Frank confession: I have not clocked the screen time of Viola Davis against that of Octavia Spencer in THE HELP, but there has to be precious little difference. Leaving the local cineplex after the film, the first thing I said to my sometime collaborator BKG was, “Look for the Academy to do something dumb like nominate Davis in the actress category and Spencer in the supporting actress category.” This has not happened yet, but EW early on thus categorized the two, and so did the SAG. Now the Globes have come and gone and formalized the situation.

Consider Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.

Trying to assess the Academy voter’s motivation as to categories makes for puzzlements. Or are producer/agent motivation more to the point? Haley Joel Osment is the star of THE SIXTH SENSE but was nominated as supporting actor. Better chance of winning? Were Javier Bardem and Benicio del Toro relegated to supporting actor because foreigners? All right, foreign players have received stauettes; but I am looking for an explanation, in these two particular years, for these bizarre nominations (both winners). Bardem would eventually receive a best actor nomination, courtesy of the powerful — and generous — Julia Roberts.

A unique figure in the history of the Academy Award for supporting roles is Barry Fitzgerald, nominated, 1944, as best actor and best supporting actor for his Irish priest in GOING MY WAY. He won the latter award though he is the STAR of the film or at least the co-star of Bing Crosby who, of course, received the best actor award. The Academy now has a rule in place to prevent such duplicate nominations, a rule than makes more sense than the dumb one forbidding an actor’s nomination for more than one performance. This latter rule must have originated in studio rivalry.

This case of Barry Fitzgerald, though an occurrence long ago, serves as eye-opener for those who even today think of Academy voters as a group who reflect and discuss and vote as a block. It was reading William Goldman that made it clear to me that by and large, Academy members — especially in these post-studio days — are individual, loner voters. It just isn’t so that “the Academy didn’t honor this particular movie in any of those categories, so they gave it this award as a consolation prize.” It also wars against the time-honored stories that Bette Davis’ award for DANGEROUS was really for OF HUMAN BONDAGE and that Joan Fonatine’s statuette for SUSPICION was really for REBECCA the year before. In passing: Davis is far better in DANGEROUS. Belief in her BONDAGE character is regularly suspended by an accent, and not a very good one, that comes and goes. In passing: Fontaine’s work in Hitchcock’s SUSPICION is a great — literally, great — performance. The character as written does not have the profundity of Daphne du Maurier’s creation, and the role is less showy than that in the marvelous REBECCA. But the performance is remarkable in its subtlety and consistency. She may be the most consistent factor in the film.

Back to starring vs. supporting and vice versa. Other starring actors who ended up in the supporting category:

Walter Brennan (THE WESTERNER)
the great, great Haing S. Ngor (THE KILLING FIELDS)
Edward Norton (PRIMAL FEAR)
Academy procedure used to distinguish starring from supporting players based on billing (on salary, really?). This is no longer so.

But as long ago as 1950 Anne Baxter protested Fox’s intention of campaigning for her nomination in the supporting actress category for ALL ABOUT EVE. She was accused at the time of doing to Bette Davis what Eve Harrington did to Margo Channing in the movie. Baxter prevailed and neither won the award. But Baxter was right. Eve is a starring role if ever there was one; and even for this lifelong dyed-in-the-wool Davis fan, Baxter’s subtle performance is more memorable than the great BD’s flamboyant and easier one.

As to screen time and performances, my personal prejudice leans me the other way as to a smaller role ending up in the starring category when the performance is remarkable and a key one for the film. Patricia Neal, for example. And I would not have batted an eye if Margaret Hamilton had been nominated as best actress for THE WIZARD OF OZ. I have no problemn as well with brief screen time being honored. I do not join the chorus of critics of the award to Judi Dench for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE because of its brevity. She is marvelous in her role. Brief performances are often among the best. Jude Law was robbed — nay, raped — when ignored for his role in ROAD TO PERDITION, perhaps his finest work so far.

A trend more and more pronounced in recent years is the nomination and awarding of super stars in the supporting category. These actors have often already received awards (Ingrid Bergman. Paul Newman, Michael Caine) or are seen as old-timers overdue for honors (James Coburn, George Clooney, Alan Arkin). Ingrid Bergman was sensitive to this as far back as 1974 and, with typical blunt goodwill, said so. In her acceptance speech she lamented the fact that her good friend Valentina Cortese had not been honored and here she was herself winning when she already owned two best actress Oscars. The forever magnanimous Bergman was really saying, and not very diplomatically, I don’t need this. And I’m saying here that this is not what the award is for, or was originally for. (N.B.: I am not implying for a moment that actors should not win because they already have. This is poisonous thinking. The same performer should win three years running if she or he gives the outstanding performance.)

Times change. My collaborator BKG points out to me that the name of the category is not supporting actor but actor in a supporting role. And it doesn’t help that a magazine as thoughtful as EW is aiding and abetting Academy foibles: writing about Plummer and Branagh and Von Sydow as supporting contenders. What is happening to EW? A December issue (12/16) in an article by Dave Karger about awards already given refers to cinematography as a minor award. We’re talking moives here, folks. Cinema. Moving pictures. And photography is minor? CITIZEN KANE anybody? THE SEARCHERS? REAR WINDOW? The article also mentions that MIDNIGHT IN PARIS had not done well thus far with award givers. “The film needs to do well at next week’s Golden Globe and SAG nominations to regain its footing.” What footing? If the Academy’s voters are thinking like Karger and EW, the Academy Awards are in more trouble than I thought. Actually, given EW’s increasing interest in and space devoted to the fantasy world called reality tv, they may be on the way to seeing movies themselves as a minor facet of popular culture.

Coming soon: Reflection on correspondent Bec’s feedback on UP AT CARNEGIE HALL.

NEXT POST February 4

Cinematically yours,

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