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The Reality Of Oscar “Category Fraud”

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Oscar Category Fraud

Riz Ahmed and Allison Williams co-host the announcement of nominees the for the 95th Annual Academy Awards, presented on Tuesday, January 24, 2023.

Oscar “Category Fraud”: This somewhat hyperbolic term refers to when a nominee raises some eyebrows as to whether they are competing in the correct category. 

The nominations for the 95th Academy Awards have been announced, meaning we are now firmly ensconced in the 2023 awards season. Every year, a large portion of the film community gets wrapped up in the race to the . Pundits (like myself) spend months analysing data from previous years and keep a watchful eye on precursor ceremonies (Golden Globes, SAG, BAFTA) in order to correctly determine who will be victorious come Oscars night. 

Admittedly, it's a rather frivolous thing to get so invested in — watching beautiful, privileged millionaires handing out gold statues to each other. But when you love cinema as much as us pundits do, you can't help but be thrilled to see your favourite performances be rewarded with the highest accolade in show business.

But the Oscar race brings a lot of heat and discourse. One buzz term that you've possibly seen circulated annually all over Film Twitter is “category fraud.” The somewhat hyperbolic term refers to when a nominee (usually in an acting category) raises some eyebrows as to whether they are competing in the correct category. 

Category fraud is nothing new. It still seems odd that Al Pacino was nominated as a supporting actor for The Godfather in 1972 when the film is centred around his character Michael Corleone. But in the last decade, category fraud has become so commonplace that it's worked its way into the collective lexicon of the film community. Oscars equals prestige, so studios are clambering to have “Academy Award winner” bragging status on their titles — so they're resorting to whatever methods they can to secure a win. 

The reason category fraud feels particularly rampant in the acting categories is that there isn't a set of guidelines which strictly defines just exactly what the difference between a lead performance from a supporting one actually is. We can draw our own conclusions by looking at factors such as screen time, star power, and which characters' POV the story is being told from but there is always an ambiguous grey area of subjectivity at play.

We've seen at the Golden Globes discrepancies over the two best picture categories for drama and for Musical/Comedy. When Ridley Scott's The Martian won Best Musical/Comedy it caused some justifiable debate about the genre classification of the film. Just because Matt Damon cracks a few jokes does not make the film an out-and-proud comedy.

An even more egregious instance at the Globes was when Kate Winslet infamously landed a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her clearly leading part in The Reader – a role where she later went on to win her first ever Best Actress Oscar. 

We're typically a little more forgiving of the Globes because of its reputation of being “the drunk uncle” of awards season. A little chaos is to be expected. It is after all the Hollywood Foreign Press Association that determines where to place a film or a performance at the Globes. The studios or actors have no say in this decision.

But with the Academy Awards, there is a higher level of scrutiny when it comes to questionable category placement because the studios and actors can campaign whichever way they feel like. And with only 20 acting slots, 4 eventual winners per year and every actor in Hollywood seeking validation — many will work the system in order to give themselves the best shot of winning the most coveted prize in Hollywood. And these shady tactics do often net success.

It typically occurs when an actor in a primary role takes a step down to supporting in hopes that their meatier work and ample screen time will fare better amongst smaller bit-parts that we're accustomed to seeing in Best Supporting Actor or Actress. More screen time means more time to shine and therefore to be more memorable to voters when they fill out their ballots. 

Category fraud also occurs when a film has multiple leads. With only 5 slots on a ballot, it makes pragmatic sense to spread performances out across multiple categories in order to secure as many nominations and wins as possible. Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite featured a triptych of leading ladies; Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz but Searchlight submitted Stone and Weisz as supporting, which resulted in all three being nominated and a win for Colman in lead. 

It's not uncommon to see two performances from the same film show up in a supporting category. 2023 boasts two different sets of actors from the same film in their respective supporting categories; Brendan Gleeson and Barry Keoghan for supporting actor in The Banshees of Inisherin and Jamie Lee Curtis and Stephanie Hsu for supporting actress in Everything Everywhere All At Once. 

However, there haven't been two leading performances competing in the same category since Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon both competed for Best Actress in 1992 for their titular roles in Thelma & Louise. Had the film been made today, it's highly plausible that one would go leading and the other supporting to avoid the risk of splitting votes. Why have one winner when you can potentially have two?

This means we've had thirty years of leading parts being diluted down to supporting status for the purposes of awards. Actors who employed this downgrading strategy and ended up winning include; Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), Viola Davis (Fences), Mahershala Ali (Green Book) and Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). When the success levels are high it's easy to see why so many have adopted this sly method. 

However, has category fraud now reached a point of critical mass? The term really took on a whole new meaning after one of the most baffling nominations surprises happened on Oscars morning in 2021. Judas and the Black Messiah star Lakeith Stanfield bafflingly showed up in the same supporting actor category as his co-star Daniel Kaluuya. Prompting a heavy argument that if both the “Judas” and “the Black Messiah” of the title are supporting characters – then who is even leading the film? Category fraud had gotten out of control — at least according to Film Twitter. Kaluuya went on to win supporting actor but the acting nominations in the subsequent years were far less suspect. Have voters now become savvier on the issue?

It still happens but the frequency appears less rampant. 2023 still had its fair share of category fraud discussions within a few notable campaigns but the overall success rate of placing a nomination wasn't as high.

Universal opted to campaign Carey Mulligan as Supporting Actress despite being a co-lead with Zoe Kazan in the #MeToo journalism drama She Said. The fact that Mulligan's name appears first in the marketing for the film despite her co-lead being first alphabetically is telling. 

Clearly banking on Mulligan's star power and previous Academy track record (she had 2 nominations for An Education and Promising Young Woman), Universal hedged their bets hoping her central and substantial performance would cut the crust in support. Mulligan secured nominations at the Globes and BAFTA but missed out at the Oscars. In fact, She Said was shut out entirely at the Oscars. 

What's even more infuriating is the decision to campaign Mulligan in supporting meant she took the spot of two of her co-stars that legitimately were supporting players and arguably more deserving of recognition (in the supporting category); Jennifer Ehle and Samatha Morton. 

There is an argument to be made that even Brendan Gleeson who secured a supporting nomination for The Banshees of Inisherin might be guilty of category fraud himself. Banshees is a macabre comedic double act between Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. While his counterpart Farrell does have more screen time, Gleeson's grumpy Colm is pivotal to the plot and is questionably a co-lead. However, the focal POV belongs to Farrell's Pádraic, so Gleeson actually is a rare instance of having a performance that straddles the line of lead and supporting quite evenly.

The Woman King submitted breakout star Thuso Mbedu for supporting despite many feeling she was a co-lead with Viola Davis. Mbedu holds her own next to Davis in the film but it would be a challenge for any relative newcomer to compete alongside Davis on the Best Actress ballot when there are only 5 slots. This was also an especially competitive year for Best Actress. Given the name recognition and gravitas of Davis, it made sense to not risk putting Mbedu in Davis' shadow and place her in supporting instead. Sadly neither Mbedu nor Davis placed at the Oscars. 

This brings us to this year's most notable instance of category fraud with Michelle Williams who did in fact receive the Best Actress nomination for her performance in Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans.

A Twitter poll revealed that 77% of people who watched The Fabelmans found Williams's performance to be supportive but the Academy still chose to acknowledge her request to be seen as a lead. The film is a semi-autobiographical retelling of the filmmaker's formative years in which Williams plays the protagonist Sammy's (Gabrielle LaBelle) mother Mitzi. Williams is undoubtedly the central female figure in the plot but is the film about her? No, it's a coming-of-age story about Sammy who sees how his mother helped shape him into the celebrated filmmaker he would become. She's essential to the story but it's not strictly her story.

The first reactions to The Fabelmans out of TIFF were largely positive with many labelling Williams as the early frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress. This is why many were left dumbfounded when it was announced that Williams was submitting herself for lead. After 4 previous Oscar nominations, Williams had a credible shot to actually win in supporting, so why would she throw it all away by competing in a far tougher category? 

According to Williams, she claims that she always saw her part as a lead. She was first on the call sheet. Her name was first billed in all the marketing. So despite giving herself a greater challenge to pull off a win in a far tougher category, one has to admire Williams for not making it easier on herself just to win that first Oscar. She didn't downplay in order to improve her odds – she upgraded to lead because she fundamentally believed it was the correct category for her. 

Williams is a prime example that as long as there is ambiguity surrounding certain performances, and as long as the actors and studios have the freedom to campaign in whichever category they see fit at the Oscars— the topic of category fraud won't be going away anytime soon.

Luke Hearfield specialises in covering the awards season. For all his discussions and predictions on the Oscars follow him on YouTube. 

Photo: Al Seib / ©A.M.P.A.S. – ©A.M.P.A.S.