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The Trophy Hunter: the ‘Best Supporting’ myth

| Wednesday, December 4, 2019


Joseph H

Despite its name, the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor has turned into a trophy for lead actors gunning for reduced competition in a lesser category. The recent trend of “category fraud” seemed like it had reached its peak (or nadir, depending on your outlook) when Viola Davis’ All-Universe performance in “Fences” ran in supporting so as to avoid a potential upset from “La La Land”’s Emma Stone. But somehow, three years later, “category fraud” has only increased in prominence — to the point where this year’s three best star performances are all running in the supporting races.

Al Pacino, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lopez have no business in the supporting category. The three A-list actors all have their names emblazoned, in the largest fonts possible, on the posters for their Oscar contenders — “The Irishman,” “Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood” and “Hustlers,” respectively — yet they find themselves reduced to “supporting” co-stars Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Constance Wu. This is patently ridiculous. To call Jennifer Lopez’s work in “Hustlers” anything but a lead performance is to do it a disservice; it is a supporting role in the same way that Atlas supported the heavens.

The same can be said for Pacino and Pitt, both of whom are the “heart” of their movies (but in wildly different ways). Upon first viewing, Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa seems distractingly out of place in “The Irishman”— until you realize that his “otherness” is exactly the point. Pitt plays an outsider as well, yet his Cliff Booth is the calming presence at the film’s center. Quentin Tarantino wants to position Booth as a Silent Generation holdover standing steady against the encroaching counterculture of the 1960s, and Pitt does a fine job of illustrating the stoic disposition that Tarantino’s script obviously aims to conjure. He’s still Brad Pitt, though; no number of reserved line readings can distract from the innate charisma of the actor delivering them. Whether his character is throwing Bruce Lee into a car or watching TV with his dog, Pitt exudes a timeless kind of movie-star cool.

If those three performances are “supporting” in the eyes of the Academy, what hope does that leave for true supporting roles — performances that are by no means the focal point of their films, but fill in the margins instead? The Supporting Actor and Actress categories are where the Oscars have most often rewarded comedic performances, and 2019 has been a year unusually awash in bravura comic turns, from Wesley Snipes strutting away with “Dolemite Is My Name” to Billie Lourd jumping off a boat and into audiences’ hearts in “Booksmart.” Those two performers, and similarly assured supporting roles from Toni Collette in “Knives Out” and Stephen Graham in “The Irishman,” have almost no chance of being recognized with nominations.

Pacino, Pitt and Lopez all deserve nominations for their work this year — in the lead actor and actress categories. The supporting races aren’t for the second or third names listed on movie posters; they’re for the actors whose names we learn or remember because of their performances. Lead actors carry the movie on their shoulders, but the best supporting performances threaten to steal it out from under them. It’s time for the Academy to recognize those roles as well.

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