Want to Fix the Oscars’ Acting Categories? Look at the Screenplays.
The Academy’s organization of the acting categories — male and female, lead and supporting — are for many a source of consternation, and there are reasonable arguments to be made for eliminating either side of this two-by-two grid. The conversation surrounding the potential un-gendering of the Oscars has been fairly consistent over the years, with the consensus seemingly that though it may be a good idea in theory, the Academy has yet to show that they respect women enough to actually recognize the work they do with any regularity unless forced to by the category layout. While that sentiment is likely an accurate analysis of the current state of the Academy, it doesn’t change the fact that no other category is split by gender: continuing to maintain this separation ingrains and perpetuates an underlying notion that the type of acting done by women is somehow different from that done by men (and of course doesn’t take into account the possibility that an actor may not identify as either male or female). Imagine if the Academy split Best Director into Male and Female — despite the lack of women nominees over the years, they’d be excoriated for the implication that male and female directors should be treated as discrete entities, and rightfully so. If we wouldn’t accept it for directors, why do we let it slide for actors?
The argument against the lead/supporting dichotomy is the product of a phenomenon that, while meritable, may be overblown. Category fraud — the idea that an actor is nominated in the supporting categories for a performance that is more fairly characterized as a lead — is not as widespread as you might expect, but has produced some winners in recent years (including Viola Davis in Fences, Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl, and Mahershala Ali in Green Book) that, despite their high quality, feel as though they may have benefited from being a co-lead relegated to the supporting category. The same accusation could easily be levied at Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood, this year’s presumptive frontrunner, though the grumbling seems to have been mostly kept to a quiet murmur so far. Is the nomination of (or, more concerning, victory by) an actor playing a borderline lead role enough to scrap the distinction? Perhaps not, as there is a real art to making the most of a true supporting role and there’s a real question about how often that kind of character would beat out a meatier lead role — part of the impetus for the separation in the first place. But to say those performances are being recognized consistently wouldn’t be entirely accurate either. Even setting aside the question of whether they are quasi-leads, the supporting category winners are often those actors who have gone the biggest: think Melissa Leo and Christian Bale in The Fighter, Allison Janney in I, Tonya, or J.K. Simmons in Whiplash. That’s not to say that these winners weren’t deserving (though not all of them were), but what chance does the subtlety of Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of a father in Boyhood have against Christian Bale’s emaciated outbursts? So, there are reasons to compress either the male/female or the lead/supporting categories, but actually doing so raises another problem. Removing one half of the equation means the number of acting winners would be necessarily halved, shrunk from four down to two — at a time where diversity of nominees and winners remains a real issue, reducing the opportunities for recognition seems like a step backwards. As such, if we remove one axis of this 2x2 grid, ideally we would have something to replace it. The most logical option would be to take a page from the Original and Adapted Screenplay demarcation and categorize the actors by whether they are playing a wholly original character (developed solely for the film) or one based on a pre-existing individual (either real or fictional). Implementing this change would solve another consistent problem with the Academy’s acting prizes. Since 2000, approximately 60% of all acting nominees would fall under the pre-existing umbrella, but they account for a disproportionate amount of the winners (approximately 67%). And this might be a conservative estimate, as it sets aside characters like those “loosely based on” real events or those drawn from short stories that may not have had room to flesh out characters to their full extent — include all the borderline cases, and the ratios jump to 72% of nominees and 75% of winners. Of all the acting dichotomies discussed here, this is the one that has the most variance between its two categories. Playing an original character isn’t necessarily any harder or easier than playing one drawn from pre-existing material, but more often than not the approach is different, the skills used are different, and the evaluation by critics and audiences is different. It’s hard to say this is true — at least to the same extent — for men vs. women or lead vs. supporting. The Oscars recognize this reality in regards to the writing categories (adapting a story requires a different set of skills — not better, not worse — than crafting an original one), but have let the acting categories be thrown off-balance at the expense of the actors who are developing characters specifically for this medium, never before seen anywhere else. As the Academy struggles with declining ratings, a lack of diversity, and questions surrounding its place as an arbiter of cinema, it has shown a willingness to play with format to a certain extent, as evidenced by its split of Best Original Score into Dramatic and Musical/Comedy in the ‘90s, or even its recently misguided pitch of Best Popular Film. If they truly wanted to mix things up, there are worse places to look than the acting categories — and if a tweak there could help even the playing field and encourage Oscar-starved actors to shoot for the gold by playing original characters instead of defaulting to mimicry and makeup, that could go a long way towards reestablishing the Academy’s tastes as ones to heed.