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Thesp category swapping may be an old practice, but it's still a gamble

In terms of the Academy Awards, what’s the distinction between a leading and a supporting role? Sometimes it’s just a matter of improved odds.

This year, actors are again being placed in categories not exactly befitting of the roles they’ve played in contender pics.

Among the most obvious switcheroos this year is Scarlett Johansson’s categorization as supporting actress for “Lost in Translation.” The move (agreed upon between the actress, her reps and pic’s distrib, Focus Features) is likely a strategic ploy to avoid splitting votes with her lead bid for Lions Gate’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

Johansson, well aware of the politics that go into the decision, doesn’t shy away from discussing the issue but also sees how the categorization could be questioned. “I don’t know if a supporting actor nomination means less screen time or that kind of thing,” she says. “I think I do support Bill. We support each other.”

In Patricia Clarkson’s case, another actress in contention with two films, the declared categories seem more appropriate: lead for “The Station Agent,” and supporting for “Pieces of April.

But when it comes to “Whale Rider” lead Keisha Castle-Hughes, who is being put forward as supporting, more than a few eyebrows are raised.

But that’s just this year’s crop. The practice started decades ago when, in the wake of Jack Lemmon’s supporting actor win for 1955’s “Mister Roberts,” several thesps — and studios — reassessed Oscar campaigning. It seemed Lemmon’s win for the naval drama in a less glamorous category, traditionally the province of character actors, had somehow made it a reputable alternative to the often higher-stakes leading thesp races.

One of the first beneficiaries of this willingness to self-demote to cop a nom or a possible win was Dorothy Malone. Although billed as one of the leads in 1956’s “Written on the Wind,” she allowed Universal to submit her for Acad consideration as supporting because of a perceived easier road to Oscar. That year, Ingrid Bergman (“Anastasia”) was the unstoppable actress front-runner. U’s gambit worked: Malone won the supporting actress award without much suspense.

Since 1964, the Academy has left the determination of whether a perf is lead or supporting to its membership. Previously, as in Malone’s case, the studio provided a reminder list with the categories predetermined. The rule change was reportedly in response to a clerical error at 20th Century Fox that robbed “Cleopatra’s” Roddy McDowall of a shot at a supporting actor Oscar — the studio had submitted the epic’s entire cast as lead players.

Since then, studios have continued to offer suggestions as to what categories thesps should be considered in, going so far as to have their preferences emblazoned on screeners and in advertising. And while voters usually follow a studio’s lead, there have been exceptions.

In 1981, Paramount insisted that Susan Sarandon’s turn in “Atlantic City” was supporting, but when the noms were revealed, she received an actress bid.

Precursor awards can play a role in influencing the ultimate designation of an actor at the Oscars, but not always. A particularly bizarre scenario occurred in 1984, when several precursor awards bodies were split on the proper category for Peggy Ashcroft in “A Passage to India,” though they were in agreement she shouldn’t go kudo-less. The Brit thesp won lead actress accolades from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle and had the pic’s studio, Columbia Pictures, backing her in that race. But the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the Boston Society of Film Critics as well as the Golden Globes had laureled her with supporting honors.

Flouting the studio’s wishes, the Academy nominated Ashcroft in the supporting category. The voters were perhaps mindful that she stood a better chance there than against a popular Sally Field, who won her second actress Oscar for “Places in the Heart.” Also, there was no chance of vote-splitting, as Ashcroft’s “India” co-star Judy Davis was among the lead nominees as well.

On occasion, a studio will alter a campaign after a high-profile precursor win. Andrew Johnston, chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, recalls that in 2000, the org’s award to “Pollock’s” Marcia Gay Harden in the supporting category led Sony Pictures Classics to reclassify her in its Oscar trade ads. (Distrib originally had promoted her as a lead.)

Johnston says that it seemed to him a situation of her supporters giving her another shot at an award when it was apparent that she wouldn’t defeat “Erin Brockovich’s” Julia Roberts for actress honors.

Johnston says the circle — like all critics groups — isn’t beholden to studio category preferences, but that when there is potential disagreement over a thesp’s placement, a member will informally mention it during early round vote-tallying. If the majority of the voters agree with the suggestion, it is reflected in the next tier of balloting.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which hands out the Golden Globes, actually convenes an informal reminder list committee that reviews the submission forms from studios and distribs.

Marianne Ruuth, a longtime HFPA member and a journalist for French and Swedish publications, says that sometimes the committee, which can comprise about 12 to 20 members on a volunteer basis, has a back-and-forth discussion with a studio over its categorization of a film’s thesps. Debate over the oft-hazy comedy/drama genre distinction more frequently provokes negotiations between distribs and a dissenting HFPA panel, she says.

“The final word rests with us, but we don’t take it lightly,” she says. “In some cases, they convince us, in some cases they do not.” Special weight is given to a filmmaker’s defense of a particular categorization.

This year, the HFPA committee attempted to recategorize “Mystic River” thesps Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins as leading actors alongside Sean Penn, contradicting the studio’s wishes. Warner Bros. responded with detailed notes on the film’s structure, including comments from helmer Clint Eastwood that persuaded the committee to agree with the studio.

When it came to Johansson’s dilemma, Ruuth says the HFPA accepted “Translation” in the comedy film category, while Lions Gate’s “Pearl” was designated a drama. It made it possible for the thesp to earn two noncompeting lead acting bids, as Nicole Kidman did with “Moulin Rouge” and “The Others” in 2001.

The Screen Actors Guild Awards, unsurprisingly, strongly favor allowing actors — or their official reps — to determine the category in which they want to be considered for the guild’s laurel. “Who knows better than the actor as to where they should be submitted?” notes SAG Awards producer Kathy Connell, adding that the guild has never had to fight a distributor over a categorization an actor felt strongly about.

Errors, however, have happened. Connell called last year’s mix-up involving Meryl Streep a regrettable situation. The actress’s “Adaptation” perf — pushed as a supporting by Sony — was erroneously submitted in the lead category by the studio on her behalf. The gaffe put Streep in direct competition with her buzzed-about performance in the Paramount-Miramax co-production “The Hours.”

Studios and production companies may submit actor’s perfs for SAG Awards consideration provided that they have the thesp’s explicit permission. “Unfortunately, when the ballots are printed and mailed, there’s nothing we can do about it,” as was the case with Streep, Connell says, even though Sony offered to foot the bill to reprint the ballots correctly. There also was no chance of a write-in campaign — voters must abide by the guild’s official list of eligible perfs. But the SAG snub couldn’t have stung Streep for too long. The awards fave did receive an Oscar bid in the supporting category.

Curiously, that was the second straight year the SAG ceremony was faced with such a flub. Jennifer Connelly earned a guild bid for lead actress for 2001’s “A Beautiful Mind,” though she had U tubthump
ing her perf for supporting honors. The studio seemed untroubled when acknowledging the error, and, as it turned out, with reason — though she lost the SAG race, Connelly went on to win the Academy Award in the supporting category.

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