Skip to content
Supporting or lead role? It's anyone's call
When "Traffic's" Benicio Del Toro beat out Russell Crowe and Tom Hanks for the Screen Actors Guild best-actor award earlier this month, there was a good deal of head scratching. Not that he didn't deserve the award, but if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had nominated him for an Oscar as a supporting actor for his role in Steven Soderbergh's ensemble film, what was Del Toro doing in the leading category for the SAG award?
This leads to other questions: If USA Films, which released "Traffic," had campaigned for Del Toro as best actor, would he have snagged a nomination in that category? And what's the dividing line between a best-actor (or -actress) and supporting-actor (or -actress) nomination anyway? The answer is, very little. In fact, it's often a judgment (and marketing) call by the studios, the filmmakers and the actors as to what category they got nominated in.
Over the years, the academy's selection of an actor as a lead or in support has become increasingly unpredictable. That, in part, is due to the lack of guidelines regarding the acting categories. Though there are clear dictates for the nominating process in categories like best song and best foreign-language film, the academy is much more permissive when it comes to the acting ranks.
"Any performance by an actor or actress in any role is eligible in either the leading or supporting category," says academy communications director John Pavlik. The distinction rests with the academy's acting branch, though critics and studio campaigns can also tilt the balance. Though USA Films campaigned for him as best supporting actor, Del Toro may have received votes for best actor as well -- he just got more for supporting actor. (Actors can no longer be nominated twice for the same performance, which occurred in 1944 when Barry Fitzgerald received best-actor and best-supporting-actor nods for "Going My Way.")
Del Toro swept many of the year-end critics' polls as supporting actor, but he was submitted as best actor for the SAG award. "It was an experiment," says Russell Schwartz, president of USA Films. "We felt we had nothing to lose if he didn't win, and it would call more attention to his work if he did. It was a long shot. Amazingly, it paid off."
In retrospect, considering his SAG win, a full-out Del Toro campaign for best actor might have brought him a best-actor nomination and maybe even the top prize, Schwartz believes.
Some of this year's nominees are clearly leads -- Tom Hanks in "Cast Away," Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich" -- while others are obviously supporting -- Judi Dench in "Chocolat," Joaquin Phoenix in "Gladiator." But besides Del Toro, there are several other nominees who easily could have fallen into either category.
Ellen Burstyn's turn in "Requiem for a Dream," for instance, would appear to be a supporting performance, because Jared Leto was the film's central character, yet she was nominated for best actress. Marcia Gay Harden is Harris' leading lady in "Pollock," yet he's nominated for best actor and she's in the supporting-actress category. Similarly, Albert Finney in "Erin Brockovich" or Willem Dafoe in "Shadow of the Vampire" could have landed in either category because they are virtual co-leads. Both were nominated as supporting actor.
Supporting category dates from 1936
The supporting category was originally created in 1936 to honor the achievements of actors whose names appeared in secondary roles. The winners that year were character actors Walter Brennan ("Come and Get It") and Gale Sondergaard ("Anthony Adverse"). With rare exceptions (Fitzgerald, Patty Duke in 1962's "The Miracle Worker," which was really a co-lead with Anne Bancroft), for many years there was a clear demarcation between a starring performance and a subsidiary one.
That all began to change in the '70s. Performers like George Burns in "The Sunshine Boys," Al Pacino in "The Godfather," Robert De Niro in "The Godfather Part II" and Tatum O'Neal in "Paper Moon," all of whom were co-leads, showed up in the supporting category, whereas a supporting role like Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was a best-actress contender (and winner). More recently, Anthony Hopkins was nominated (and won) for best actor in "The Silence of the Lambs," though his role was much smaller and obviously in support of best-actress winner Jodie Foster.
Ensemble films such as "Traffic" present a unique challenge, because there is often no central protagonist and many of the characters carry equal weight. Unlike SAG, the academy has no designated award for ensemble work. Last year Tom Cruise was nominated as best supporting actor for "Magnolia," though his role was as big as those of any of dozen or so actors featured in the film. In an earlier ensemble movie, "Pulp Fiction," John Travolta was nominated for best actor while Samuel L. Jackson was cited in support. The reason? Travolta was in all three of the movie's stories.
Various factors influence a studio's decision to campaign for a leading or supporting performance. "We usually leave it up to the critics," says Michael Barker, principal at Sony Pictures Classics, which released "Pollock." Initially, according to Barker, Harden appeared to be a best-actress candidate, but when critics began citing her for her supporting work, the campaign was shifted accordingly.
Similarly, when "Shadow of the Vampire" debuted at Cannes last year, the critical buzz around Dafoe's work indicated that he was being regarded as a supporting player (to John Malkovich's lead), says Tom Ortenberg, co-president of Lions Gate, which released the film. So there was never any consideration of mounting a best-actor promotional campaign.
Also, depending on the relative strength of the potential nominees, studios may try to position someone like Hopkins for best actor in "The Silence of the Lambs," figuring the category afforded him a better chance both to be nominated and win that year -- which indeed proved the case. (Financially, a best-actor nomination -- and especially a win -- has more impact at the box office and on the video release of a film.)
Sometimes actors make the determination as to how they'd like to be considered, again based on their perceptions of the competition. Though Burstyn's best-actress nomination this year is an exception, there is less debate about the two actress categories, according to Miramax co-president Meryl Poster, due to a paucity of true female starring roles. In "Pulp Fiction," when Travolta was nominated for best actor and Jackson for supporting actor, there was some carping in the media, but not from Jackson, who had agreed to be in the supporting category since he thought it gave him a better chance at a nomination. And he was right.
In "Fargo," Frances McDormand and William Macy have equally weighty roles, according to Schwartz. But Macy wanted to be positioned in support, which proved to be a good move, earning him a nomination that he might not otherwise have received as lead actor. McDormand was nominated (and won) for best actress.
Such decisions don't always bear fruit. "The nominating process can get very subjective," says Poster. Two years ago, Michael Caine saw his work in "Little Voice" as best-actor material because, he reasoned, he wasn't supporting anyone. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave Caine a Golden Globe as best actor in a musical or comedy. So Miramax championed him in the best-actor category. The strategy backfired -- Caine was not among the five best-actor nominees, while one of his co-stars, Brenda Blethyn, made the cut for supporting actress. A year later, Caine, in an obviously supporting role, won for "The Cider House Rules."