not imply that there needs to be only ONE person as the lead, or that the protagonist ONLY is a lead. The Antagonist is almost always a lead as well – and there can be numerous others – it always depends on the story. If there are characters that have large roles but it is a sub-plot, these would be considered supporting actors. The “title” of the job is negotiated into an actors contract for purposes of ego? perhaps pay? Films involving numerous characters, ie. “Crash” or “Love Actually” are perfect examples of there being more than one lead in a film. Often in plays, there can be 4 leads, 10 leads. It just depends on the story itself. Just because it popped into my head, I’ll used Pretty Woman as an example. In Pretty Woman, though the story follows Julia Roberts, both she AND Richard Gere would be leads. Jason Alexander would be supporting, as would the gent who played the hotel manager. You can’t have a romantic comedy or plot with only one person as the lead. That’s just this girl’s opinion. ;0