Best Actor vs. Best Supporting Actor

Is there any hard and fast criteria that governs whether a particular performance by and actor would be considered a lead role vs. a supporting role? Things like mount of screen time or number of lines… real objective criteria.

Or is it more subjective? Is it possible for an individual performance to be eligible for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor (not that they would be nominated for both in the same year, just that it could go either way)? Someone would have to decide at some point which category to put them in.

Does anyone have example of performances by an actor or actress that was nominated for an Academy Award (or other show biz award) in one category but a case could be made that they were actually eligible for a different category?

Lets say the competition for Best Actor was really tough one year… a lot of great performances. Then you have an actor whose role could be seen as either a lead role or supporting role. Could the actor ask to be nominated in the supporting actor category where competition is less fierce? I imagine winning for best supporting actor would trump simply being nominated for Best Actor and not winning (although curious to see others thoughts on this as well).

Just my opinion, but I thought J.K. Simmons could have won for Best Actor instead of Supporting Actor for his role in Whiplash. It really didn’t seem like he had much less screen time than Miles Teller did.

In The Godfather Al Pacino famously had more screen time than Marlon Brando, but Brando got (and won) Best Actor while Pacino was nominated for Supporting Actor.

Pacino reportedly was NOT happy, and that was the reason he didn’t attend the ceremony.

It’s most often determined by billing. “Movie starring Actor1 and Actress with Actor2” will get a best actor for Actor1, but a supporting for Actor2.

In The Godfather, for instance, it was billed as “Starring Marlon Brando” on a single line and then “with Al Pacino” (and others) on a second line. Brando was also featured on most of the posters. He was clearly the lead and the studio probably didn’t want a second actor nominated to take away votes from him (though they didn’t mind multiple nominees for supporting, but that might not be as marketable).

Hermione Baddeley got a supporting actress Oscar nomination with 2 minutes and 20 seconds of screen time in “Room at the Top” in 1960. Sounds more like a cameo to me.

There’s no objective criteria. Academy voters usually follow the lead of studio ads suggesting Actor A as lead and Actor B as supporting.

Actually, in 1944 Barry Fitzgerald was nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for his performance in “Going My Way.” He won in the Supporting category. (His 'Going My Way" co-star Bing Crosby won Best Actor.)

There’s plenty of examples where two actors were basically co-leads in the movie, but the studios promoted one of them as Best Actor and one as Best Supporting Actor. Examples include Walter Matthau (Best Actor nominee) and George Burns (Best Supporting Actor winner) in “The Sunshine Boys” (1975) and Sam Watterson (Best Actor nominee) and Haing S Ngor (Best Supporting Actor winner) in “The Killing Fields” (1984)

The answer to the OP:

There are no hard and fast criteria. An actor or actress is eligible for either award, no matter their screen time, provided their spoken dialogue is not dubbed.

The voters can nominate essentially anyone they want to nominate. In fact, it is now the case that in the nomination process for the Oscars, a voter can vote to nominate the same actor/role in both lead and supporting categories. Only one nomination can be given, but you can throw a vote both ways if you want. So it often comes down to how the actors and their roles are marketed for awards within the industry.

A list of strange choices would fill the thread. The Pacino-Brando thing is an obvious one. Rooney Mara was up for Supporting Actress this year despite being on screen in three quarters of the movie, which is more than a lot of leading actors. The year Jamie Foxx won Best Actor for “Ray,” he was also up for Supporting Actor for “Collateral,” even though he is that movie’s main character as well. But since you cannot be nominated in the same acting category twice, the studio lobbied for him for Supporting, knowing he was already a shoo-in for a nomination for “Ray.”

In 2000, Benicio Del Toro won the SAG for Best Actor for Traffic and the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the same film.

I’m not sure who, if anyone, is properly the lead actor in Traffic. Michael Douglas? Don Cheadle? Del Toro?

Samuel Jackson was nominated as Supporting for Pulp Fiction, with Travolta as lead. Should have been the other way around, IMO. As much as that movie is “about” anything, it’s about his character’s decision to turn his life around. His character was dynamic, while Travolta’s was static.

Vincent Vega had a much more dramatic change in his life.

The film has three interconnected story lines. Travolta is in all three. Jackson is in two. Travolta has more screen time. I think Jackson has more dialogue. You could make an argument for either or both to be in the best actor category. The main reason why it was split between the two categories was the company lobbied for that since they didn’t want them to be competing with each other.

I am pretty sure Travolta is on screen substantially more than Jackson is. Travolta is in basically all the parts Jackson is in, plus he’s in the entire part of the movie when he’s with Uma Thurman.

The example of Brando and Pacino in “The Godfather” is a more legitimate beef in that the movie is about Pacino’s character; he is on screen more than Brando, from the beginning of the movie to the end, and he’s the dynamic character. He is literally who the movie is about. While Jules is more dynamic than Vincent, he’s on screen much less.

Much the same could be made of, say, Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit” - she is the movie’s central character and on screen more than anyone, but was up for Supporting. Why? She had a better shot in that category 'cause she was a kid.

Kind of goes to the fact that the terms are fluid, though. What IS a lead role? What is a supporting role? How many lead roles can a movie have?

Personally, I consider a win in Best Supporting Actor to be more prestigious than a win in Best Actor. It’s easy to own the spotlight when the movie is about you. But to do a good job in highlighting someone else’s story, well, that takes real skill.

It seems a bit random, though.

For instance, Judi Dench was awarded an Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love” for eight minutes of work. She was excellent, but no more impressive than, and not nearly as important to the story than, the supporting work done by Geoffrey Rush. Or five other people.

Conversely, J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash” is easily the movie’s second-most-important character, after Miles Tellers’. He doesn’t highlight the story; the story is primarily about the relationship between his character and another. His importance in the film dwarfs Dench’s in hers.

Jared Leto is in a lot of “Dallas Buyers Club” but is clearly a supporting character, if THE supporting character. George Clooney in “Syriana” is as important as any actor; it’s an ensemble cast, but if he isn’t one of the two leads I don’t know who they are.

If you go by screen time, Anthony Hopkins was a supporting actor in “Silence of the Lambs.”

IIRC, Geoffrey Rush has less screen time in Shine than the actor who played his character as an adolescent (Noah Taylor).

And Noah Taylor had a harder acting job, since the young David Helfgott couldn’t be reduced to a caricature, as the older Helfgott could.

I mean no disrespect to Geoffrey Rush, who is a superb actor. But awards often go to performances like his in “Shine.”

Was Mark Rylance really a supporting actor in Bridge of Spies as opposed to the co lead? If he had been a woman, I suspect it would have been a best Actress nomination. Ditto with Jared Leto ( ironic considering his character) in Dallas Buyers Club. Also the case in reversed with Rooney Mara in Carol.

It all depends on what is in their contact and more importantly how much the studio paid for them to get that award.

A lot of times, it’s in an actor’s contract that he or she is the star of the film, and will be promoted as such.

Irene Dunne was the biggest star of the thirties, and when she agreed to star in a film that had been conceived as a vehicle for the actor who was her co-star (IIRC, it was Cary Grant in* My Favorite Wife*, but I may be misremembering), she was paid $100,000 (in the 1930s, remember) over and above her salary to allow the actor to have top billing. This was back when she was a studio player, before she became a rare free-lancer, and one item in her contract with the studio was that she always had top billing.

Anyway, in films where it’s easy to argue one way or another that either of two performers was the star-- say, Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Dolores Claiborne, it’s probably been taken care of in contract negotiations. I couldn’t tell you which one is the star (IIRC, Bates had top billing, although from a literary standpoint, Leigh had the central character who changes in response to events in the story). At the time, Bates had a little more clout because she had won an Oscar before, but Leigh had a huge following among people who watch independent films, and she actually had been working longer than Bates, even though she was younger. It’s entirely possible that whoever was to be promoted as the “star” made less money, in a case like that, the “supporter,” being paid off to be the #2.