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Category Fraud’s Soft Bigotry

Courtesy of Bleecker Street

One of the few major awards hopefuls still on the calendar for this extended Oscar season is Supernova, a romantic drama about two lovers trying to make the most out of the remaining time they have after one of them is diagnosed with dementia. It’s had quite a rapturous reception on the film festival circuit and remains one of the most anticipated dramas of the year (or… I guess technically next year because of the plague moving things back). Cinephiles seem especially excited about the possibility of beloved actor Stanley Tucci finally winning an Academy Award in an esteemed career spanning thirty-five years… or, at least, a nomination for a performance that he isn’t clearly ashamed of.

It’s one of the joys of the Academy Awards, seeing hardworking individuals who put in years, sometimes decades, of strong work being recognized in public. For the cinematographers, sound engineers, editors, and set designers, this is the really the only time millions of people get to see them in person and be reminded of the work that goes on behind the camera, but also recognition for those reliable, longtime performers who audiences love but producers and publicists often abandon during the grind of Oscar politicking. It’s why I always feel especially elated when someone like Richard Jenkins or Chiwetel Ejiofor or David Strathairn receive an against-all-odds nomination.

The only thing that would sour the joy of more Oscar love for Stanley Tucci was if Bleecker Street, the studio investing in the awards campaign for Supernova, campaigned him in a dishonest way that, like, I dunno, violated the spirit of the award they were trying to get him nominated in or something, and their shady campaigning was in poor taste and even a little insidious when you think about it. But surely they wouldn’t lower themselves in such a-

Oh. Oh, dear.

Yes, it’s that old bête noire of these acting competitions: category fraud. Pioneered by that wonderful man whose legacy Hollywood producers should definitely be emulating going forward, Harvey Weinstein, category fraud is that aggravatingly effective campaign tactic of gaslighting submissive critics and lazy guild members into nominating a very clearly leading performances as a “supporting” role to make it easier for them to be recognized. This happens with supporting roles being recognized as leads from time to time, but it’s not as common and, in my view, is less overtly mean-spirited as the practice of shoving those performers who genuinely achieve the often-unheralded-but-crucial job of supporting their lead characters and the cast they work with off to the side in favor of treating Best Supporting Actor/Actress as some consolation prize for co-leading performers that can’t quite break into the top five if they tried.

But of course, in our zeal to make sure these “lesser” leading performances get nominated, we pass over and ignore the people for whom those two Academy Awards were created specifically to honor in the first place, and it looks like Tucci will be the latest to have to deal with this unfortunate asterisk to what I’m sure is an otherwise beautiful performance. It’s just something we’ve all come to accept, like video game microtransactions and laws that treat corporations as people.

But do you know what offends me the most with this specific case? This bit, right here:

The campaign will follow the precedent set with past LGBTQ films like ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘Carol’

Carol

First of all, if the entertainment industry should have learned anything this year, you’d think it would be that sticking to “precedent” on anything is a fool’s paradise. But let’s be clear, here: Brokeback Mountain and Carol set bad precedents, ones that should never have been rewarded by the Academy and, worse, by compliant critics orgs who went along with their deception.

Because such a “precedent” not only is unfair in all the ways we already know category fraud is unfair, it also displays a pretty gross attitude towards LGBT relationships in general. In cishet romance films that gun for Oscars, the two star-crossed lovers are always campaigned as co-leads. Why? Because a story of two people falling in love, or a couple overcoming adversity, requires both partners for the story to even happen! They are equal prime movers in the story of their relationship. No one would argue that Lady Gaga was only “supporting” the story of Jackson Maine in A Star Is Born, or that Mia was the sole main character of La La Land while Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian was just a secondary character.

An Academy voter would rightly scoff at such a laughable description of the priority of these characters in their stories, but are more than okay adopting the same absurd logic when it comes to same-sex couples. For some reason, when the story is about two men or two women who fall in love and face adversity, one member of that couple is just the “supporting” one. The parity is now non-existent. Which probably seems like such a minor quibble that even bringing it up outside of awards season pedantry is meaningless, but keep in mind that studio awards campaigns have a similar dismissive attitude towards child actors in clearly leading roles: Eric Stoltz in Mask, Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun, and Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Trace were all unsuccessfully campaigned as “supporting” performers despite unambiguously playing the main characters in those films, and Haley Joel Osment and Hailee Steinfeld managed to get in the “supporting” categories for their obvious leading performances. For whatever reason, Hollywood adopted this unwritten “rule,” broken only a handful of times, that children can only be recognized as supporting performers even when they play lead roles. It’s not the reason the film industry is rife with stories of mistreatment, abuse, and even sexual exploitation…but I would wager it certainly doesn’t help, either.

None of this would be a problem if we just treated Best Supporting Actor/Actress with the respect those categories deserved and recognize them as very specific achievements crucial to the success of a film’s ensemble. But because unscrupulous, greedy studio execs relentlessly pummeling us into believing they’re “lesser” acting consolation prizes dictated by campaign tactics, we’ve tacitly, collectively accepted the fact that LGBT couples just can’t exist as equal pairings in a story about an LGBT couple… and then act surprised when he find out the entertainment industry still struggles with discrimination and homophobia.

First of all, if the entertainment industry should have learned anything this year, you’d think it would be that sticking to “precedent” on anything is a fool’s paradise. But let’s be clear, here: Brokeback Mountain and Carol set bad precedents, ones that should never have been rewarded by the Academy and, worse, by compliant critics orgs who went along with their deception. Because such a “precedent” not only is unfair in all the ways we already know category fraud is unfair, it also displays a pretty gross attitude towards LGBT relationships in general. In cishet romance films that gun for Oscars, the two star-crossed lovers are always campaigned as co-leads. Why? Because a story of two people falling in love, or a couple overcoming adversity, requires both partners for the story to even happen! They are equal prime movers in the story of their relationship. No one would argue that Lady Gaga was only “supporting” the story of Jackson Maine in A Star Is Born, or that Mia was the sole main character of La La Land while Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian was just a secondary character.An Academy voter would rightly scoff at such a laughable description of the priority of these characters in their stories, but are more than okay adopting the same absurd logic when it comes to same-sex couples. For some reason, when the story is about two men or two women who fall in love and face adversity, one member of that couple is just the “supporting” one. The parity is now non-existent. Which probably seems like such a minor quibble that even bringing itup outside of awards season pedantry is meaningless, but keep in mind that studio awards campaigns have a similar dismissive attitude towards child actors in clearly leading roles: Eric Stoltz in Mask, Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun, and Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Tracewere all unsuccessfully campaigned as “supporting” performers despite unambiguously playing the main characters in those films, and Haley Joel Osment and Hailee Steinfeld managed to get in the “supporting” categories for their obvious leading performances. For whatever reason, Hollywood adopted this unwritten “rule,” broken only a handfuloftimes, that children can only be recognized as supporting performers even when they play lead roles. It’s not the reason the film industry is rife with stories of mistreatment, abuse, and even sexual exploitation… but I would ager it certainly doesn’t help, either. None of this would be a problem if we just treated Best Supporting Actor/Actress with the respect those categories deserved and recognize them as very specific achievements crucial to the success of a film’s ensemble. But because unscrupulous, greedy studio execs relentlessly pummeling us into believing they’re “lesser” acting consolation prizes dictated by campaign tactics, we’ve tacitly, collectively accepted the fact that LGBT couples just can’t exist as equal pairings in a story about an LGBT couple… and then act surprised when he find out the entertainment industry still struggles with discrimination and homophobia.

Associate Writer at

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a U.S. Navy veteran and current Washington, D.C. bean-counter who spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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  1. Say what you want, but I wouldn’t nominate Tucci as lead. Colin Firth, sure. And no one outside of film twitter gives a fuck about “category fraud”

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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a U.S. Navy veteran and current Washington, D.C. bean-counter who spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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