Performances on the lead-supporting bubble dance with category placement this season

Posted by · 11:19 am · August 14th, 2013

This week’s report about Meryl Streep potentially being campaigned in the supporting actress category for her performance in John Wells’ “August: Osage County” reminds of a slew of actors in a similar boat this year, dancing with category selection with arguments to be made on both sides.

At the top of the list is Bruce Dern, who won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his work in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” But it’s a performance that could be viewed through the prism of supporting, given that Dern’s turn as an elderly midwesterner is somewhat passive next to Will Forte’s, but the truth is it’s a movie more concerned with Dern’s character than Forte’s. Dern gives what is, to this viewer’s mind, the only kind of leading turn an actor like him would give. It’s the residual shade of a real person, not a broad performance of a character.

The idea that Dern would have a better shot in the supporting ranks has been floated by some pundits, who point to Christoph Waltz’s similar Cannes victory four years ago for his work in “Inglourious Basterds.” The Weinstein Company successfully campaigned the unknown for Best Supporting Actor and landed him an Oscar. But Dern is far from an unknown. He’s a living legend with a lot of industry friends who want to see him recognized as a leading man for a change. Perhaps on that cue, Paramount will indeed be pitching him in the lead category…and I think they could get him in there.

Also at Paramount is Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day,” a Joyce Maynard adaptation in the vein of Clint Eastwood’s “A Perfect World.” The film stars Josh Brolin as an escaped convict who takes a woman and her son hostage one weekend, but isn’t everything he appears to be. It’s the kind of work that could, like the others on this list, be argued as a supporting performance, particularly for a film with a young actor in the true leading role. But, while not set in stone quite yet, it’s mostly settled at this juncture that Brolin will be campaigned in supporting.

There are echoes of an early year critical and box office hit in “Labor Day”: Jeff Nichols’ “Mud.” The film stars Matthew McConaughey (having another banner year) as the eponymous ne’er-do-well. But for a film told from young Tye Sheridan’s perspective as the coming-of-age Ellis, and perhaps with a cautious eye on McConaughey’s heavily anticipated leading work in “Dallas Buyers Club,” Roadside is sticking with supporting for his work here, with Sheridan in lead.

Speaking of early year successes, there is also Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines,” buzz on which Focus was looking to swing back around as the film arrived on DVD and Blu-ray last week. Viewing the film as an ensemble without an overt point of view, the studio has chosen to pitch all performances — from Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Dane DeHaan and Eva Mendes — in the supporting categories. It’s the right call for a film this ensemble-driven.

Cooper also has David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” on the way, and he’s set to compete with himself in “Pines” here as a supporting push for Russell’s film. His character is really the villain of the piece in a lot of ways, I’m told, abusing his power after pulling a con artist team (played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams) into the scheme that drives the drama of the film.

Speaking of Adams, I’m told there is a lot of confidence for her in the lead actress category opposite Bale as every bit his partner and equal, helping to run cons as an expert at pretending she’s someone she’s not. It promises to be a “big” performance of a very sexy, very tough character.

Circling back to child actors, there’s another one who could be worth paying attention to: Sophie Nélisse in Brian Percival’s “The Book Thief.” We really don’t know yet how this film will figure into the awards landscape, but Fox won’t be relegating the young star of the film to supporting just because she’s the kid in a movie with two well-known actors. Like Sheridan in “Mud” and Hunter McCracken in 2011’s “The Tree of Life,” she’ll go lead.

Then there is the idea of “co-leads,” which is territory “August: Osage County” sort of finds itself in this year. In Ron Howard’s “Rush,” Daniel Brühl stars as Formula One sensation Niki Lauda, who in 1976 suffered extensive scarring to his head when his car burst into flames following a racing accident. But while a lot of time is spent with both Lauda and his rival James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) in the film, and though the real Lauda appears in a denouement to give a monologue (that is nevertheless about Hunt), Universal is pushing for supporting placement for Brühl, with Hemsworth in lead.

The Weinsteins have Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” which is an obvious lead actress play for Judi Dench. But as the author upon whose book the film was based, Steve Coogan (who also co-wrote the script) has an argument for lead placement. It’s Martin Sixsmith’s tale in many ways — it begins with him, we meet “Philomena” through him, etc. His is a story of a skeptic reevaluating his faith and hers is one of a woman searching for the son she was forced to abandon. But conceptually, it’s akin to something like “The Devil Wears Prada” or “The Last King of Scotland,” with the character driving the story likely to be relegated to supporting while the showier turn from a star gets the lead love. And after all, The Weinstein Company already has a lot to work with in lead, from Forest Whitaker to Idris Elba to Michael B. Jordan.

Tom Hanks is a huge star with a pair of performances in the hunt this year: the true lead of “Captain Phillips” and the potential lead of “Saving Mr. Banks.” But I’m told there’s no “potential” to it in the case of the latter; it’s to be a supporting campaign of a true supporting performance.

Finally, I’ll close with one of my favorite performances of the year that I really hope finds some footing in the upcoming awards race: James Franco in “Spring Breakers.” Franco’s inked-up yo-boy “Alien” is a big, broad piece of work that, as a result, could be argued as a lead. But it’s definitely going to be positioned as supporting by A24, and I hope that comes complete with “Look at my SH*T!” (as opposed to “For Your Consideration”) ads.

Something important to keep in mind with all of this is that, yes, a studio can try and direct the conversation on a performance by campaigning it in one category or the other. But at the end of the day, the Academy decides for itself how to nominate. If they don’t feel like Kate Winslet gave a supporting performance in “The Reader,” they’ll chalk her up as a lead, as they did in 2008. Ditto Keisha Castle-Hughes in 2003’s “Whale Rider.” So while these on-the-bubble contenders might have their hearts set on supporting or lead, it won’t be their call at the end of the day.

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