Based on the comments and emails I’m getting, more eyebrows than mine were raised yesterday: Hailee Steinfeld, who’s delightful in “True Grit,” received a well-deserved Oscar nomination — but in the supporting actress category, even though she’s clearly the lead role in the movie (with Jeff Bridges — who’s nominated as lead actor). Steinfeld, if I’m remembering correctly, is in virtually every scene of the movie except the epilogue; her voice narrates the film; and her character’s journey is its focus. It’s a role with far more screen time than, say, Annette Bening in “The Kids Are All Right” — who’s nominated for lead. So, why is Steinfeld in supporting, and who decides all of this, anyway?
The answer is — not the Academy, which doesn’t define what makes a lead or a supporting role. The acting branch votes on the acting nominations (all branches vote in all categories for the final ballot, with a couple of exceptions), and for guidance are given only a list of casts of eligible movies for the year. The official rules note: “The determination as to whether a role is a leading or supporting role shall be made individually by members of the branch at the time of balloting.” Studios, however, attempt to influence voters by running “For Your Consideration” ads in trade papers, suggesting categories — as Paramount did, promoting Steinfeld in supporting. Why? Probably because young actresses (Steinfeld is 14) do much better in the supporting category. No one under 21 has ever won best actress (side note: if Jennifer Lawrence were to win the category this year for “Winter’s Bone,” she’d be the youngest winner ever, at 20); while supporting actress has been won by a 10-year-old (Tatum O’Neal, “Paper Moon”), an 11-year-old (Anna Paquin, “The Piano”), and a 16-year-old (Patty Duke, “The Miracle Worker”).
But wait — here’s an interesting twist, from the official Academy rules:
The leading role and supporting role categories will be tabulated simultaneously. If any performance should receive votes in both categories, the achievement shall be only placed on the ballot in that category in which, during the tabulation process, it first receives the required number of votes to be nominated. In the event that the performance receives the numbers of votes required to be nominated in both categories simultaneously, the achievement shall be placed only on the ballot in that category in which it receives the greater percentage of the total votes.
Hmm. So it’s possible that Steinfeld — and, for that matter, Julianne Moore (“The Kids Are All Right”) and Lesley Manville (“Another Year”), both of whom lost out this year likely due to disagreements over which category they should be in — got plenty of votes in both categories, but Steinfeld happened to reach “the required number” (whatever that is) in supporting first. Anyway. I don’t think she’s at any great advantage in the supporting category because of having more screen time than her competitors — Judi Dench won this category in 1998 for about an eight-minute performance in “Shakespeare in Love,” and Melissa Leo in “The Fighter” seems hard to beat this year. For what it’s worth, I think Steinfeld belongs in the big-girl group. But you can blame the studio and the actors who dutifully yet illogically wrote her in as supporting, rather than the Academy.
Hailee Steinfeld, with Barry Pepper, in “True Grit” — a fine performance, whatever you call it. (Photo credit: Lorey Sebastian, courtesy of Paramount Pictures)