On Category Fraud

This winter awards season is my first as a member of a recognized critic group (the Online Film Critics Society) and thus the first year I get any sort of (however small) tangible say on the subject of the best films and performances of the year. I take quite a bit of pride (probably too much, really) in this fact, and have been doing my due diligence to watch as many screeners and take as many trips to the cinema to be as informed a voter as possible. It has been a whirlwind of a month since things really picked up in November, and we’re just now reaching the end of my part in the awards cycle with OFCS final voting due by Saturday night.

There has been some consternation this year, possibly more so than I can personally remember for some time, about studios pushing for ‘category fraud,’ or the act of angling for an award that does not necessarily fit the category in which it is being angled for, usually due to the other category leading to a higher likelihood of winning even if it may not be entirely accurate or moral to do so. Perhaps the most famous example of category fraud comes from that venerable institution the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the group who puts on the Golden Globes. Everyone pretty much knows the Globes are usually meaningless, and the main reason for this is the decision to break up Best Picture and both lead acting categories into a ‘Drama’ subsection and a ‘Comedy/Musical’ subsection. This has led to some truly hilarious genre bending, such as the utterly forgettable and utterly humorless Johnny Depp/Angelia Jolie vehicle The Tourist sneaking its way into the comedy side in 2010 or the dark-as-night Les Miserables getting a statue in 2012 by completing in the ‘lighter’ category instead of going up against heavyweights like Argo or Lincoln. The HPFA reared their genre-bending head again when they announced earlier this year that The Martian would be competing (and, by extension, winning easily) the Comedy/Musical category instead of the Drama category. Sure, there’s a lot of funny lines in The Martian, but the harrowing tale of a man stranded on Mars fighting for survival against impossible odds doesn’t exactly scream ‘Comedy,’ and it sure isn’t a musical (The Big Short, Adam McKay's financial crisis dramedy is similarly likely to be considered a comedy even if the shoe does not entirely fit). This has led to much discussion, mostly on how the HFPA is silly and this is why no one takes the Globes seriously and so on and so forth.

Of course, category fraud is not limited to the Globes; The Academy is also known to stretch the understanding of what is eligible for one category or another over the years, though without the silly genre-bending of the HFPA, their fluidity is mostly confined to the four acting categories. Many will point to Anthony Hopkins’ Best Actor win for The Silence of the Lambs in the 1992 ceremony despite being on screen for less than 20 minutes of the two hour film. Some would argue that Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter is a focal point of the film, but that’s a tenuous position to hold as the film really is about Clarice Starling and her attempts to catch Buffalo Bill. But Anthony Hopkins is Anthony Hopkins, and certainly the Lead Actor statue is more prestigious than Supporting, even if the role is pretty clearly designed for the Supporting category. Equally egregious (and a good segue into this year’s series of controversies) was the placement of Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit. She was nominated for Supporting Actress at the 2011 ceremony, despite being absolutely and incontrovertibly the lead part of True Grit, being in nearly every scene and acting as the central figure and prime mover of the plot. But for Paramount, she would have a better chance at a win if she were considered in Supporting Actress against comparatively ‘weaker’ competition (a dubious claim in itself), especially with the writing on the wall that Natalie Portman would be running away with the Lead category for her work in Black Swan. Steinfeld didn’t win.

This year, the boundaries between lead and support seem to have broken down entirely, with The Weinstein Company pushing Rooney Mara in Carol and Focus/Universal angling for Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl for the Supporting category instead of Lead. There has also been consternation over the placement of Paul Dano in Love & Mercy for Supporting, and some discussion (though not nearly as much) over the placement of Charlize Theron for Mad Max: Fury Road (it’s called Mad Max, not Mad Furiosa, some silly people would say). And don't even get me started on who makes sense for what category when it comes to presumptive Best Picture front-runner Spotlight, with the studio apparently pushing everyone in the Supporting categories despite Michael Keaton winning Best Actor from the New York Film Critics Circle and Mark Ruffalo arguably having just as much a say as a lead.

Having been one of the lucky souls on Earth to see the magnificent Carol, I can confirm that the concept of Rooney Mara having a supporting role in that film is odious. She is certainly more of a lead than her co-star Cate Blanchett, providing the point of reference and the journey of growth that comes to define Todd Haynes’ film. And it’s not like a film cannot have two leads of the same gender; it’s a romance after all, but just happens to be a lesbian romance. Both Mara and Blanchett are leads, and if anyone of the two is deserving of dropping down into the Supporting category, it’s Blanchett. But the movie is called Carol and Cate Blanchett is Cate Blanchett, so Mara gets the ignominious honor of dropping down into the less prestigious category. She’s younger, and doesn’t have the career Blanchett has had (though give it time, as she’ll presumably get a second career nomination this year after her lead nomination for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which is arguably a smaller role than her one in Carol). You can understand why the Weinsteins would want to split them up; the best way to not win any awards is to have two nominees split the vote. Carol now has a much better chance to take two acting awards instead of a slim chance of taking one if both actresses were nominated for lead. Harvey Weinstein wrote about his decision in an article for The Hollywood Reporter, which was really just a thinly veiled (if at all veiled) screed against critics and the industry for ignoring both Southpaw and The Woman in Gold. He claims it was because they didn’t get fall releases. We know it’s because they’re not good movies.

Interestingly, the Globes, despite all their silliness with The Martian, are moving forward with Mara in consideration for Lead and not Supporting.

I haven’t seen The Danish Girl yet (that will be happening at some point before our voting deadline on Saturday night), but I have heard similar comments about Vikander’s role there. Humorously, some would argue that Vikander is on the cusp of being nominated for Supporting Actress for the wrong role, and that she should be considered for Ex Machina, and others would argue that role is also a lead so she’s being miscategorized regardless. But anyway.

It’s easy to understand why the Weinsteins would want to split up Mara and Blanchett, but Vikander might be a little harder to swallow until you consider just how absurdly strong the field for Best Actress is going to be. In addition to Mara, Blanchett and Vikander, there’s presumptive nominees Brie Larson for Room and Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn, as well as Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years, also a likely finalist. Jennifer Lawrence has a new David O. Russell film to campaign with Joy, Charlize Theron has Mad Max, Blythe Danner has I’ll See You in My Dreams, Carey Mulligan has Suffragette and Lily Tomlin has Grandma, just to name a few (or a dozen). Supporting Actress is no slouch either, with the likes of Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs), Jane Fonda (Youth) and Elizabeth Banks (Love & Mercy) seemingly leading the charge, but one can see with the studios would consider Supporting Actress a lighter category. Perhaps if they had been categorized correctly, the likes of Rampling or Carey Mulligan or even Kitana Kiki Rodriguez from Tangerine would be even more likely to be relegated to the sidelines, but it's equally the case that Banks or Stewart could be on the outside looking into the Supporting category thanks to the reshuffling. We're damned if we do and damned if we don't. That's how staggeringly good a year it's been for female roles in film.

When the OFCS released our nominees on Monday, it could be claimed that we “fell for it.” Both Mara and Vikander received nominations for Supporting Actress instead of Lead. Personally I was disappointed, having loved Mara so much as the focal point of Carol, but I got over that disappointment pretty quickly. Some have argued (unconvincingly in my mind) that there are aspects of Mara’s performance that make her more suited for the Supporting instead of Lead. Clearly, enough of those people (or enough people who have listened to what the Weinsteins want) considered her a Supporting Actress nominee. That’s fine. It’s not perfect, but it’s fine. What matters at the end is picking the best performances, and I would rather see Mara get her due in the wrong category compared to no category at all.

It would do us well to remember that quibbling over what category an actress’ exemplary performance is nominated for is the firstiest of first world problems. This does not mean it is not worthy of thought or discussion or even heated argument, of course. Thoughts and discussions and heated arguments are why we all watch movies and write about movies and read about movies. The main positive that comes out of awards season (beyond that underlying current of a vainglorious industry enthusiastically patting itself on the back for just how awesome it is) is exposure for films that might not have been seen by as wide an audience without the awards show bump. It’s impossible to tell how many additional people decided to seek out Whiplash before its surprise three-win night at this past Oscars, but it is not an unreasonable claim to assume its market penetration was increased by its success. Beyond this aspect of awards season, the other thing we often consider is validation, the idea that our peers or our betters agree with our opinions about movies and honor them for their work. So even if it is in a category that doesn’t seem to match, and even though it would be more of an honor for Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander to be nominated as the leads that they are, it is still something to see them somewhere in the mix. It is perhaps little more than a bandage, but that’s better than nothing.

POSTSCRIPT: Between writing and preparing this article for posting, the Screen Actors Guild announced their nominees with both Mara and Vikander firmly in the Supporting Actress category. We just have to face facts that, at least from the Academy’s perspective, they’re going to be duking it out in the ‘wrong category.’ We’ll have to hope the Globes shall be our savior, I guess (I can’t believe I just wrote that).