To Lead or Not to Lead

"What would you have done?" Kate Winslet in The Reader.

To lead or not to lead, that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to go lead or supporting is the fuss of many a campaign ev’ry Oscar season. Each award period usually sees at least one case of a contender gaining extra traction (or even a win) by smartly slipping his or her name through the loopholes of Oscar glory. It’s hard not to see the farce in the whole affair when one looks at years such as 2001 when Best Supporting Actress winner Jennifer Connelly probably had more screentime in A Beautiful Mind than Best Actress winner Halle Berry did in Monster’s Ball. That’s hardly here nor there, since both actresses gave a performance worthy of the award, but it’s always good to note how easily category confusion can shake things up. Case in point: Academy voters can smell a fraud and vote correctly, as they did for 2008 when Best Supporting Actress front-runner Kate Winslet swept the early awards in that category, but ended up winning the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in The Reader. (Keep in mind that’s it’s generally the studios that do such risky business.)

There’s nothing to say what makes an Oscar winner worthy of a lead or a supporting trophy. Voters are simply guided to place the names in whichever category they deem appropriate regardless of what they studio ads suggest, and then an actor is nominated in whichever category he or she first hands enough votes to warrant a nomination. (For the full explanation on the process, see the Academy's Special Rules.)

As a result of 2012 being a strong year for movies—one of the best ever, I think—the fields are crowded and actors could either get lost in the mix or come out on top depending on how their names are placed. The supporting categories, however, have considerably more wiggle room, so the old switcheroo could turn an also-ran into a contender. For example, Scott Feinberg notes that Warner Bros. will push Amy Adams as a lead actress in Trouble with the Curve, presumably in order to capitalize on the popularity of her supporting turn in The Master. Especially for some underdog indies, the baby-kissing for lead or for supporting could really make an impact on the contest. Therefore, here’s a look at a few contenders who could have an impact on the Oscar race of 2012:

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman star in The Master.
Courtesy of eOne Films

Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master

Hoffman’s performance in The Master is arguably the most contentious of the ones listed here. He’s an absolute powerhouse as the larger-than-life title character of Paul Thomas Anderson’s acclaimed film. Hoffman is a commanding presence in a very large role, so many film fans deem him worthy of a Best Actor nomination; however, is it really the lead role of the film? Hoffman arguably has a role secondary to Joaquin Phoenix in the film and Phoenix favored to win in the lead actor race above Hoffman, so a loose interpretation of the word “supporting: might let The Master double dip. However, Phoenix’s recent dismissal of the Oscar race could open up a spot for Hoffman to become the dark horse in the Best Actor race if one believes that it’s politics, not performances, that drive the race.
Verdict: Supporting. People are bound to quibble with whichever category Hoffman pops up, but he stands a better chance with Phoenix in the lead. It’s a large role, but not as large as Phoenix’s. Hoffman has ample screen time, but, like a true master, the strength of his performance makes him seem omnipresent.

Helen Hunt with John Hawkes in The Sessions

Helen Hunt in The Sessions

Helen Hunt’s miraculous performance in The Sessions shows how easily consensus can change. It seemed like Hunt was in the running for Best Actress after the film played at Sundance, then her named was bounced around for supporting circa TIFF, after which she seems to be a front-runner. (See: The Playlist) One could call Hunt the lead in The Sessions, since she has the largest female role. She doesn’t appear until the film’s second act or so and she has little screen time in the final act (but those few moments are among her best), so could rightly be seen as a supporting player in the John Hawkes show. Like Hoffman, the strength of her performance makes the role seem bigger than it is on paper, so she could justifiably go either way. It’s really just a matter of whichever category voters submit her name.
Verdict: Supporting. I’m rooting for Helen Hunt regardless, but maybe even for the win if she’s nominated here.

Pauline Collins and Maggie Smith in Quartet

The cast of Quartet

A true ensemble film, Quartet boasts four excellent performances from Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins as a quartet of retired actors. Much of the pre-festival buzz focused on Maggie Smith’s role as the central diva of the quartet; however, like Hunt in The Sessions, she doesn’t appear for the first little bit of the film. (Once she does, though, she takes centre stage.) Quartet also has Tom Courtenay give a fine understated performance as Smith’s former lover, with Connolly and Collins giving more comedic roles. Like the best actors in the business, the four stars of Quartet complement each other and play off their co-stars to work accentuate their own work. It’s not a Carnage situation where all four actors are together for the whole film—one would probably need a stopwatch to separate the screentime—so the marketing department at The Weinstein Company just needs to get a feel for their contenders. They’re all great and they would all be nominated if I could cast a ballot. (One would be ranked #1 at this point, too.)
Verdict: Smith and Courtenay = lead, Collins and Connolly = supporting. 

Dwight Henry and Quvenzhane Wallis star in Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Courtesy of eOne Films

Dwight Henry in Beasts of the Southern Wild

Dwight Henry gives an excellent performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild as the father to young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), but if there’s one case of blatant category fraud so far in 2012, it’s this performance. Henry appears in virtually the entire film, so he is arguably the male lead of Beasts. Wallis is so impressive as Hushpuppy, though, that Henry’s strong work almost becomes an afterthought, as you’ll note in my own review of the film. It’s seems like he’s a secondary player in Beasts, even though he carries much of it. Additionally, he might have more chance of succeeding in the supporting category since he’s an unknown actor.
Verdict: Lead. He gives award-worthy work, but it’s no bit part.

Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle

Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises

Twitter was recently a-flurry when Warner Bros. unveiled the category listings of it’s For Your Consideration pages for voters and listed Anne Hathaway as a lead for her role as Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises. Hathaway got strong notice for her take on the female feline of the third installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, with some people tossing her name around as having the potential to follow-up The Dark Knight’s Heath Ledger as a nominee for the franchise. Hathaway has long been presumed to be a strong contender in this category for work in Les Misérables, though, (have you seen that teaser?!), so her good notices for Batman will probably only help a push for Universal’s campaign for Les Mis. On the other hand, The Dark Knight Rises could provide a decent back-up plan for Hathaway if Samantha Barks steals Les Mis in her role as Éponine, as some writers are speculating.
Verdict: It’s a supporting role. WB is just being greedy by putting her as lead.

Ann Dowd in Compliance.
Courtesy of eOne Films

Ann Dowd in Compliance

I was skeptical of Ann Dowd’s chances in the Oscar race before I saw Compliance. A little movie like Compliance is a hard sell to the Academy, especially if the film itself isn’t all that great itself; moreover, when they have a small distributor like Magnolia, they really need to work hard to be noticed. (Case in point: the distributor’s mishandling of Julia and Tilda Swinton’s Oscar chances in 2009.) Ann Dowd, however, has received strong notices since the film premiered at Sundance and has gained more support in the months since. Dowd carries most, if not all, of the film with her performance as the manager of a fast food restaurant that is tormented by a prank caller. It almost feels dismissive of Dowd’s work to call it a supporting role. Awards Daily, for example, gives a strong assessment of the actress’s work and shows how this indie darling provides a breakout role for a veteran character actress. A supporting nomination might be an easier gamble since the field is less crowded and the lead race has some big names. On the other hand, though, a strong campaign for a worthy performance could easily change Dowd’s career. Just look what happened to Melissa Leo with Frozen River.
Verdict: Lead, but will probably appear on the supporting ballots.

Julianne Moore, Onata Aprile, and Alexander Skarsgard in What Maisie Knew

Julianne Moore in What Maisie Knew

Moore’s performance in What Maisie Knew easily ranks among the best performances that I saw at TIFF this year. Thanks to the considerate, sensitive reading that Moore brings to her character, Maisie’s mother is hardly the one-dimensional monster that appears in the novel by Henry James. I think it’s a strong performance that deserves comparison to the work that should have won Moore Best Supporting Actress for Boogie Nights. Moore could finally win the statue that has long eluded her depending on the marketing for Maisie. As the biggest name in the production, Moore receives top-billing in What Maisie Knew, but the lead actress of the film is arguably Maisie herself, played by then six-year-old Onata Aprile. The wide support for Beast of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhané Wallis certainly has people rethinking the rule on child actors, so it might not be such a stretch to give Aprile the spotlight. She’s in virtually every frame of the film, too. Although Moore the meatier part, she’s in only half the film. I hope that What Maisie Knew gets the notice it deserves because Moore’s final scene is a clincher.
Verdict: Supporting, but has this release been pushed back to 2013? (At least we’ll see Moore collecting trophies for Game Change!)

Laura Linney and Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson. (Photo: Nicola Dove)

Laura Linney in Hyde Park on Hudson

I haven’t seen Hyde Park on Hudson, so I was surprised to see Laura Linney’s name in the supporting category on Focus Features’ FYC listing (which has strangely disappeared…. The trailer makes it seem like a big part (perhaps she just has a lot of voice-over), and much of the advance hype suggested that Hyde Park could finally make Linney an Oscar winner. Then the film played at Telluride and TIFF and received polite but unremarkable praise, although the performances by Bill Murray, Laura Linney, and Olivia Williams were generally noted as being above the stiffness of the film itself. (Ex: The Film Experience) Many people felt that Williams deserved a nomination for Ghost Writer a few years back, so perhaps her ballsy turn as Eleanor Roosevelt could put her in the hunt. (She’s also good in a minor role in Anna Karenina.) Could the film wind up empty handed, however, if Hyde Park on Hudson leaves its banners without a leading lady and dubs Linney a supporting role?

Jessica Chastain is the new Jack Bauer in Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

This performance is another that I haven’t seen, but it’s one that I’m very excited to watch. Readers will probably recall my Meryl-Streep-grade excitement for Jessica Chastain’s outstanding body of work last year, and I am more than eager to hop aboard the Chastain Train once again. Chastain hasn’t had as prolific a year as she did in 2011 (damn you, Terrence Malick!), but she gave a notable turn in John Hillcoat’s Lawless this summer and it looks like she packs a doozy in Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama Bin Laden film Zero Dark Thirty. Chastain looks like a one-woman Taliban exterminator in the film, so it’s hard to tell if she’s the central character or part of an ensemble. Nobody has seen the film yet, or they are keeping mum if they have, so there’s little else to go on besides a hunch. However, Chastain is consistently a powerhouse and she has a baity-looking Jack Bauer-ish role. Zero Dark Thirty could also resonate strongly in American culture in such a politically charged year, so maybe Chastain will be actress of the year once again.
UPDATE: Awards Daily's Sasha Stone reports that Chastain will be going lead for Zero Dark Thirty.

Do you agree with some of these verdicts?
Or do you think there are other performances worth discussing?

Also: updated Oscar predictions will be coming soon!