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Oscar Discussion: How Do We Tell Supporting Performances from Leading? Should It Be Based on Time On Screen?

Posted by Christopher Campbell on February 15, 2013

The difference between a feature film and a short, according to the Academy Awards, is 40 minutes. More than 40 is feature-length, and 40 and under is short subject. It’s that easy to define.

Performances are another matter entirely. There is no defined length of screen time for an actor or actress that makes their performance qualify for the leading or the supporting category. And it’s an issue for some people who wonder why, say, Christoph Waltz is featured in 97 minutes of Django Unchained and nominated in the Supporting Actor category while Best Actor nominees Daniel Day-Lewis and Hugh Jackman only have 87 minutes and 60 minutes, respectively, of screen time in their films.

But amount of screen time isn’t even really the issue so much as percentage, because especially this year we’ve got many movies that are twice as long as many others. So, while we might not think too much about Helen Hunt being a Supporting Actress nominee at 41 minutes compared to Leading nominees Jennifer Lawrence (54 minutes) and Jessica Chastain (69 minutes), it is noteworthy that Hunt is in 43% of The Sessions compared to Lawrence and Chastain’s 44% screen time in their films.

Do Waltz and Hunt deserve to be recognized in the lead categories, though? The Academy makes no distinction between what constitutes a lead or supporting role, neither in length of time on screen nor in a narrative sense. They tend to leave it up to the performers themselves (or, more likely, their film’s studios) with regards to the campaigning for consideration. But there should be some understanding of the narrative qualifications of what it means to be a leading role and what it means to be supporting. Leading role ought to be defined as "the protagonist," and supporting roles are everything else.

The problem with that definition is that there are far fewer female protagonists out there. While all five Best Actor nominees play the main characters of their films, only three of the Best Actress nominees could maybe technically be called protagonists. And even then, only one of the Best Actress nominees appears in more than 50% of her film. Historically, though, leading actresses also included love interests and other such roles that secondarily serve as near-equal to the male lead. Jennifer Lawrence and Emmanuelle Riva only play leading roles in this conventional Hollywood sense.

The main reason people take issue with lengthy Supporting Role performances is not for their potential to be considered Leading. Nobody should be mistaking the characters played by Waltz, Hunt or Philip Seymour Hoffman (68 minutes/47%) for protagonists. Many do mistakenly think the longer screen time is an advantage, however, seeing Waltz as having a stronger chance because of his prominence. Yet the accepted frontrunner in Hunt’s category is Anne Hathaway, who has the second-shortest screen percentage of the five nominees at 13%.

Still, particularly for Supporting Actress, there has been some evidence of the issue. Sure, we’ve seen wins for less than six minutes of acting (Beatrice Straight in Network), but we’ve also more recently seen wins for clear non-protagonist leading ladies, including Rachel Weisz in The Constant Gardener, Marcia Gay Harden in Pollack and Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind. And we’ve seen such strange cases as Julianne Moore being nominated for Supporting Actress in The Hours while Nicole Kidman won Best Actress for the same film in a role with far less screen time.

With such potential for confusing and controversial placement in the acting categories, it might behoove the Academy to make some rules of distinction, though screen time or percentage might not be the best measure of qualification. Yet narrative measures are far tricker. Is there any other means for drawing lines between Leading and Supporting categories?

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