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Oscar Has a Long and Honorable History of ‘Category Fraud’

I worry about overpopulation. I worry about anyone who texts while driving. However, I do not worry whether studios are campaigning actors as lead or supporting.

“Category fraud” is a harsh term to describe the fact that Oscar strategists are pushing some actors into unexpected categories, in hopes that it works to their advantage. There’s no reason to worry, though, because voters will be the ultimate arbiters, deciding how they want to define a work.

Equally important, the history of awards is filled with blurred lines, and over the years, most people have stopped questioning it.

Fox campaigned Sigourney Weaver as supporting actress for the 1979 film “Alien.” Naomi Watts was pushed supporting for “Mulholland Drive.” Marlon Brando won an Oscar as lead actor for “The Godfather,” even though his onscreen time was a fraction of Al Pacino’s, who was a supporting nominee.

In 1964’s “Dr. Strangelove,” Peter Sellers played three roles, so Columbia had four campaigns: One as lead actor, and three pushes in the supporting category, for each of the characters. Nowadays, the studio would be endlessly blasted on Twitter and in blogs, but you have to admit, it’s a pretty fun idea and in keeping with the anarchic spirit of the film. (For the record, Sellers was nominated once, as lead.)

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Despite all this chaos, somehow civilization has survived.

The confusion started in 1944, when Barry Fitzgerald was nominated as both lead and supporting actor for “Going My Way.” He won for the latter, and the Academy quickly changed Oscar rules to state that a performance gets only one nomination.

Definitions have been fuzzy for decades and actors are generally placed in the supporting category for four reasons: age, star power, ensemble casts or business considerations.

In terms of age, supporting Oscar winners include Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker,” Tatum O’Neal in “Paper Moon” and Timothy Hutton in “Ordinary People.” All had dominant roles, but their youth defined them as supporting. So there is plenty of precedent for touting Jacob Tremblay of “Room” as a supporting performance.

As for star power, Weaver was an unknown in “Alien,” while Tom Skerritt and John Hurt were established names, so she was considered supporting. This year, Alicia Vikander and Rooney Mara (for “The Danish Girl” and “Carol,” respectively) are in a similar situation. Supporting? Sure, why not? It worked many, many times for many previous nominees and winners, including Jennifer Connelly in “A Beautiful Mind” and Christoph Waltz in “Django Unchained,” to name just two.

There is no Oscar category for ensemble performance, so Dan Aykroyd in “Ghostbusters,” Glenn Close in “The Big Chill” and Patricia Arquette in “Boyhood” were touted as supporting roles. (Aykroyd wasn’t nominated; Close was, and Arquette won.) Maggie Smith won a supporting Oscar for “California Suite” even though she starred in her segment, but that was only one-fourth of the film.

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And then there are practical considerations. Julianne Moore was promoted as supporting in “The Hours” because she had a lead role in “Far From Heaven” that year. She was nominated for both.

And it’s not just a one-way street. Many actors had limited time on screen and could have been considered supporting, but won in the lead category, including David Niven (“Separate Tables”), Patricia Neal (“Hud”), Anthony Hopkins (“The Silence of the Lambs”), Frances McDormand (“Fargo”) and Steve Carell last year (“Foxcatcher”). So the Oscar ecosystem balances things out. In 1980, Paramount touted Susan Sarandon as a supporting player for “Atlantic City”; the Academy instead gave her a lead nomination. Kate Winslet won a supporting Golden Globe and SAG Award for “The Reader,” but a lead actress Oscar for the same role.

The HFPA is considering “The Martian” and “Joy” as comedies. Which means the actors will have an advantage by being considered in the comedy categories rather than the overcrowded drama fields. Outraged? Nah, those movies had some big laughs and happy endings, so they qualify.

The phrase “category fraud” has been used a lot this year by people who are vexed that the studios are trying to manipulate voters. But are the studios being deceptive, merely bending the rule, or are they simply doing some savvy marketing?

So if you admired the work of Vikander, Mara and Tremblay — and who didn’t? — you can vote for them as supporting performances with a clear conscience. Because Oscar history is on your side.

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