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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

The comments to this entry are closed.


I think your survey has made some poor choices as, if you go by screen time, Jennifer Connelly, Benecio Del Toro, George Clooney and Whoopi Goldberg were all in the right category. Not every film has a lead (if you go by screen time) and Traffic, The Hours, Syrianna, Magnolia, Crash, Inglourious Basterds, etc. have no leads in my opinion. A lead is someone who is in at least 75-100 percent of the film, screen time. If someone else appears more than they are the lead and often cases there are two leads. Yes, I agree Jake Gyllenhaal should have been co-lead with Ledger as should have Blanchett with Dench. I agree that Laurent and Cotillard should have been nominated for supporting this year as they were nowhere near the lead in the film. Here are all the ones I have seen that I consider a category fraud:

2008: Kate Winslett (The Reader. Sure she had the most screen time of any other character in the film, but is in maybe 50 percent of it, if that. This film has 3 major supporting roles but NO lead for screen time)
2007: Julie Christie (Away from Her. Many may disagree with me but her husband is in the entire film and she is in maybe...2/3rds? It's a very borderline lead/supporting role as far as the screentime and even though the film is ABOUT her, I would say her husband's screentime dominates by far and she is supporting to me)
Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He was lead hands down. Not Brad Pitt. Just because Pitt was the bigger star doesn't mean Affleck should be supporting. He was in the whole film. Therefore, lead)
Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men. Here is another I know people will disagree with, but I believe he shared about an equal time with his co-lead Josh Brolin. When Brolin wasn't on screen running from Barden, Bardem was walking around killing people. I think this film has two leads and Bardem is the co-lead for screen time)
2006: Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada. Just because she was Streep and the title character she gets lead over what is obvious a supporting role. Hathaway is the lead character)
Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland. Once again, just because he's a big star and the title character doesn't mean he's the lead. I know the film is ABOUT his character but James McAvoy is in the entire film. Whitaker...maybe half? and even when Whitaker is on screen, McAvoy is 99.9 percent of the time there too!)
Cate Blanchett (Notes on a Scandal. Co-lead with Dench)
2005: Jake Gylenhaal (Co-lead with Ledger. This was one of the most offensive and blatantly homophobic category fraud scandals ever. If Gylenhaal would have been a woman the role would have been lead. I even considered Witherspoon a lead in Walk the Line, but how is she a lead and not Gylenhaal?)
2004: Jamie Foxx (Collateral. As many have said)
2002: Nicole Kidman (The Hours. I didn't consider this film to have a lead and with 20 something minutes of screentime and less than the other two women, this is not the lead imo)
2001: Ethan Hawke (Training Day. If anything a co-lead with Washington, if not a lead over Washington's Supporting)

I haven't seen a whole lot before 2000, but I can say I think Michael Douglas (Wall Street), Marlon Brando (The Godfather), Al Pachino (The Godfather) and Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs) were all in the opposite category of what they should have been if you are going by screen time. I know the Academy doesn't always go by screen time but I think they should. Many have complained that it bothers them if a lead dominates in Supporting to win because they have more screen time but it is also bothering when someone has 20 minutes of screen time and wins in Lead over someone who gives an outstanding and deserving performance in 2 hours worth of a film. It bothers me either way and in a few cases here and there it isn't that bothering to me, when they are borderline. But in a case like Winslett winning for the Reader, she shouldn't have even been in for that and in for Revolutionary Road instead. But that is just my opinion.

The very worst piece of category fraud is that of David Niven who had a supporting performance in "Separate Tables", but being pushed lead at the time because he was a very respected actor back in the day. He won Best LEAD Actor for a 13 minute performance. :-O

Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs had I believe only 23 minutes of screen time and won the leading male best actor oscar...Scott Glenn was the other male actor but he didn't exactly have an enormous amount of screen time either so a case could be made that Hopkins was the male lead but the strongest case is simply this in a movie that i believe is 118 minutes that Hopkins characterization of Hannibal Lecter was only in the movie for a mere 23 minutes and had the extremely intense impact on the overall reaction to the film.


As memorable and iconic his role became, Anthony Hopkins' turn in "The Silence of the Lambs" is actually a supporting one. His role is for sure no bigger than Kevin Spacey's one in The Usual Suspects, nor his Hannibal Lecter is more iconic than Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight.

Was there even a frame in "Training Day" that Ethan Hawke was not in? Yet, supporting? I consider this as abominable as Jamie Foxx's nomination for supporting for "Collateral." Though, both performances were great.

i am so sorry i meant to say are they leading the movie or are they supporting it?

i actually have a question.... when a movie doesn't have a single or a pair of strong driving characters and is made with a set of several actors that conduct the main story divided in parts with different arcs and resolutions do you think all of the roles can be called leading or supporting...are the characters leading the roles or are they actually supporting them?

Louise Fletcher in "One flew over the cuckoo's nest" was clearly the only prominent female role but in a supporting role. The studio campaign for her in the lead and she won in a weak year for women's roles.

I should also add that stepping on toes wasn't an issue for "Dreamgirls" on Broadway; Sheryl Lee Ralph (the original Deena) was nommed for a lead Tony along with Holliday.

+1 on Gonzalo: I've always said Nicole's win for "The Hours" was a consolation for "Moulin Rouge!"; TomKat had nothing to do with it.

I'm still scratching my head on the guy who claims Louise Fletcher was category fraud; if you follow his reasoning, Jennifer Hudson wasn't. There is clear evidence JHud should have been lead (Jennifer Holliday won a lead Tony for originating Effie White, and unlike Velma Kelly in "Chicago" the role wasn't cut back for the film); IMO the studio put her in supporting more to keep off Beyoncé's toes than Helen Mirren's, and that time the Academy obliged. Nurse Ratched was clearly the dominant female character in "Cuckoo's Nest" (just like Effie was in "Dreamgirls"), so IMO Fletcher's win for lead was legit.

Finally, everyone has ignored the time the Academy itself committed category fraud, by dumping Meryl Streep into supporting instead of lead for "Kramer vs. Kramer"--mainly because co-star Jane Alexander would have won supporting otherwise, which would have made "Kramer" the only film in Oscar history to win 5 of the top 6 awards. (Dozens have won 4 of 6; no film has won 5 of 6.) It also prevented the third "sweep" from happening only four years after "Cuckoo's Nest", instead of waiting till "Silence of the Lambs".

The worst case of category fraud that's about to happen this year is Christopher Plummer in "The Last Station"--clearly he's co-lead with Helen Mirren, but he's campaigning for supporting.

To me the bigger fraud is when a lead actor or actress takes a supporting role in order to have a better chance of taking an Oscar home. While we like to think all are created equal, etc., the supporting categories were designed for those actor/actresses who were good, but not "lead" material. They became staples of the movies, character actors like Walter Brennan, Peter Lorre, etc. who give a movie flavor and depth -- not just another pretty face. But today nobody wants to be a perpetual second line actor/actress, everybody strives to be a lead. Thus, Clooney, Tim Robbins, Robin Williams, etc. who are all leading men, take those roles to better their odds of getting at least one in their life. This has helped kill veteran character actors/actresses who one time made a nice living being in the movies, etc. Now, they have been pushed out. Movies are lesser for it.

William H. Macy in "Fargo": nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, even though he's on screen more than Frances McDormand (who won Best Actress for her performance)

Daniel Day-Lewis was nom for Gangs of New York in the Lead but was supportiing.

"Tom said: 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."

Man dude, stop trying to claim your opinion as fact. It's really starting to turn me off to your blog. Especially now that there are soo many other competing Oscar watch sites out there. I still think your the best of the lot but please...ton down the hyperbole.

I think you really have to look at the "big picture." The time onscreen isn't necessarilly a deciding factor, nor is billing. I think you also have to consider the overall story line as well as the character itself and how it fits within the movie. Whoopie in Ghost...clearly supporting---the kind of character role that defies amount of time onscreen, plus she's genuinely supporting Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore's characters. Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line ....clearly lead--check the overall story and the place June Carter ended up holding in Johnny Cash's life.

Also, I think that big ensemble films like Traffic or Crash should go with supporting, like Friends did for many years with it's tv cast,especially early on.

Al Pacino as supporting actor for The Godfather. That would be like Peter O'Toole as supporting actor in Lawrence of Arabia.

..."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..." :::::::::: this is plain STUPID! she dumped Cruise 2 years before, why didn´t she won for Moulin Rouge! a year before¿?

Maybe I got crazy, but also Javier Bardem had too much screen time. And every time you see him, he is not with Brolin os screen, according to IMDB, so it's his very own screen minutes.

Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie had most certainly a lead role because he had as much screen time as his co-star Jack Lemmon.

Don Murray - Bus Stop (1956)

He's in the whole film!!!

Hay un montón de casos en la historia de los Oscars, entre los ganadores por ejemplo, Barry Fitgerald (Going my way 1944), Eva Marie Saint (On the waterfront 1954), Peter Ustinov (Topkapi 1964), Walter Matthau (The fortune cookie 1966), Goldie Hawn (Cactus flower 1969), Tatum O´Neal (Paper moon 1973), Timothy Hutton (Ordinary people 1980), Jessica Lange (Tootsie 1982), Haing S. Ngor (The killing fields 1984), Geena Davis (The accidental tourist 1988), Juliette Binoche (The english patient 1996), Jennifer Connelly (A beautiful mind 2001), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago 2002), George Burns (The sunshine boys 1975), y entre los nominados Jennifer Jones (Since you went away 1944), Geraldine Page (Hondo 1953), Betsy Blair (Marty 1955), Natalie Wood (Rebel without a cause 1955), Don Murray (Bus stop 1956), Al Pacino (The godfather 1972), Robert Preston (Victor Victoria 1982), Julianne Moore (The hours 2002), Meryl Streep (Adaptation 2002), o Cate Blanchett (Notes on a scandal 2006). De hecho muchos de ellos -concretamente O´Neal, Zeta-Jones, Burns, Pacino, y Preston-, fueron nominados a los Golden Globes en la categoría de protagonista.

2004's Jamie Foxx ("Collateral") was a particularly abominable case of category fraud. This talented actor had more screen time than top-billed Tom Cruise, but ran in supporting to avoid a collision with his winning lead role in "Ray". Shameful (and it's not even in your survey !)

Of course, there's the ultimate lead/support mixup from 1944 when Barry Fitzgerald managed to be nominated in both categories for the same performance in "Going My Way." (He should have been lead, but won for supporting in order to give Bing Crosby his Oscar.) But the thing that really grates me is that the supporting categories were created for the outstanding character actors like Thelma Ritter, Eve Arden, Charles Coburn, Agnes Moorehead, Claude Rains, and others who would rarely play leading roles but who ehanced every movie they were in. It's because of the way studios and agents mess with these categories that today's truly outstanding supporting performers like Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci,Charles Durning and Angela Lansbury are Oscar-less today.

I still can't fathom why Jim Broadbent didn't go for the double nomination in 2001. Lead for "Iris" and supporting for Moulin Rouge! it's what he did at the BAFTAs and won for supporting. He was definitley famous enough from Topsy-Turvey, Iris, Moulin Rouge!, and the SAG-ensemble nominated Little Voice. to pull it off. Plus he fits into the Academy's favorite category- old white guy.




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