Alicia Vikander and Rooney Mara Campaigns Fuel ‘Category Fraud’ Debate

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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  1. Go see The Danish Girl & you’ll see what all the fuss is about. I had a little trouble connecting but she just has to get better taste in men and she’ll be right behind Cate, Kate & Saoirse acting wise. She has made so many films I think she’s just exhausted. She & Saoirse have the most expressive eyes and facial expressions.

  2. Tell me if am wrong, but I think (al least in my perspective), that Alicia Vikander’s is more lead than Felicity Jones a year ago. She wants to persuit the award like Jennifer Connely’s did

  3. Hmmm says:

    Seen Vikander in A Royal Affair, Anna Karenina, The Man From U.N.C.L.E and ex Machina and Testament of Youth. She didn’t blow me away in any of them. I think upper middle class, middle age men over enthuse about her because she has that middle class barely legal look about her. To me she looks like she’s always playing dress up. Too much hype over very little substance. There are much better actresses around – praise and award them.

  4. taxi says:

    N-yongo amazing? No. Quite ordinary & no follow-up. Judy Dench getting an Oscar for about 90 seconds of screen time as QE 1 in “Shakespeare in Love” was a travesty. She wasn’t old enough then for her career to be close enough to its end, so no justification there based on body of work. I admire Dame Judy’s talent but SiL was hardly a worthy display of it.

  5. Gene says:

    Michael Douglas winning for “Wall Street” is another example…The film is told from Charlie Sheen’s perspective mostly, he has by far most of the screentime, he is the emotional center, not Michael Douglas. But Douglas won for Lead, not Supporting.

  6. Patrick says:

    Some rules would be great but what rules? Screen time sounds like a good guide, but hard to make a rule of it, as you can be on screen without doing much (jurors get lots of screen time in courtroom thrillers but it’s not about them). Line count wouldn’t work (Jane Wyman and John Mills won Oscars with zero lines, while Patty Duke and Jean Dujardin won with 3 spoken words between them). Barry Fitzgerald was nominated for Lead and Supporting Actor for the same role (in ‘Going My Way’ – he won Supporting), while Anthony Hopkins and David Niven both won Lead Actor for performances that each lasted about 16 minutes. So it’s not a new problem. The emotional resonance of a performance seems to cloud any rule we might come up with. An intriguing puzzler.

  7. Meg Van Kuyk says:

    Jeeeeeez Why can’t Blanchett and Mara share the award……just make an extra Oscar?? Problem solved……. rules are there to
    be broken.

  8. Aaron1968 says:

    It’s unfortunate when something like this happens. But it is wholly understandable why studios feel it necessary to play this sort of game. Oscar wins can very much improve the public view of a film. While ratings last year were down something like 15%, that still adds up to about 37 million viewers.

    Film is a great art form, but it is also a business. So, while I wish there were some way around this (other than relying on voters) I completely understand why it happens.

  9. mary says:

    Oscars are becoming a joke with every passing year vikander is obviously a lead in the danish girl

  10. Moira Lympany says:

    Alicia Vikander should get a Best Actress nom for her Vera Brittain in TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, the true best of all her performances this year, but I suppose it’s all about box office.

  11. The Best Feet says:

    Couldn’t care less. The 10 best performances should be rewarded, lead or supporting. I’m all for category fraud.

  12. Jack says:

    Hyperbolic description of the performances. By the way, including the Best Actress Cannes award win for Rooney Mara is misleading as Cannes has no Supporting Actress category and has awarded many supporting performances for the Best Actress award before. Also, this “It’s Mara’s character’s perspective that guides the film from beginning to end.” is incorrect. Todd Haynes, the director, as well as many critics have said that the film is from the perspective of both, and in fact Cate Blanchett’s Carol has interactions with more characters than Rooney Mara’s character. They’re both certainly leads though.

    This, “[Mara] would be dropping to the supporting race in deference to co-lead and two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett” is also wrong and disingenuous. The Weinstein Company isn’t campaigning Rooney Mara in supporting “in deference” to Cate Blanchett, that’s complete nonsense. She is campaigned in supporting exactly for the reasons you stated above: there is far less competition in supporting; to avoid internal competition in one category; and to increase Mara’s chances of winning, which are greater in supporting than lead.

  13. Liz says:

    I was impressed that Focus Features didn’t try to pull this stunt with Felicity Jones last year. She was obviously a lead in “The Theory of Everything,” but it was just the sort of role that studios like to push to supporting (particularly for actresses, sigh).

    Now they’ve gone and done it with Alicia Vikander. Booooo.

  14. Al Swearengen says:

    I still find it absolutely disgusting that you have to campaign to win an award in the first place.

  15. Jake says:

    Guy, when talking about Vikander placement, you should mention Carey Mulligan as the reason for that. It’s pretty obvious what Focus is doing here. Vikander placement is actually worse than Mara’s.

  16. DougW says:

    I think as long as Academy members know they themselves can decide whether a performance is lead or supporting then this isn’t such a big issue. Of all people, Academy members know the games this industry plays.

  17. Bill B. says:

    The O’Neal win is rather infamous and was rather off putting at the time considering it was the lead and Kahn gave a wonderful supporting performance (I still remember the look on her face when O’Neal’s name was announced!), but how could anyone write this article without mentioning Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained. It too was a leading role. I thought he was great in it, but I really thought his presence in this category to be very unfair to his competition. There should be some sort of Academy rules about the amount of screen time or something, so this political miscatergorizing isn’t allowed. A 12 minute performance should never have to compete with a 100 minute one.

  18. Selma says:

    I just don’t understand this greed for an Oscar nomination. I’d rather do some campaigning for a role that I was actually under, Lead/Supporting, than lowering my standars just to win one Oscar. Especially for someone like Vikander. She just got known to the public, she might as well disappear after winning an Oscar. She ain’t no American girl, a la Jennifer Lawrence. Certainly is not a high-caliber actress like N’yongo, who by the way actually DESERVED the Oscar.

    So sick and tired of this. Look at what it did to Jennifer Connelly’s career. A superb actress who is not getting that kind of work anymore.

    • Mia says:

      Vikander is terrific actress and none of this is her fault.Jennifer Connelly`s career tailed off because she is a fairly ordinary talent.

    • Mm says:

      Vikander is a great actress.

    • guylodge says:

      “Certainly is not a high-caliber actress”

      After Testament of Youth, Ex Machina, A Royal Affair, Anna Karenina, Hotell and, of course, The Danish Girl, I can’t agree with this.

      • mg says:

        don’t know who the hell she is……..until gossip/tabloids reported she was dating one of her co-stars…So I guess that’s how these actor network or audition for roles (LOL) is to sleep around…….There was one movie apparently she was in but I did not noticed (ANA KARINANA) and I was disappointed of that movie.

    • Sia says:

      Deserved ? Questionable. But I do agree some will disappear.

  19. Sara says:

    Thanks for writing about an issue that gets increasingly annoying with each passing year. We’re now at the stage that Supporting Actor/Actress usually has 2-3 co-leads, and the category is rounded out by 1-2 bona fide supporting performances. It’s hugely unfair yet the problem gets worse each year. In the case of Mara and Vikander this year, I’ll be annoyed if their category fraud hurts the chances of someone like Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight – an actual supporting performance that’s getting great Oscar buzz from test screenings, but that now faces competition from at least leading ladies being promoted in the wrong category!

  20. Mia says:

    From what I understand there is no ambiguity about whether Mara and Vikander are leads or supporting.They ARE leads, this is flat out category fraud and it`s infuriating.It robs genuine supporting actors, time and time again, of nominations and potential wins.

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