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Oscars poll: What's the worst case of category fraud?

January 12, 2010 |  9:32 am

There are accusations of category fraud at the Oscars every year -- sometimes justified. Consider last year when Kate Winslet had two rival lead roles in "Revolutionary Road" and "The Reader." Dubiously, she defined her "Reader" role as supporting so she wouldn't compete against herself and the strategy paid off with victories at the Golden Globes (where category placement is decided by an eligibility committee that usually buckles to studio demands) and Screen Actors Guild awards (where stars can place themselves wherever they wish).

But Oscar voters can place contenders in whatever category they wish and sometimes they pay no attention to category requests in "For Your Consideration" campaigns. That's what they did with "The Reader," bumping Winslet up to lead after early buzz for "Revolutionary Road" subsided. Finally she won an Oscar after five previous losses, but her fans must've been confused: How can Winslet win best lead actress at the Oscars and supporting at Globes and SAG for the same role?

Notes on a scandal

But Oscar voters can also make ridiculous classifications. Tatum O'Neal was in virtually every scene of "Paper Moon," but she won in supporting because that's where voters almost always put kids — apparently thinking that small people automatically belong in the race for smaller roles.

Often voters place contenders wherever they want, however preposterous. Jim Broadbent obviously had the lead male role in "Iris," but he campaigned in supporting because he wasn't famous and had no chance to win in lead opposite superstars Russell Crowe (starring in best picture winner "A Beautiful Mind") or eventual champ Denzel Washington ("Training Day").

That's what is called "category fraud" -- when a star deliberately campaigns in the wrong category in order to hike their chances to win.

What about this year? Christoph Waltz ("Inglourious Basterds") could legitimately campaign in lead or supporting, so he's opting for supporting in order to improve his odds. Smart move. It's probably going to cinch his victory, but it's not really a fraudulent placement since his role straddles both category definitions. Still, many Oscarologists believe he's opting for supporting because he isn't famous -- thus using the Broadbent strategy.

But what about his costar Melanie Laurent? Some Oscarologists say the Weinstein Co. is campaigning her in lead because the studio doesn't want her to draw votes in the supporting race from costar Diane Kruger, who's obviously a strong contender — she's nominated by SAG. Laurent appears in less than half of "Inglourious Basterds," but she has the most screen time among all female stars.

The same can be said of Marion Cotillard in "Nine," but she's got minimal screen time. It's absurd to campaign her in lead, as Weinstein Co. is doing, but the film has too many supporting gals (Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman) so it's pushing one up to lead to: 1.) get her out of the way; and 2.) spread the wealth.

But sometimes it makes sense to push a star into lead when faced with similar circumstances. Nicole Kidman had less screen time in "The Hours" than Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore, but she campaigned in the lead race -- which she won -- allegedly because she portrayed the movie's chief character, novelist Virginia Woolf. The real reason: Nicole had just been dumped by Hollywood's box office king Tom Cruise, everybody felt terrible about it and they wanted to give her a crown of her own, crafted of academy gold.

Sometimes screen time isn't the measure by which roles should be defined as lead or supporting, at least according to Oscar voters. Forest Whitaker ("Last King of Scotland") and Denzel Washington ("Training Day") had less screen time than costars James McAvoy and Ethan Hawke, but they had bigger, more bombastic roles, emotionally speaking, so they were nominated in lead and won there.

I asked our forum posters to name some notorious cases of category misplacement in the past. A few of their responses are below. Check out more in our message boards. Vote for what you think is the worst case. Our poll isolates examples of actors who've been accused of winning Oscars with lead roles unfairly competing in the supporting race in order to increase their chances for victory. (Or, in the case of Tatum O'Neal, being forced to compete in supporting because she only 11 years old.)

Oopschoice: "When a supporting character goes lead, I'm usually fine with it, assuming lead category is tougher than supporting. But Reese Witherspoon should have been nominated and won in supporting. And when a lead goes supporting, that's a category fraud."

Noble: "Jamie Foxx, 'Colatteral.' Jake Gyllenhaal, 'Brokeback Mountain.' Jennifer Hudson, 'Dreamgirls.' All the three above had pretty convenient reasons for being in supporting. Only way Jamie could get nominated twice, Jake didn't have to compete with Ledger, Hudson could avoid the Mirren express and could win supporting in a cake walk. Shameful."

Kelemenmarc: "Meryl Streep ('The Devil Wears Prada') was supporting."

trans_lux73: "Timothy Hutton in 'Ordinary People' should have been placed in lead. He had plenty of screen time and made a huge impact (obviously). No, he wouldn't have beaten De Niro."


Seanflynn: "Probably the single worst case - Richard Burton's supporting nomination for 'My Cousin Rachel' (1952). In the 98 minute movie, he is on the screen possibly 90 minutes. He is the fulcrum of the story (a boy raised to manhood in 1800 Cornwall believes his guardian was murdered by his new wife, then becomes obsessed with her) …. Burton was unknown in the U.S. when Fox brought him over, and was expecting to make him a star. But they must have thought the best way to get him an Oscar (he lost of course) as an unknown was in supporting."

202chicago: "Louise Fletcher ('One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest') — a dominating supporting role. Not in any way, shape, or form a leading role."

GloFish: "Gene Hackman in 'I Never Sang for My Father'? Hackman is in almost every scene in that film and the story is told from his character's perspective, yet he was placed in supporting, while Melvyn Douglas was placed in lead."

Thedemonhog: "Djimon Hounsou played the main character in 'Blood Diamond,' but received third billing behind Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly. A case can obviously be made for DiCaprio being nominated in the lead category, but not when Hounsou was nominated as a supporting actor at the Oscars and everywhere else."

Fritz: "I don't mind if supporting players enter the leading category because it's much tougher there. For me, Patricia Neal was clearly supporting in 'Hud,' but if she goes leading and wins, good for her. On the other hand, it really bothers me when leading performances enter the supporting category because it gives them an unfair advantage by having much more screentime and character arc than usual supporting players."

Dude: "I felt that George Burns (winner, best supporting actor) and Walter Matthau (nominee, best actor) were co-leads in 'The Sunshine Boys.'"

742: "Haley Joel Osment was a lead in 'The Sixth Sense' along with Bruce Willis."

WhiteWingedDove1128: "Eva Marie Saint was a lead in 'On the Waterfront,' while Patricia Neal and Anthony Hopkins won lead Oscars for supporting roles in 'Hud' and 'Silence of the Lambs.'"

Carlo: "I'm so happy that Jim Broadbent won an Oscar for 'Iris' because he was great in that movie, but that was clearly a lead performance."

Sirkevin: "The campaigning this year is really annoying me, with Melanie Laurent and Marion Cotillard being campaigned lead for Oscar worthy supporting performances. They'd both be shoo-ins for deserving nods if they were being campaigned in the proper categories."

Photo credit: Fox Searchlight