Monday, January 13, 2014

A Note on Acting Categories

I'm continually surprised during award season to observe which actors land in the categories of leading actor and actress and which are consigned to the ranks of supporting players. In the era of the big Hollywood studios – the Academy Awards were first handed out in the late 1920s – the dividing lines were easily drawn: if your name appeared above the title of a movie (either in the credits or on billboards) you were eligible for a Best Actor or Actress nomination and if it fell below you weren’t. Since most A-list pictures were vehicles for established stars, there wasn’t much room for argument. The only actors who tended to be ignored were children, who only occasionally garnered nominations and then only in supporting categories, however large their actual roles. (The Academy usually covered their contributions with specially constructed pint-sized statuettes.)

Now these decisions appear to be made by publicists who determine how to sell the actors in their movies by gambling on their likelihood of being recognized in one category or the other. The studios send out screeners marked “for your consideration” to Academy voters and to the membership of critics’ groups that give awards at the end of the year, and the packaging often tells you whom you’re supposed to consider and for which honors. The screener for Saving Mr. Banks lists Tom Hanks as a supporting actor for his performance as Walt Disney, even though the movie is about how Disney persuaded P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to give him the rights to film her book Mary Poppins; the movie is structured as a tug of war between the two characters, interrupted by flashbacks to Travers’s childhood in Australia that feature neither of the two stars. Offering Hanks as a supporting actor candidate only makes sense if you factor in the reality that his indisputably leading performance in Captain Phillips is so sure a contender that if his work in Saving Mr. Banks were acknowledged in the same category he’d be competing with himself. The studios tend to draw the same artificial distinctions when an unknown performer shares the screen with a famous one. Jennifer Hudson won the 2006 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Dreamgirls because her co-star was Beyoncé Knowles, not because her part was smaller. The movie is a faux musical bio, the fictionalized story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, and it honors all the conventions of that genre, but what makes it unusual is that the narrative is bifurcated between these two female roles; halfway through, when Effie White (Hudson) is thrown out of the group and Deena Jones (Knowles) goes on to become a star, the movie cross-cuts between their lives. When the musical opened on Broadway in 1981, both Sheryl Lee Ralph (Deena) and Jennifer Holliday (Effie) were nominated for Tony Awards for Leading Actress in a Musical, and Holliday won. The role of Effie wasn’t cut down for the movie version; the only difference was that an established recording personality was cast in the part of Deena.

I’ve always found it absurd that critics’ groups, let alone the Academy, allow publicity machines to tell them how to calculate who’s a leading actor and who’s a supporting one. But it’s more baffling that these self-serving distinctions appear to have led to a kind of relativist thinking about the weight of performances. Increasingly I’ve heard the point of view promoted by my fellow critics that a movie can have only one star, that the protagonist is determined by the movie’s perspective, and that the only means for determining who the supporting characters are is structural. One of my colleagues at this year’s Boston Film Critics voting meeting argued eloquently that Matthew McConaughey’s performance in the title role of Mud belongs in the supporting category because the movie is a coming-of-age story about an adolescent (Tye Sheridan) who befriends Mud, an outlaw, and helps to bring him back together with the woman he loves, and the movie is from the boy’s perspective, not from Mud’s. My colleague’s structural assessment of the movie is correct in every detail, and anyone who wanted to recognize Sheridan for his performance would be mistaken in calling him a supporting actor just because it’s his second movie and he’s a teenager. The problem is that by her logic Gregory Peck and Steve McQueen would be supporting actors in To Kill a Mockingbird and The Reivers, which are also coming-of-age pictures about the influence of a charismatic adult figure on a child. As for the point of view argument, The Great Gatsby, in all its dramatic incarnations, is from the perspective of Nick Carraway, whose life is irrevocably altered by his interaction with the title character, yet it’s transparently Gatsby story, not Nick’s.

In the case of Dreamgirls the two female roles are even and both are protagonists, just as Midnight Cowboy is equally about Jon Voight’s Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo and any romantic comedy, romantic drama or romantic melodrama is equally about both lovers. (Sure, it’s Rick who changes in the course of Casablanca, not Ilse, but that doesn’t make Ingrid Bergman a supporting player in Humphrey Bogart’s scenario.) But structure shouldn’t be the only determining component. Anyone can see that Blue Is the Warmest Color is a coming-of-age movie centered on the character of Adèle (Adéle Exarchopoulos) but it’s also the chronicle of the growth and demise of an intense relationship between her and her older lover Emma (Léa Seydoux) in which every key scene takes place between the two women. During the movie’s three-hour running time, Seydoux is on screen more than many of last year’s indisputable leading actresses; it would be an insult to the depth and breadth of her performance to call her a supporting actress just because Adéle is the protagonist.

Commonly certain movies are branded “ensemble pictures” in which everyone is a supporting player. In truth, though, there aren’t many movies that really don’t have starring roles, however many actors flit in and out of them. (Dinner at Eight, maybe, or Nashville – though at the time it was released I put Ronee Blakley, who plays the doomed country singer Barbara Jean, on my list of outstanding leading actresses on the principle that her role is the narrative pivot. Maybe I was wrong; I might think differently now.) And it would be nonsense to call any of the four magnificent actors who play the embattled Tyrones in the 1962 Long Day’s Journey into Night a supporting player. Eugene O’Neill wrote huge scenes for all of them.

It’s easy to see that Robert De Niro is a supporting actor in The Godfather, Part II even though he’s playing the young Don Corleone, but the first Godfather is a different case. In the wake of the film’s 1972 release Marlon Brando won the Oscar for Best Actor while Al Pacino was relegated to the Supporting Actor category along with James Caan and Robert Duvall. (All three lost to Joel Grey for Cabaret.) Clearly that was the wrong call for Pacino, since The Godfather is Michael Corleone’s coming-of-age story and Pacino is on the screen far more than Brando and the title alludes to both characters – the godfather at the end of his reign and the one who is being groomed to take over when he dies. But I don’t go along with current thinking, either, which would have called Brando’s performance supporting. Michael is the main character, but Brando dominates the film; apart from the fact that Don Corleone is the embodiment of its themes, Brando gives a star performance that resonates throughout the movie, even when he’s off screen. Sometimes the amount of time an actor spends on camera – or on stage – is a faulty indicator: Molière’s Tartuffe doesn’t enter the play that bears his name until the beginning of Act Three, and Walter Burns, the crafty, irascible editor of Hecht and MacArthur’s The Front Page, isn’t introduced until Act Two, yet our experience of sitting through these plays tells us that they are the stars, since each is the dazzling still center around which the play revolves. (Actually, like The Godfather, The Front Page has two leading men: Burns and his most talented reporter, Hildy Johnson.) Grand Hotel may be an ensemble picture but Garbo and John Barrymore are so incandescent in it that the romance between their two characters takes over the center of the film by natural right.

I guess what I’m arguing for here is the importance of weighing one’s viewing of the movie – a sort of experiential common sense, if you will. There will always be debate about some performances that fall on the cusp between leading and supporting, but you almost always know when you walk out of a movie who the leading players are.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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