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Support or Lead Role? It's Anyone's Call

Choosing the category in which a performance belongs is up to the studios, filmmakers and actors.


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.

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