Why was LaKeith Stanfield nominated as supporting actor? Ask the acting branch

LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya in a scene from "Judas and the Black Messiah."
LaKeith Stanfield, right, was considered by many to be the lead in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” He got an Oscar nomination, but in the supporting category, putting him in competition with costar Daniel Kaluuya, left.
(Glen Wilson)

“Judas and the Black Messiah” follows the real-life story of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), largely through the eyes of FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), the Judas figure in the story. Viewers and awards watchers may have been surprised Monday morning to discover Stanfield was not the lead actor in the film, as he had campaigned as.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored “Judas” with six Oscar nominations, including best picture, and a widely expected supporting nomination for Kaluuya, who has been cleaning up this awards season for his galvanizing performance as Hampton. And then Stanfield’s name was announced in the supporting category as well.

So who makes these calls? The voting members of the acting branch, whose votes determine the nominees, regardless of studio campaigns or critics’ awards.

According to academy rules, “A performance by an actor or actress in any role shall be eligible for nomination either for the leading role or supporting role categories ... The determination as to whether a role is a leading or supporting role shall be made individually by members of the branch at the time of balloting.”


It’s nowhere near the first time category confusion has affected the Oscars.

Benicio Del Toro won the supporting actor Oscar for “Traffic” after winning the SAG Award as that film’s lead. Eyebrows rose when John Travolta was nominated as the lead in “Pulp Fiction” but Samuel L. Jackson was tabbed as supporting, when the two seemed either co-leads or co-supporting in that ensemble film (Travolta did appear in all three of the film’s stories, albeit briefly in one).

“The Devil Wears Prada” follows the journey of Anne Hathaway’s character; she’s on screen more than any other and undergoes the primary transformation in the story. Yet Meryl Streep’s indelible Miranda Priestly was designated the lead for Oscar purposes (La Meryl was nominated as lead actress but did not win).

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Similarly, Leonardo DiCaprio, at the very least the co-lead of “The Departed,” got a studio push as supporting, likely to avoid conflict with his awards-buzzy lead work in “Blood Diamond” that same year; he ended up getting a lead nod for “Diamond” but not being nominated at all for “Departed,” despite delivering a white-knuckle performance (as a character in a similar predicament to Stanfield’s).

Screen time isn’t a qualifier either: Anthony Hopkins was on screen for 16 minutes in “The Silence of the Lambs” and won the lead actor Oscar; David Niven was around for slightly less time in “Separate Tables” and also won for a leading role. Ellen Burstyn’s knockout work in a smaller role in “Requiem for a Dream” got a lead actress nomination. And the list goes on and on.

In the event a performance gets enough support to join the leaders of both categories, the academy will place it in only one of the two. That’s determined by which category it reaches the required number of votes first, or if it’s a tie (yes, if the performance ties with itself by simultaneously qualifying in lead and supporting), it “shall be placed only on the ballot in that category in which it receives the greater percentage of the total votes.”

That rule was put in place after Barry Fitzgerald received both lead and supporting nominations for the same performance in “Going My Way” (1944).


2021 Oscar nominations: The complete list

March 15, 2021