The distinction between a lead actor and a supporting actor is a precise art. It takes a careful examination of things like line count, screen time, overall importance to the plot, and many other criteria that are parsed with surgical precision to–
Nah, I’m just kidding. It’s basically made up.
The entire process by which actors are nominated for lead and supporting roles is highly subjective at best, and completely arbitrary at worst. There’s an educated “eye test” you can take based on whatever reasoning you set up, but that only applies to you, and really, you set the parameters. Even if you can make a rational presumption as to which actors are the leads based on things like billing and screen time, it’s still a crap shoot.
We’ve seen several examples over the years where this has happened, to the point that there isn’t even a standard that gets applied, regardless of what may be written in the Academy’s bylaws. Anthony Hopkins won the Oscar for Best Actor for his first appearance as Hannibal Lecter. He was on screen for about 10 minutes total, far less than Buffalo Bill, and yet because his presence was felt throughout the film, he was considered the lead. A couple years ago, Viola Davis finally won a well overdue Oscar for her role in Fences. She was the lead female of the film, but she was considered a supporting role to Denzel Washington. In order to avoid a real competition between Brie Larson and Alicia Vikander in 2016, the Academy’s Acting Branch nominated Larson for Best Actress and Vikander for Supporting Actress, ensuring that both would win, even though Vikander was nominated for Lead Actress by several other bodies.
The reason for this is simple. While there are several specialty categories (typically the nine that have shortlists plus a few others) the rest of the films are submitted on the Academy’s general ballot, and it is then up to the respective branches to nominate as they see fit. Some production companies and studios will make suggestions for what specific nominations the film should get, which they highlight in their “For Your Consideration” packages, but they’re completely non-binding, and the branches just do what they want. And even then, sometimes those suggestions are made with the somewhat crass strategy of just going for what they think they can win, not what they think they deserve.
Remember, an FYC campaign is 100% marketing. They are highly-targeted ad campaigns because nominations and wins elevate box office/rental returns. In Los Angeles, the entertainment industry hub in this country, we all see the FYC material in the open. There are billboards, commercials, bus and bench ads, and much much more. Rather than sending materials directly to voters or guilds, they double down and advertise to the general public as well, the strategy being that even the mention of prestige consideration – which they’re asking for, not telling us they got – is enough to boost profits. As annoying as they can be, if they didn’t work, we wouldn’t be seeing them.
So yeah, because there’s no set standard for what is and is not a “supporting” role versus a “leading” role, it’s entirely up to the Acting Branch to come up with whatever criteria they deem necessary to support their choice. This year, it leads to one of the most baffling decisions of the entire affair, as the two title characters in one film end up nominated against each another, which is highly suspect.
This year’s nominees for Best Supporting Actor are:
Sacha Baron Cohen – The Trial of the Chicago 7
I’m just going to come right out and say it. Sacha Baron Cohen is fucking electric as Abbie Hoffman. He nails the sense of humor, the sarcastic attitude, the personal mannerisms, and the extreme underlying intellect that many of his era dismissed because of his hairstyle and politics. Not only does he look the part, he embodies it.
And oddly enough, some of his best moments are when he’s giving stand-up comedy routines recapping the events of the trial. For someone as versatile as Sacha Baron Cohen from a comedic standpoint, creating zeitgeist-shifting characters like Ali G and Borat, it’s actually kind of refreshing to just watch the man deliver straight up jokes with setup and punchline. For a man so funny for abnormal characters and situations, it turns out he’s just as funny in the traditional sense. The entire cast of The Trial of the Chicago 7 gets to have a great moment. Even Eddie Redmayne had me not pissed off. But Sacha just completely stole the show, standing out in an ensemble film that arguably wasn’t supposed to have one. Every time he spoke it was captivating, whether it was for the historical weight of the moment or just for a well-timed punchline. Dude absolutely killed it.
Daniel Kaluuya – Judas and the Black Messiah
I call bullshit here. The title of the film is Judas and the Black Messiah. Both title characters are up in this category: Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, the so-called “Black Messiah” that J. Edgar Hoover wanted to prevent (the title was also given to the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X – basically any black man who got a platform during the Civil Rights Era), and Lakeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal, the man who betrayed him. So how exactly does this work? How are they both “supporting” characters? Who are they supporting? Who is the lead that stands above them? Surely it’s not Jesse Plemons as the FBI agent, because that would be extremely tone deaf. Let’s just be honest and call this what it is, an intentional consolation prize. The Best Actor field is stacked, and there was just no room for either Kaluuya or Stanfield to have a reasonable expectation of winning, so they both got relegated here to reinforce the “honor just to be nominated” line, which I absolutely hate. These are two of the greatest young actors of their generation, and they’re just being lumped together because the votes weren’t there to give them proper recognition.
As to Kaluuya’s performance, it’s pretty great. He carries Fred Hampton with tons of joy, grace, and charisma, but he gets dead serious when the moment calls for it. He’s meant to be a martyr and he plays the part well, showing up as a bastion of his local community and doing everything he can to make peace with rival factions in the name of progress. When he’s joking around, he’s the dude you most definitely want to hang with. When he’s giving a rousing speech, you’re properly inspired. He does exactly what the story, and the moment, asks of him.
My only complaint is that he’s too old. I’m not the biggest stickler about “looking the part,” (though when it works, it works really well) but Fred Hampton died at the age of 21. Daniel Kaluuya is 32, and he looks 32. Nothing wrong with being 32, mind you, except when you’re trying to convince me you’re 21. Hampton had wisdom well beyond his years, but not looks. I didn’t know much about Fred Hampton when I saw the film. I knew the name, and I knew he was a leader in the Black Panther Party, but that’s about it. When the film ended and said how old he was, I laughed out loud, because there is just no convincing me that Daniel Kaluuya is 21. It’s just not possible. It doesn’t take away from the technical quality of his performance, but it did take a bit of the wind out of the proceedings. It’d be like selling The Ten Commandments by saying that Charlton Heston was playing Moses, but just as a baby. He could be the most brilliant Baby Moses ever conceived (see what I did there), but my ability to take it seriously would be severely hampered.
Leslie Odom, Jr. – One Night in Miami…
See, here’s where you could have gotten away with multiple nominees. One Night in Miami… is an ensemble film, just like The Trial of the Chicago 7. There is no one lead, but a whole cast leaning on and supporting one another. Some roles are larger than others, which can create an argument if you wanted to nominate one of them as the leading role (for this film I would lean towards Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, as the film takes place in his hotel room with a meeting he organized), but there’s no controversy if you decide to lump them all together as a mass of supporting roles, unlike Judas and the Black Messiah, which again, decides that its two title characters are somehow both supports with no lead, even though one of them is literally a community and organizational LEADER! I’m sorry, I’ll stop ranting at some point, I’m sure, but it pisses me off so much. Seriously, I’d rather not be nominated than to know my nomination is a token.
Anyway, Leslie Odom, Jr. He plays Sam Cooke in this meeting of unlikely friends at the dawn of the Civil Rights Era, and he’s arguably in the most difficult position, because as an entertainer trying to achieve mainstream success, he’s got to walk the thinnest tightrope when it comes to advocating for his people and being able to feed himself. He spends the bulk of the film being lectured by Malcolm X for not being as outwardly for the cause as others given his platform, and that sets the primary conflicts between all four of our main characters. His ability to observe, listen, and defend himself is astounding, and drives a lot of the dramatic action of the film.
I also admit I’m a little bit biased here, because Sam Cooke is one of my favorite singers all-time, and “A Change is Gonna Come” ranks just behind “Imagine” as my favorite song ever. And let me tell you, when Odom sings, I hear Sam Cooke. This isn’t lip syncing like Jamie Foxx did in Ray. This dude is singing with his voice, but as if he were channeling Cooke through his vocal cords. This is heard even more in the ending track, “Speak Now,” which Odom co-wrote, but we’ll cover that more when we get to Original Song.
Like Sacha Baron Cohen, Odom stands out among his ensemble, which sadly means in a head-to-head competition, I kind of have to vote for Cohen, simply because his ensemble’s larger, with ostensibly fewer opportunities to shine. But that’s not to discount what is one of the finest performances of any actor through the entire 2020 canon.
Paul Raci – Sound of Metal
This the kind of story I love to see. Paul Raci’s film and television career has lasted for 35 years, but he’s always been a bit player. Apart from some voice work on Aeon Flux and Spawn back in the 90s, he’s only had one role (as a sign language interpreter) on a TV show that lasted for more than one episode. He didn’t even have a Wikipedia page until his profile soared thanks to his role in Sound of Metal, and it’s one he got because of genuine lived experience.
Playing Joe, a recovering addict who runs a halfway house for other deaf addicts, Raci is the son of deaf parents, though he can hear himself. As such, he spent his entire life learning sign language and lip reading, and he knows better than anyone how the non-hearing communicate with one another and live their daily lives. For the longest time, he objected to the way deaf people were portrayed in film, with the exception of Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God, because she herself has been deaf since infancy. As such, he set out to portray deaf people as honestly and accurately as possible.
In doing so, Raci ends up giving not only a career-defining performance, but one of the most empathetic of the year. His conflation of hearing with addiction, along with the outright refusal to define deafness as a disability, is powerful stuff, granting the film unexpected pathos because it already had enough from Riz Ahmed in the lead role. The film was already going to be compelling and dramatic while tugging unceasingly at the heartstrings, and Raci just adds to it, something no one in the audience saw coming. This is one of those perfect storm moments where an unknown actor gives the performance he was always capable of because circumstances happened to coincide in just the right way at just the right time.
Lakeith Stanfield – Judas and the Black Messiah
If the Acting Branch had acted according to logic and reason, Stanfield is the one who should be in this category. While he may have more screen time and lines than Daniel Kaluuya (as a hypothetical, I haven’t actually counted), his literal role in the narrative is one of support. Bill O’Neal insinuated himself into the Black Panthers and got close to Fred Hampton, eventually becoming part of the inner circle. He was a disciple, an apostle, just like Judas. If you make a biblical film about Jesus, he’s the lead, and everyone else is support, unless you make an explicit point to push him into the background in favor of the Apostles or the Marys. That’s just the nature of the story. As such, O’Neal should be the support here while Kaluuya should have gotten Lead Actor consideration, if not nomination.
Because of his situation in the story, Stanfield has to carry the bulk of the emotional weight in the film outside the main romance with Dominque Fishback, of course. His inner conflict and turmoil drives a lot of the main action, and his character motivations are a bit harder to pin down than Hampton’s. I’d even argue he gives a slightly better performance than Kaluuya, as there’s a lot of reliance on body language and eye movement to his performance, whereas Kaluuya (who proved just as apt in this department back in Get Out) gets a lot of the meat from his performance out of his line readings.
Stanfield also suffers from looking too old for his role, as O’Neal was 20 when Hampton was killed, and Stanfield is 29. There’s not as large of an age difference, and Stanfield I think can reasonably pass for 25, so it’s not as glaring, but even so, the facial hair suggests he’s a lot older than his character is. Again, this is more a mark against the makeup department than either actor, but the realization of the characters’ actual ages in the moment did pull me out of the picture for a bit.
This is a hard category to rate, because honestly, I’d be happy to see any of these gentlemen win, and all of them have rock solid cases, give or take the bullshit of having Kaluuya and Stanfield go against each other. Still, I have to pick someone. Just know that this is an A+-to-slightly-less-A+ ranking.
1) Sacha Baron Cohen
2) Paul Raci
3) Leslie Odom, Jr.
4) Lakeith Stanfield
5) Daniel Kaluuya
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Next up, the Blitz takes a couple days off, but don’t worry, I’ll have the final “Back Row Thoughts” entry to finish up the 9-film nominee catch-up, as well as a review for a newly-released film. Then on Monday, we take a colorful look at one of my favorite categories, Animated Feature! Stay tuned!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Who gets your vote? Should there be ironclad rules separating lead and supporting actors? What would be the “perfect storm” part for you to play? Let me know!