This year is marked by an odd phenomenon of masterful leading performances that will have to be put in the supporting categories because there isn’t enough room for them in the leading categories. If the Academy had the flexibility to expand the lead categories we would not have this problem, but as it is, even the supporting categories will be extremely competitive, in ways the leading categories usually are.
In the past, there have a few times when actors were put in the lead category for the Screen Actors Guild awards but the Academy voters chose to put them in supporting.
In 2008, the SAG put Kate Winslet in Lead for Revolutionary Road but in Supporting for The Reader. She was nominated for both and won both at the Golden Globes. At the SAG she won for The Reader. Meryl Streep won in the lead category. But there was no way Winslet was going to lose that year. It was finally her time — and she was working the circuit hard core. The Academy put her in lead for The Reader, and ended up also including The Reader for Best Picture they liked it so much (thus, famously snubbing The Dark Knight and forever changing the Oscar rules for Best Picture).
In 2000, Benicio Del Toro was put in, and won for lead at the SAGs for Traffic. He was then up for and won supporting at the Oscars. Russell Crowe, who was up for Gladiator, ended up winning the Oscar, and Gladiator went on to win Best Picture while Traffic took Best Director.
In 2001, Jennifer Connelly was put in lead at the SAGs but did not win because Halle Berry won for Monster’s Ball. At the Oscars, Connelly, who was clearly lead, was put in the supporting category at the Oscars and DID win. Helen Mirren, who won supporting at the SAGs, lost to Connelly because hers was the far bigger part. Also that same year, Jim Broadbent won for Supporting against Ian McKellen because Broadbent’s was really a lead performance, not a supporting one like McKellen’s.
Therein lies the rub. The problem with putting lead performances in supporting categories is that it sets up an unfair advantage for the bigger and better part opposite a genuinely supporting part, like Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained, like Marcia Gay Harden for Pollock.
This year, the limits of this practice are really going to be put to the test and will likely set up Best Supporting Actress and maybe Supporting Actor to be a different variation on lead.
For Supporting Actress right now we have:
1. Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl – I think she wins this because it is, without question, a leading role. How do you compare it with other supporting performances?
2. Rooney Mara, Carol – Vikander’s main competition. No one really knows how lead actress will go, or how well the Academy will like Carol but Mara won Best Actress in Cannes, which sets her up for a potential win here.
3. Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs – Again, it’s practically a lead actress performance as she’s in almost every scene! But it can sort of be thought of as supporting at least (even though it’s lead).
4. Jane Fonda for Youth – It’s a tiny part that would have a hard time competing with these leading roles, but Fonda is so good in those few minutes it’s hard to imagine them denying her.
5. Elizabeth Banks for Love & Mercy – Still among the most memorable turns of the year. It’s a substantial part but again, the bigger roles have a better advantage.
6. Joan Allen for Room – Will compete with Banks for the fifth slot, or might bump Fonda.
7. Jessica Chastain for The Martian – Waiting in case any of the three leads accidentally pop into the lead category.
8. Mya Taylor for Tangerine – Would be the first transgender supporting actress nominee. It’s a big question mark where actors will go on this.
8. Kristen Stewart for Clouds of Sils Maria – It’s a long shot at this point because the competition is just too intense.
For Supporting Actor right now we have:
1. Paul Dano for Love & Mercy – It’s debatable whether he is lead or not since he and John Cusack together make up one lead performance. I don’t think I saw a better supporting performance than Dano’s this year and he’s really overdue for an Oscar nomination.
2. Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies – Rylance’s is without question a supporting turn. He holds up Bridge of Spies beautifully against Tom Hanks’ performance. The two together work so sweetly together.
3. Mark Ruffalo for Spotlight – This is an ensemble piece with no clear leading roles, which makes it tough to single any one out. Ruffalo COULD win for Spotlight.
4. Harvey Keitel for Youth – This is another leading performance put in supporting because Michael Caine has to be lead. Keitel’s success or failure will have to do with how they view the movie overall.
5. Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation – This is a disturbing but nonetheless brilliant turn by Elba, an actor Hollywood has not yet figured out what to do with. Hopefully they will have the stomach for this masterpiece and will reward Elba with a nomination for it.
6. Benicio Del Toro for Sicario (updated to add) he will probably bump one of the five above.
7. Jason Segel for The End of Tour – Though Jessie Eisenberg is technically lead, it feels like the film is about David Foster Wallace.
8. Jeff Daniels for Steve Jobs – he’s also in The Martian will helps push him to the top of the pile. He’s better in Steve Jobs and is beloved. Working with Sorkin might finally be his ticket to the big show.
9. Michael Keaton for Spotlight – it’s a tough one, though, because his is so beautifully subtle that among the more bombastic performances it’s tough to rise to the top of the pile.
Finally, there is still Tom Hardy in The Revenant that we may have to make room for, Robert Deniro in Joy, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell in The Big Short. But for now, this is how it seems to be looking.
Either way, it’s possible we could see four Oscars won for lead and supporting where they are all in fact lead roles.