Supporting vs. lead debate an annual discussion

Award Season Talent Preview

This time last year, Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard found themselves in a bit of a bind.

Through reviews and festival reactions, Lesley Manville had established herself as the breakout star in Mike Leigh’s drama, “Another Year.” Manville then went on to win the lead actress award from the National Board of Review, the first group to hand out prizes for the season.

But since “Another Year” featured a deep ensemble and because Manville’s Oscar chances would likely improve if she was placed in supporting, not lead, the Classics team held meeting after meeting discussing optimum placement. In the end, they put Manville in the lead category and she came up empty on Oscar nomination morning.

“We had overwhelming recommendations to put her in lead,” Barker says. “As Mike Leigh himself explained it, her character opens the film, ends the film and it’s that character’s arc that dictates the year in the life of these people. So that’s what we did. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out the way you’d like.”

Awards consultants, studio execs and publicists face this same dilemma each year with a handful of performances that could go in either the lead or supporting categories. This season’s quandaries — among them Brad Pitt in “The Tree of Life,” the four members of the “Carnage” ensemble, Emma Stone and Viola Davis from “The Help” — should prove less nettlesome than Manville’s situation last year, unless, of course, you’re connected with one of those films.

“There are so many layers of people involved,” gripes one awards campaigner, “and all those people have their own agendas, their own opinions.”

And, it should be noted: Sometimes Academy voters ignore everyone’s agendas and opinions anyway, and place a performance in the category they think fits best. Three years ago, Kate Winslet was championed as lead actress for her work in “Revolutionary Road” and supporting for “The Reader.” Winslet ended up being nominated and winning lead actress — for “The Reader,” not “Revolutionary Road.”

“That was kind of strange,” Barker recalls, “but Academy members can place a performance wherever they like. Years ago, the New York Film Critics Circle gave Anthony Hopkins supporting actor for ‘The Silence of the Lambs.’ You could see the reasoning: He was only in the movie, what, 17 minutes? Yet he won the Oscar for lead because he was very much at the center of the film. So there are certain performances and movies where it could go either way.”

This year, those roles seem a bit more defined than they have in the past. Sony Pictures is campaigning Pitt in lead for “Moneyball,” which makes his placement in supporting for “Tree of Life” all the more logical. One could make the argument that “Tree’s” story belongs to Jack, the son played by Sean Penn as an older man.

“Strategically, it makes sense that you don’t want Brad Pitt competing against himself,” says Associated Press movie critic Christy Lemire. “Still, if he’s not lead in ‘Tree of Life,’ I don’t know who is.”

That question has also been asked of DreamWorks’ “The Help,” a big-canvas ensemble that sports two central characters — Stone’s young writer and Davis’ beleaguered housekeeper. Both actresses will be running in lead, with the rest on the praised cast placed in supporting.

“Stone’s the catalyst, so you can understand that, and Viola’s story provides the movie with its emotional heft,” says a senior publicist from a rival studio.

The cast members from “Carnage” — John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and Winslet — will be competing against each other (or, at least, their respective genders) in the supporting categories. The Roman Polanski black comedy, which adapts Yasmina Reza’s play “God of Carnage,” follows two sets of parents trying to hash out culpability over a playground incident involving their sons. The four actors share the screen for virtually the entire film.

“That movie is all about actors supporting each other and it’s written in such a way that they’re all equal,” Sony Pictures Classics’ Barker says of the decision. “That’s always been our feeling.”

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