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Oscars theory No. 6: Lead stars win supporting category

If the buzz proves to be right about who will win best supporting actor and actress –- Javier Bardem ("No Country for Old Men") and Cate Blanchett ("I'm Not There") –- you can credit part of those wins to the fact that both of these so-called featured players are actually in leading roles.


It's one of the oldest tricks in the Oscar book: If you're a lead actor who wants to win bad enough, just swallow your pride, slip down into that supporting category, and you'll probably clobber your rivals based on screen time alone. Bardem, having lost once in lead ("Before Night Falls"), must hope for better luck in the featured race. On the other hand, Blanchett, who won supporting actress three years ago for "The Aviator," may have been unduly inspired to keep repeating in her original slot by the woman she played then, Oscar's all-time champ Katharine Hepburn, who won lead actress four times.

At one point early in the derby, after she won the best-actress prize for "I'm Not There" at the Venice fest and "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" had been met with a collective yawn, there was talk that Blanchett would compete in lead for the Bob Dylan biopic. When she decided to stick with supporting as a nod to the ensemble nature of the Todd Haynes helmed pic, could Blanchett have known she would make it into the final five of both categories?

Interestingly, of the last eight supporting-actress winners, only Blanchett could not have made the case for competing in lead for "The Aviator." Jennifer Hudson ("Dreamgirls") was re-creating a role that won its originator, Jennifer Holliday, a best actress Tony. In "The Constant Gardener," Rachel Weisz was the female focus, as Jennifer Connelly was in "A Beautiful Mind" and Marcia Gay Harden in "Pollock." And just as Catherine Zeta-Jones ("Chicago") did for her the year before, Renee Zellweger ("Cold Mountain") stepped out of Nicole Kidman's way as Angelina Jolie ("Girl Interrupted") did for Winona Ryder.

What most of those champs had in common was that they were relative unknowns when they won. Many Oscar strategists believe it's wise for rookies to campaign in that second tier, even when they actually have more screen time than their celebrity costars who get nominated in a lead category. That strategy certainly paid off for Timothy Hutton (his "Ordinary People" costar Mary Tyler Moore lost best actress), Haing S. Ngor (his "The Killing Fields" costar Sam Waterston lost best actor) and Jim Broadbent (his "Iris" costar Judi Dench lost best actress).

However, when more famous faces try that same ploy, it can backfire. Poor Ethan Hawke actually had the most dialogue and face time in "Training Day," but agreed to step down to the supporting slot so he wouldn't compete against costar Denzel Washington, who'd already won that race ("Glory"). Ethan ended up losing while Denzel nabbed Oscar No. 2.

Two years ago, George Clooney could not decide which race to run in for his role as the central figure in "Syriana." At first, his Oscar strategists decided the issue for him and put him in supporting. When Clooney got wind of it, he disagreed and publicly declared himself in lead. An outcry followed. After listening carefully to all of the arguments uttered by experts, he wisely switched back to supporting and won over the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal ("Brokeback Mountain") and Paul Giamatti ("Cinderella Man") who had each won several of the precursor awards.

Had Clooney stayed in lead, it is unlikely he would have prevailed over Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote"). Though, as well-versed as he is in these awards, Clooney may well have been tempted by the examples of Anthony Hopkins and his pal Kidman. They only had minimal screen time in, respectively, "The Silence of the Lambs" and "The Hours," but they refused to lower themselves to supporting status and prevailed in lead anyway.

Technically, it doesn't matter which Oscar race you campaign for — voters decide where to put you and they've been known to disagree with the choices made by some contenders. That is how Benicio del Toro ("Traffic") ended up in the supporting race at the Academy Awards even though he had won lead actor at SAG. And thirteen-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was so obviously the lead in "Whale Rider," campaigned in supporting because that's where academy voters always put kids — except, egads, they shocked Keisha by making her the youngest person ever nominated for best actress.

Just last year voters put Forest Whitaker in lead even though his costar, James McAvoy, had more screen time. In 2001, Denzel Washington won best lead actor for "Training Day" even though he had less face time than Ethan Hawke, who was nominated (and lost) in supporting.

In 1950, Anne Baxter probably would've won best supporting actress of 1950 for "All About Eve," but she acted too much like her screen role as an ingénue hell-bent on upstaging a veteran showbiz diva. Citing the fact that her character's name is in the title of the film, she insisted on campaigning for best actress opposite Bette Davis. Both got nominated and lost when the costars canceled each other out, giving the win to Judy Holliday ("Born Yesterday").


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Perhaps, but Baxter already had a Best Supporting at only 23 years of age for The Razor's Edge and truly did deserve best actress for All About Eve. In fact, she is the only known actress that Bette Davis is rumored to have had only kind words for.

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