The couples in “The Kids Are All Right” and “Rabbit Hole” went through hell but ended up in a good place when their stories wrapped. In terms of love from Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters, though, those happy endings didn’t hold true for the actors involved.
From “Kids,” Annette Bening was nominated for lead actress, while co-star Julianne Moore was snubbed. “Rabbit Hole” lead Nicole Kidman joined Bening in the actress category, but Aaron Eckhart couldn’t break through. Similarly, from the bruising relationship tale “Blue Valentine,” Michelle Williams got in, while the man playing her husband, Ryan Gosling, did not.
That Academy members put asunder these three onscreen couples speaks to just how difficult it is to win lead nominations for two from the same film. If there’s a natural fit for lead and supporting — think Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter from “The King’s Speech” — then you have a better chance. Otherwise, one actor is usually confined to lending moral support on Oscar night.
“It’s not really fair, is it?” asks USA Today film critic Claudia Puig. “Here you have these movies that hinge on, essentially, two people and the chemistry between them. And, if the film works, they should both be nominated, particularly if there isn’t a discernibly better performance.”
For Puig and Christy Lemire, Associated Press film critic and co-host of “Roger Ebert Presents at the Movies,” the Academy’s biggest omission was “Blue Valentine’s” Gosling, a previous lead actor Oscar nominee for playing the drug-addicted middle-school teacher in “Half Nelson.”
“He and Michelle Williams were absolute equals,” Lemire says. “They brought the same amount of emotional intensity to the film. You can’t have the greatness of Michelle Williams without the fabulous work that Gosling delivered.”
Veteran award season consultants appreciate those sentiments from critics — particularly when their movies open — but say there’s little they can do for their actors outside of creating a balanced campaign for both leads.
“When faced with two extraordinary lead performances, in particular two that must go into the same category, it’s imperative to support both equally and not decide based on subjective opinion that one role is a winner and another is not,” says an Oscar strategist. “Film is art and art is subjective, so one person’s idea of ‘best’ is different from another’s.”
In the case of Bening and Moore, who play longtime marrieds in “Kids,” sources close to Focus Features say both actresses were pushed equally, doing the same amount of press and award-season events.
There was some talk among Oscar pundits that Moore should be campaigned in the supporting category, but, given that the two actresses share the same amount of screen time, a source close to Focus says such a move would have been wrongheaded. Category placement, says one Oscar consultant, is always a “big, tough decision,” dictated by many factors, including the wishes of the actors and their personal publicists.
“If anything, between the two women, the biggest story arc belonged to Julianne Moore,” says another campaigner. “Her character goes on a pretty wild ride. If they wanted to, they could have put her in lead and Annette in supporting.”
Adds film critic Leonard Maltin: “As much as I admired Annette Bening’s performance, I feel discouraged that Julianne Moore went virtually unrecognized for her work. You couldn’t have one without the other.”
The Academy has nominated two actors from one movie in the same lead category just six times in the past four decades. The most recent example was Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis from “Thelmaand Louise” — and that was 20 years ago. Getting lead nominations in separate categories is more common. In fact, seven such couples have won Oscars over the years, most recently Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt for “As Good as It Gets,” Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster for “Silence of the Lambs” and Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn for “On Golden Pond.”
But the scarcity of this type of recognition has Maltin searching for a solution.
“One thing the Academy could do would be to create an ensemble award like the Screen Actors Guild does,” Maltin says. “That way you could honor everyone. Of course, it doesn’t flatter any one actor’s ego or build a resume. But it’d be a sensible way of addressing these kinds of dilemmas.”
Couples not always treated equally
Lead Actor | Lead Actress | Supporting Actor | Supporting Actress