But since 1992, when Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon (the co-leads of Thelma & Louise) both lost best actress to Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs), two actors from the same film have never been nominated in the same lead category again, and probably never will. The Favourite proved why last year. No matter how many leads a film has—and The Favourite had three—if you want one to actually win, they better not face any competition from their costars. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, both already Oscar winners, kindly got out of Olivia Colman’s way, and Colman upset Glenn Close to win best actress.
This notion that a film can only have one lead per gender becomes especially damaging for films about same-sex relationships. Hetero romances—think Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook—frequently campaign both actors as leads; Brokeback Mountain and Carol, on the other hand, shunted two of their leads (Jake Gyllenhaal and Rooney Mara, respectively) into supporting, presenting an unspoken implication that one person in these relationships is, somehow, less.
Among this year’s supporting-actor nominees, four of them are truly co-leads. Yes, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is about Matthew Rhys’s journalist character, but to be more specific, it’s about the way Mister Rogers—played by Tom Hanks—changes his life. Yes, Pope Francis is given more of the focus in The Two Popes, but much of that screen time goes to another actor playing his younger self. Jonathan Pryce, who is nominated in lead, and Anthony Hopkins, who is nominated in supporting, have virtually identical screen time. Al Pacino is absent from The Irishman for the beginning and ending, but in such a long film that’s part of the point—we need to feel the full weight of his presence for two hours, followed by his sudden absence, for the denouement to be so artfully disarming. (His Irishman costar Joe Pesci, on the other hand, is the one true supporting player in this category.)
Pacino wasn’t likely to stage a protest for his supporting nomination this time. Category fraud partially persists because people rarely get up in arms about it. The enduring question inevitably comes down to some version of, So what? Isn’t this a relatively victimless crime? No, not really.
The obvious “victims” of the category fraud that got all these actors here are, most obviously, the actors who gave Oscar-worthy performances in actual supporting roles—this year that group included Alan Alda, Sterling K. Brown, Jamie Foxx, Tracy Letts, and John Lithgow.
But the less obvious victim is actually the one being harmed the most—our understanding of the films themselves. Whether you interpret a film as being about one person or two people is a substantial difference. And that brings us to Brad Pitt, our likely supporting-actor winner. Pitt’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood character, Cliff Booth, is just as central to the story as Rick Dalton, played by best-actor nominee Leonardo DiCaprio. As Vanity Fair’s Mark Harris wrote in a 2013 piece about a different category-fraud gambit—when the campaign for Ron Howard’s Rush promoted co-lead Daniel Brühl in supporting—if Quentin Tarantino truly intended Cliff to be a supporting character in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, he did a really bad job of it.
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