The Curious Case of Best Actor vs. Best Supporting Actor

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 Judas & the Black Messiah. Daniel Kaluuya, who portrayed Fred Hampton, and Lakeith Stanfield, who plays Bill O’Neal, both received Best Actor in a Supporting Role (commonly referred to as Best Supporting Actor) nominations. And, while their powerful performances deserve recognition, it was certainly a head-scratching revelation. It also brings up  a string of questions beyond who the lead is in this film. 

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 International Business Times report suggests that the initial distinction between the two was likely determined by screen time.

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 Paper Moon in 1974 at age 10; however, she’s the lead of that movie. In fact, there are a few examples of child actors who essentially lead/co-lead, providing a strong focus for a film, yet they don’t get the Best Actor/Actress nomination like Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed and Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense.

It’s extremely rare for a child to gain a Best Actor/Actress nomination, with Quvenzhané Wallis being a rare exception. Her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild earned her a Best Actress nomination in 2012 at age 9. 

Beasts of Southern Wild still showing best actress nomination actor Quenzhevalie Wallis

Fox Searchlight Pictures

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? 
Judas and the Black Messiah still with two Black men sitting in front of a car with two men in the back. It is nighttime and raining.

Warner Bros. 

Judas & the Black Messiah is an exceptionally interesting example to examine this. From the storytelling aspect, the lead of this film is Lakeith Stanfield, even though it also follows Kaluuya. O’Neal/Judas serves as a foundation for the film’s emotional and observatory core with the viewer traversing a lot of its timeline through his perspective. Furthermore, Judas & the Black Messiah’s Oscars submissions were for Stanfield as Best Actor and Kaluuya as Best Supporting Actor.

Stanfield himself was perplexed about his Supporting Actor nomination with the rest of us. Variety offers a plausible explanation concerning Stanfield falling short of Best Actor votes and gaining enough for Supporting Actor but there’s still no definitive answer. 

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 Get Out, Black Panther, and Queen & Slim that caught the eyes of mainstream (read: predominately white) media. (The former film gained him a Best Actor nomination in 2018.)

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 Selma, Knives Out, Uncut Gems, Get Out, and the TV series Atlanta, among others, under his belt. Social cues and our own perceptions (and biases) concerning “status” certainly make a difference, right? 

The Racial Complexities of Lead vs. Supporting

Race doesn’t come into play with Judas & the Black Messiah because it is a Black-led film. But, what happens if, for example, there is a white actor and POC actor co-leading a film? If they both receive nominations, then who gets the Best Actor/Actress vs. Best Supporting Actor/Actress nominations? Or, do they end up in the same category competing against each other?

With Training Day, Denzel Washington starred opposite Ethan Hawke, whose character provides the perspective for the film; Washington took home the Best Actor Award for expertly playing a morally corrupt detective. But, then again, Denzel is also an acting legend so it’s pretty hard for him to be in a film and people not see him as the lead, even if he were playing a truly supporting role.

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 Lion. He got a Best Actor in a Leading Role nomination from the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. But, the Oscars put him into the Best Supporting Actor category despite playing the lead character. Nicole Kidman, who plays the character’s adoptive mother, also got a Best Supporting nomination as an actress.

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.

An Indian man stands in front of a grey wall while wearing a grey shirt

Transmission Films

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 Judas & the Black Messiah, even though we hate to see two kings competing against each other. But, the confusion and conversations around lead vs. supporting actor is more than just the Academy’s “rules” or lack thereof. It’s about our own viewpoints on an actor’s social status, how we engage storytelling, and sometimes who we gravitate towards, for better or worse.

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