Academy Awards aka Oscars season is here and, as always, there is interesting discourse around the nominations. One of this year’s biggest conundrums surrounded
Is there an actual distinction, if any, between the Best Actor/Actress and Best Supporting Actor/Actress? And, how do our social experiences and biases affect how we as viewers perceive an actor in a film? Let’s explore all those questions and more.
Category History and Academy Demographics
The Academy Awards have had the Best Actor in a Leading Role (Best Actor) and Best Actress in a Leading Role (Best Actress) categories since its inception in 1929; however, the Best Actor/Actress in Supporting Role categories didn’t exist until 1937 in an attempt to honor more people.
The Oscars official rules, eligibility, and addendums have specifications for many awards, but that does not include the distinction between what qualifies as a lead versus supporting role. An
Academy voting members make this determination at the time of balloting. This means they get to randomly decide who goes into the leading versus supporting spots. No set rules, no general rationale, just vibes. Of course this gets tricky because, like the casual viewer, Academy members are human beings.
They have implicit and sometimes overt biases against others’ race, social status, gender identity, and age; all factors which inform how people engage with everything, including their work. It’s the basis for the immediate stereotypes some people may envision when they see an applicant with a “foreign” name or how they view the sole Black woman in their workspace.
In 2020, the Academy membership was 84% white and 68% male…and those are improved numbers. Those stats began to shift after a continuous push for diversity came to a head with #OscarsSoWhite; the hashtag called the awards out for being exclusionary back in 2015.
If majority white men are filtering these films through their lenses, then surely there is some level of bias due to a lack of racial and gender representation; other factors like age and socioeconomic status also come into play. This becomes murkier considering there’s no way to confirm if they even watched the films at all.
So, they can essentially lean into their biases and see a film through a different lens. Perhaps this leads to voting for a lead (or co-lead) as supporting, if they even “see” them at all. It’s a reflection of how marginalized people are both hypervisible yet not really visible to some in real-life.
And, its more than just a random conjecture; there have been many examinations about how the Academy voters lack of diversity translates to inequities with acting nominations. And, it’s not just about race and gender either.
Societal Biases Affects Perception
For example, the youngest Oscars winner, Tatum O’Neal, took the trophy for Best Supporting Actress in
It’s extremely rare for a child to gain a Best Actor/Actress nomination, with Quvenzhané Wallis being a rare exception. Her role in
There is the argument of child actors competing against older and more “seasoned” talent. People may wonder if they truly can “act” or simply take direction well. But, when you think about the way society views children, putting them into a supporting category takes on a new meaning. Children are often not seen as their own people with the same autonomy and importance as their adult counterparts.
Rather, they are often viewed as extensions of their parents or property for adults to control in whatever way they see fit. They are not the drivers of anything but rather passengers or vehicles for adults to gain understanding about themselves, the world, etc.
Logically, we understand that kids are their own people. But, our society’s implicit biases against children (“you’re just a kid, what do you know?”) and our own childhood experiences impact how we process seeing them in media. It could lead to us seeing an adult actor and a child actor co-leading a film and subconsciously seeing the adult, the “greater,” as THE lead, whether they are presented as a protagonist or not.
Viewers are subject to this bias, whether they are Academy voting members or every day watchers. And, there are additional factors that play into how we see a lead or co-lead. Some people rely on a film’s storytelling aspects and other times it’s marketing or “status” that skew their viewpoints.
What Makes Us See a Lead Actor as a Lead?
Stanfield himself was perplexed about his Supporting Actor nomination with the rest of us.
But, one could argue that the film’s marketing/promotion may have a leaning towards Kaluuya. Several movie posters (including this one) and trailers center more on Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton, at times putting him in the forefront of artwork.
It’s true that Fred Hampton aka the “Black Messiah” is the more well-known public figure. And, Kaluuya himself was fresh off a string of high-profile roles in
Taking this into consideration, some of the viewing audience likely (and maybe subconsciously) saw Kaluuya as the lead. Is he the more “well-known” and “prominent” actor? It depends on who you ask. Some people may have ignored any promotional leanings altogether. It’s quite easy to see them as co-leads/equals due to the film’s title and their own familiarity with both actors.
Stanfield is certainly no slouch with
The Racial Complexities of Lead vs. Supporting
Race doesn’t come into play with
And, imagine if it were a Black woman of the same status, say Viola Davis, in that role. Would she been seen as the lead by the average white male viewer? Or would it be an “Ethan Hawke” movie? It’s all very subjective.
It’s a different story with Dev Patel’s nominations for
There’s the argument that Patel didn’t have enough screen time as he only plays the adult Saroo. And, sliding Patel into the Supporting category was supposedly a strategy play to keep him out of the “Ryan Gosling-Casey Affleck” battle. Those may both be true but, if so, the latter is exceptionally disheartening. It’s understood that there’s some “gaming the system” (as much as you can call it one) to give someone a better “shot” at winning.
This speaks volumes considering the majority of Best Actor winners are white and POC candidates (if they exist) have to be “moved” just to stand a chance at taking home an award. Winning a Best Actor Award is the gateway for more scripts (and upping an actor’s salary demands), so it’s far more than just bragging rights. It can be a key to changing the trajectory of someone’s career, proving that they are a very bankable lead. This makes any biases for whatever reasons all the more complex.
It will be interesting to see how things play out with