Oscar ‘Category Fraud’ Inspires Sound & Fury But Voters Just Shrug

Tim Gray
·3 min read

There is a lot of negativity in the world, so it would be nice if awards journalists didn’t contribute to that.

One example: Can we get rid of the phrase “category fraud”? That prissy, finger-pointing term is sometimes used to describe the comedy-drama split in Golden Globes races, but more frequently it refers to studio “fraud” by pushing an actor for lead or supporting.

So far this season, some bloggers have speculated on “fraud” with such ensemble films as “One Night in Miami,” “Da 5 Bloods,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “The Glorias” and “Hillbilly Elegy” as well as debate over films not even seen yet, including Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Here are two things to remember.

In awards season, there are three very distinct groups: journalists, members of the Twitterverse and awards voters. The first two get outraged over “category fraud,” but voters always shrug and ignore the noise.

In the past five years, Oscar nominations went to Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara for “Carol,” and Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz for “The Favourite,” despite online hand-wringing. What’s more, five actors won Oscars despite the “controversy”: Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”), Viola Davis (“Fences”), Mahershala Ali (“Green Book”), Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”) and Brad Pitt (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”). Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members simply voted for performances they liked.

The other thing to remember: Category shifting has been going on for decades, and somehow the world has survived.

The supporting categories were inaugurated for the films of 1936 (when supporting winners got plaques, rather than the statuette). Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences rules said a lead actor or actress could only be nominated as a lead — but a supporting actor could be nominated as either supporting or lead.

Basically, AMPAS was saying “Let’s salute 20 actors each year.” So if they didn’t care about the fine print, why do we?

Over the years, the Academy fine-tuned the rules. In 1944, Barry Fitzgerald was nominated for both lead and supporting for “Going My Way.” The following year, a voting rule prevented that happening again.

On Dec. 5, 1956, Variety reported that Mickey Rooney had agreed to lower billing for “The Bold and the Brave” to qualify for a supporting Oscar. Rooney had been top-billed for the film’s initial release, but “Presumably it will be rebooked locally with Rooney listed as a featured player, to comply with Academy regulations.” The story said this was the third such billing switch in three years, after Jack Lemmon in “Mr. Roberts” and Jan Sterling in “The High and the Mighty.” All three were nominated in supporting, and Lemmon won.

In 1964, the Academy declared firmly that the actors branch would determine “which performances qualify for nomination in the best acting and supporting player categories.” So, case closed.

Journalist Matthew Stewart has tirelessly timed every Oscar-nominated performance, reporting on his website screentimecentral. He found 122 clear cases of “fraud” out of 1,661 Oscar-nominated performances, or only 7%. Kudos to him for his heroic, years-long work.

However, time onscreen is only one factor. When you think of “The Godfather,” “Silence of the Lambs” and “Fargo,” you think of Marlon Brando, Anthony Hopkins and Frances McDormand, though their screen time could have defined them as supporting.

In the next six months, I will no doubt get into discussions about lead/supporting and comedy/drama with coworkers and colleagues; we may disagree, and the interaction is fun. But online awards-watchers seem to think some Machiavellian idiot made a unilateral decision on these categories. Not true. There are multiple people involved in the decision, and they carefully weigh a lot of factors.

Let’s not get carried away. Awards strategists have enough stress without being accused of fraud. And there is plenty to get outraged about in the 21st century, but category shifts shouldn’t be high on the list.

More from Variety

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.