11 Actors Who Were Nominated for the Wrong Oscars

Swedish actress Alicia Vikander was largely unknown in the United States before 2015, but she is now a household name thanks to the one-two-three punch of Ex Machina, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and her Oscar-nominated role in The Danish Girl. In The Danish Girl she plays Gerda Wegener, the real-life painter whose husband Einar underwent the world’s first successful gender reassignment surgery. The film is largely about Einar’s struggle to discover that he is actually a she, but the crux of the film’s drama comes from Gerda’s reluctant acceptance and utter confusion over her husband’s sudden need to no longer physically be male. The two of them share this drama. They are both main characters.

Which makes it wholly baffling that the Academy Awards elected to nominate Vikander for Best Supporting Actress. Surely, say I, surely Gerda and Einar are the lead characters in that film, and all the other characters are supporting actors. Why was Vikander shuttled off to the side like that? She has a lot of screentime, and her role is meaty. This is not what I would call a “supporting performance.”

Indeed, this year’s Oscars also did the same thing to Rooney Mara. In Todd Haynes’ Carol, Rooney Mara plays a young store clerk in the 1950s who finds herself increasingly attracted to the powerfully decorated title character played by Cate Blanchett. Blanchett was nominated for Best Actress this year. Mara, although a central player in this romance, was only nominated for Supporting Actress.

Related: #OscarsSoWhite | Academy Award-Worthy Actors of Color from 2015

Looking back over Oscar history, you’ll find this happens a lot. As it turns out, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to distinguishing a lead role from a supporting role in the eyes of the Academy. Ultimately – and who knows how they reach such a decision – it’s determined arbitrarily by the individual Academy voters. That determination is often encouraged by Oscar campaigning from studios who don’t want to split votes by having two performances from the same movie in the same category (although that still happens, most recently in 2010 for The Fighter). A lot of the definitions, then, are political. Few have to do with the performance’s actual size within, importance to, or impact on the film’s story.

The following actors and actresses were considered to be supporting players by the Academy, even though they are, arguably, actually lead roles.


Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke for Boyhood

IFC Films

IFC Films

Richard Linklater’s astonishing Boyhood was originally called 12 Years, but had its title changed at the last minute so it would not be jumbled with 12 Years a Slave. The new title shifted focus of the film from the entire family of characters to the lead boy, played by Ellar Coltrane. The film is indeed seen from Coltrane’s perspective, but I would argue that his mom and dad, played by Arquette and Hawke, have just as sizable and considerable parts in the film as he does.

 


Helen Hunt for The Sessions

Fox Searchlight

Fox Searchlight

The Sessions is a not-talked-about-enough comedic drama about a real-life poet Mark O’Brien who was confined to an iron lung due to polio, and who longed to lose his virginity. To aid him in this task, he hired a professional sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt. The film is about the budding sexual relationship between these two people, and how O’Brien’s overwhelming romance ended up creeping into her life. I would say any film that is centered entirely on the relationship between two people features two lead roles. Another injustice: John Hawks wasn’t nominated in any category.

 


Catherine Zeta-Jones for Chicago

Miramax

Miramax

Um… excuse me? I was familiar with Kander & Ebb’s Chicago before the 2002 film adaptation, and if I were asked to choose the main character, I would go with Velma over Roxie. Sure, it’s initially Roxie’s story (she’s the one who commits murder on stage, and goes on the roller coaster of publicity/infamy), but Velma has just as many songs, has just as much time on stage (if not more), has more character (Roxie’s a bit of a drip), and who will ultimately suffer the most. Velma and Roxie are also featured on the movie’s poster together. They dance the finale together. This one is just confounding.

 


Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master

The Weinstein Company

The Weinstein Company

Paul Thomas Anderson’s perplexing drama is a tale of an unbound id played by Joaquin Phoenix and a guru-like psychology cult leader played by Hoffman. The film – an utterly fascinating study, by the way – is about the way these two personalities clash. Is it right to control another man? Would control benefit people? And what role did the slew of Scientology-like cults that arose in the 1950s play in the shape of the American consciousness? This is a two-hander to be sure, with two lead roles. Was Phoenix the protagonist? Yes. Did he have more screen time? Yes. Was Hoffman a supporting actor? No.

 


Jake Gyllenhaal for Brokeback Mountain

Focus Features

Focus Features

One can easily see the parallels between this injustice and the one currently being perpetrated by Carol. Both are gay romances, both are about the central relationship between two people and the effects the secret had on both of their lives, but somehow both are split on the centrality of the two lead roles. I would say Ennis and Jack are both lead characters in Brokeback, but somehow Ennis – the more tortured one – is the lead, and Jack, the more comfortably sexual of the two, is supporting.

 


Ethan Hawke for Training Day

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Ethan Hawke’s character is the lead character of Training Day. The training day in question is his training day. Sure, Denzel Washington out-acts him with a demonstratively villainous role (“King Kong ain’t got nothin’ on me!”), but Hawke is the one who struggles with the tidal wave of iniquity and amoral police shenanigans. He is the one whose life is at risk. He may be the witness to the actions of his co-lead (rather than the instigator), but he will be our constant anchor to the film’s emotions. The question of the film comes down to whether or not he will be corrupted. That’s lead character stuff.

 


Albert Brooks for Broadcast News

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

James L. Brooks’ examination of modern newsmaking is wry, self-aware, and only mildly damning about how personality and charm tends to outstrip sincerity when it comes to news broadcasting. The film is about three main characters played by Holly Hunter (the producer), Albert Brooks (the writer), and William Hurt (the on-screen guy). The film is about the shifting allegiances between these three people, and they are all, I would argue, the main characters. Albert Brooks, indeed, has some of the best moments in the film, and his romantic confrontations with Hunter are vulnerable, and inappropriately cerebral. He’s one of three leads. Not a supporter.

 


Jason Miller for The Exorcist

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

This one is just a crime. Jason Miller is, I would argue, the main character of The Exorcist through and through. It is a film about priest, struggling with his flagging faith, who confronts a little girl who may or may not be possessed by the Devil. The title exorcist is the supporting player. Fr. Karras is the lead. It’s about him. Part II is about Regan. Part III is about the cop. And the two Part 4′s are about Fr. Merrin. The first is most certainly Karras’ story. What movie were they watching?

 


Linda Blair for The Exorcist

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

According to the Academy, The Exorcist is all about Chris MacNeil, Ellen Burstyn’s character. Or Fr. Merrin, who has a scene at the beginning, and then dominated the finale. But it’s definitely not about the conflict between a priest and the Devil. Those people are off on the side.

 


Al Pacino for The Godfather

Paramount

Paramount

Right. Michael was a supporting player. Eff you Academy. Brando was up for Actor, and Pacino for supporting. Doesn’t it make more sense to have them both be leads? Or to recognize that Michael has the tragic story, and Don Corleone is a supporting player in his drama?

Top Image: Focus Features / The Weinstein Company

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.