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Category Fraud in the Academy Awards

todayJanuary 25, 2016 16

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By Joshua Morrison
Blog Content Contributor

*KTSW consists of and respects varying opinions within its staff. Opinion articles do not reflect the opinion of KTSW as a whole.

I resent the Academy Awards and the status of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the organization which grants them, as an organization, the seal of approval which is taken by many to signify the value in a film. I do. Really, I do. Nonetheless, I watch the awards ceremony each and every year. The pageantry is irresistible and I’m an avid stargazer who loves the thrill of seeing his favorite actresses be honored and the thought of that honor providing some benefit to their career.

My resentment comes, frankly, from paying attention. When you pay attention to something for as long and as closely as I have paid attention to the Academy Awards, you, naturally, begin to notice things. What I have noticed is that the Academy almost always gets it wrong. Please don’t misunderstand. I’m no scorned fanboy whose resentment stems from a still-lingering grudge over their favorite films missing out on recognition. No, when I say that the Academy gets it wrong I mean to say that there are systematic practices in which they engage year after year that should, but do not, rob them of credibility. This post is intended to shed light on merely one of those practices: indulging in category fraud.

Morrison image 2An example, though not the only one (looking at you Alicia Vikander), from this year is Rooney Mara’s nomination for the award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She is nominated for her remarkable performance in the jaw-dropping Carol. The only hitch is that her role, Therese, is a leading one. Anybody who has seen the film can attest to this. The story is told quite often from Therese’s perspective and she has more screen-time than her co-star, Cate Blanchett, who is nominated in the leading category.

Mara is, however, far from the only instance of this practice. Jake Gyllenhaal’s nomination in the supporting actor category for Brokeback Mountain and Cate Blanchett’s nomination for Notes on a Scandal in the supporting actress category are two relatively recent examples that stand out as particularly egregious nominations. You may notice that category fraud tends to happen in films where there are two leads and they are of the same gender. There is plenty to be read about why this happens. This article is a particularly good starting point, and Nathan Rogers over at The Film Experience has been bringing attention to the phenomenon for years now. What I’m more interested in elaborating on at the moment is why the practice is such an infuriating one.

The people who give leading performances that are demoted to the supporting categories for the sake of awards and attention are often young, beautiful, actors who are either on the cusp of super-stardom or well established acts. In short, they are among those least in need of recognition and profile-boosts. This makes sense. They are clearly famous enough and established enough to be landing roles which require them to lead a film.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that, even if it is temporary, recognition by the Academy can lead to a career surge. When nominations for awards in the supporting categories are bestowed upon those leading films it means that, in a very real way, those working actors who are not young, beautiful, or white enough to lead films in an often unjust industry are again pushed aside in favor of those who belong to groups that already wildly over-represented. The people who play truly supporting roles are simultaneously those most in need of recognition and the very people from whom the opportunity to fulfill this need is stolen.

This practice is a perversion of the very purpose of the supporting categories. These awards were introduced as part of the 9th annual Academy Awards to build in recognition for different types of acting and actors. They were decidedly not created to give leading actors more opportunities to be awarded. Despite this, there is a very real chance that on this year’s Oscar night, we could be watching Rooney Mara take the stage to accept an award for supporting a film she leads. I know I’ll be watching.

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