The Danish Girl
Courtesy of Focus Features

Pushing lead performances for supporting consideration squeezes out worthy contenders.

“Category fraud” — two words that crop up with increasing frequency in the annual Oscar discussion, though rarely quite as early (and quite as heatedly) as they have this year. For those new to the game, the term is industry slang and refers to the practice of campaigning a leading performance in a supporting category (or, more rarely, vice versa) to increase an actor’s chances of a nomination or win — and, in some cases, to avoid internal competition.

It’s a strategy the Academy buys into more often than not: Among the most glaring examples of recent years, one might cite Casey Affleck in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” or Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit,” both playing active protagonists who were nonetheless demoted in favor of senior co-stars. It’s not a new phenomenon either. In 1973, Tatum O’Neal was on screen in nearly every scene of “Paper Moon”; on the dim rationale that kids can’t be leads, she cruised to a supporting win, trumping her co-star Madeline Kahn’s 12-minute performance in the process. No one ever said the campaign game was a fair one.

Of course, there’s no hard-and-fast rule as to what distinguishes a leading performance from a supporting one: Screen time isn’t always the most nuanced barometer, while different viewers perceive character agency in different ways. By the measure of most critics who have seen the films in question, however, two seemingly heavyweight contenders in this year’s fledgling Best Supporting Actress race are pushing the limits of what might be considered reasonable category-fudging.

It was revealed weeks ago that Rooney Mara’s achingly delicate turn as a sexually awoken shopgirl in The Weinstein Co.’s “Carol,” which won her best actress honors at the Cannes Film Festival in May, would be dropping to the supporting race in deference to co-lead and two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett. Blanchett may play the title role, but by no measure can she be considered a sole protagonist: It’s Mara’s character’s perspective that guides the film from beginning to end. Were the film a heterosexual romance, there can be little doubt that roles of equivalent size and construction would be campaigned for best actress and best actor.

The Weinsteins, of course, know this game inside out: Why put both your leading eggs in one basket when you could try eking out a statuette for both? That isn’t the problem, however, for rising Swedish star Alicia Vikander, the only actress angling for awards attention (with apologies to Amber Heard) in Focus’ lushly appointed best picture hopeful “The Danish Girl.” Playing Gerda Wegener, the frustrated but ultimately accepting wife of pioneering transgender artist Lili Elbe, Vikander capitalizes on the most Academy-friendly of her numerous substantial roles this year. Many critics might even prefer her work in “Ex Machina” or “Testament of Youth,” but neither is likely to get the awards push that Tom Hooper’s November release will inevitably be granted.

Vikander is ideally primed, then, for one of those unofficial body-of-work nominations the Academy sometimes gives to over-achieving actors, pinned on her vivacious, affecting turn as Wegener — which, as “The Danish Girl” made the fall festival rounds, arguably garnered more awards heat than Eddie Redmayne’s much-anticipated work as Elbe. I wrote as much in a report from Venice titled “Alicia Vikander may be the real winner from ‘The Danish Girl,'” noting that her role is at least equal to Redmayne’s in size and emotional opportunity. In Toronto, others followed suit; Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan, while admiring Vikander’s work, even complained that the film was one of several notionally LGBT-themed fest titles that were “actually about” non-LGBT characters.

A stealth best actress candidate, then? Not so fast. Despite the leading buzz surrounding her performance, Focus confirmed recently that they’ll be campaigning Vikander for best supporting actress instead. From a strategic point of view, their reasoning is pretty transparent. The festival circuit has already turned up a surfeit of formidable best actress players. The supporting field, by comparison, has a little more breathing room, with no prohibitive frontrunners yet appointed even by the least patient pundits.

Vikander wouldn’t just have an easier time landing a nomination in this more fluid field — on the strength of her own career momentum, the presumed prestige of her vehicle and a beefier role than most of her competitors, she could well win. For Focus, meanwhile, playing down the status of her role could have the advantage of refocusing attention on Redmayne — who may have received perfectly respectful notices for his studious transformational turn, but didn’t leave Venice and Toronto with quite the heat they were probably hoping for. As with Mara, there’s no downside from the campaigners’ perspective, save the indignity of passing off a strong lead performance as something less integral to the film than it really is. And an Oscar usually soothes that bruise.

But this kind of gamesmanship is damaging to the race in the long run, limiting opportunities for the sterling character actors for whom the supporting awards were devised in 1936 — after complaints that having just one acting award per gender left their contributions largely unacknowledged. There is, for example, a rich, economical and thoroughly award-worthy supporting performance in “Carol.” It comes from Sarah Paulson, whose effectively used few minutes of screen time haven’t a prayer against Mara’s exquisite, film-shouldering turn. Yes, campaigning for an Oscar is hard. It should be — Oscars aren’t party favors, after all. But making it easier for some by making it even harder for others shouldn’t be the answer.

Academy members, of course, have the option of overruling a dodgy category designation when they fill in their ballots, placing actors wherever they see fit. It’s happened before: Kate Winslet in “The Reader” and Keisha Castle-Hughes in “Whale Rider” were both promoted to best actress after being opportunistically campaigned in supporting. But voters comply with the studios’ wishes more often than not. Might the solution be to eliminate acting category specifications from campaign materials? If “for your consideration” ads simply listed a film’s viable actors in the studio’s preferred order (which could in itself be tacitly telling), that would force voters to decide for themselves. Sure, a few borderline performances might garner votes in both categories and slip through the cracks, but as long as category fraud remains a favored campaign tactic, it’s a larger swath of the acting community that loses out.

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