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The mysterious case of category fraud
The Oscars, Lily Gladstone and a broken system
A few weeks ago Variety broke the news that Killers of the Flower Moon actress Lily Gladstone will be campaigning for Best Actress at the upcoming Academy Awards. This came as a surprise to many awards season pundits as it had been widely assumed that she would campaign for Best Supporting Actress instead.
When the news broke, I was surprised to see that the online response to the news was mostly negative: why would Gladstone campaign for Best Actress when she has been the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress for the entirety of the race so far? Why would she throw away a guaranteed Oscar to campaign in a different, supposedly more crowded category?
Lily Gladstone and Killers of the Flower Moon
Hailing from legendary director Martin Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon is an epic crime drama film that has been surrounded by Oscar buzz since it premiered at Cannes Film Festival back in May. Based on the nonfiction book by American journalist David Grann, the movie chronicles the murders of members of the Osage tribe in northeastern Oklahoma under mysterious circumstances after oil is discovered on their land.
The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart (Mollie’s husband), Robert De Niro as William King Hale (Ernest’s uncle), Lily Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart (Ernest’s wife and a member of the Osage tribe) and Jesse Plemons as Tom White (a federal agent investigating the murders).
Based on the description and marketing of the film, Gladstone has the most prominent role of any actress in the movie. Katey Rich for Vanity Fair writes that her character is ‘the emotional core of the film’.
Further, during his stint as the only voice on the campaign trail due to the current SAG-AFTRA strike, Scorsese has been vocal about his decision to prioritise the Native American people in this real-life story, admitting to rewrites to achieve this and moving DiCaprio from the role of the FBI agent to Mollie’s husband. It would be contradictory to then admit that Gladstone’s character is a supporting character in the story of her own people.
If nominated, Gladstone will be the first Native American actress to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
What probably amuses me most about this debate is that outside of Cannes, none of us peasants have actually seen the movie yet. I’m certainly excited to see it and think it holds a lot of promise, but it does not release in Australian cinemas until October 19.
The online reaction to Lily Gladstone’s Oscars campaign announcement confused me because it felt like people were encouraging her to commit category fraud.
Category fraud is where a studio bends or breaks the rules of an award show and submits their movie, actor or crew member in the wrong category.
Category fraud is so common at the Oscars that it led writer Matthew Stewart to build a database of screen time to document occurrences of category fraud at the awards show.
Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield were both nominated for Best Supporting Actor for their respective roles as Fred Hampton (the Black Messiah) and Bill O’Neal (Judas) in Judas and the Black Messiah, leaving us wondering why neither Judas nor the Black Messiah were considered lead of the story. Kaluuya won the award.
Author’s fun fact: Kaluuya thanked his parents for having sex in his acceptance speech.
Brad Pitt won Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood despite his character Cliff Booth serving as a co-lead to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton. If he had been campaigned and nominated for Best Actor alongside DiCaprio, it is probably true that they both would have lost to Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
The Favourite is one of the most talked about examples of category fraud. It seems widely agreed that Emma Stone should have been nominated for Best Actress instead of Best Supporting Actress given that her character Abigail Hill is the main focus of the film. I would go a step further and argue that her co-star Olivia Colman, eventual winner of Best Actress, should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress given that the movie is about winning her affection, not about her.
The system is broken anyway
Of course, the story of Lily Gladstone best demonstrates that award show categories are not a perfect fit for most movies anyway.
The Golden Globes’ distinction between Best Motion Picture: Drama and Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy is almost laughable. I question whether every film can be neatly segmented into either the ‘Drama’ or ‘Musical or Comedy’ box. Studios are regularly accused of committing category fraud by campaigning their dramatic-but-with-a-few-jokes films in the ‘Musical or Comedy’ category as it is ‘easier’ to win.
Some of the suspiciously dramatic films nominated in the Musical or Comedy category include science fiction film The Martian (because Matt Damon cracks a few jokes while he’s stuck on Mars) and psychological horror film Get Out (because it’s a satire?).
I’d argue that a ‘straight’ comedy movie (i.e. not a dramatic movie in musical clothing, not a comedy-drama or drama-comedy, not a black comedy or tragicomedy) actually hasn’t won this category since The Hangover back in 2009 which says something interesting about the value of comedy movies (hint: we don’t value them).
Author’s fun fact: In the process of researching the Golden Globes, I discovered that the five movies nominated for Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy in 2001 were Moulin Rouge!, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Gosford Park, Legally Blonde and Shrek which sounds like an absolutely killer movie night line-up.
It’s extremely rare that a film fits so neatly into the boxes presented for it. The Oscars offers four acting awards for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. If your movie had more than two men and two women in it, too bad! There’s nothing that they are even eligible to win.
In fact, in almost one hundred years of Oscars history, there has never been a film to win all four acting awards. The only films to win three out of four are A Streetcar Named Desire, Network and Everything Everywhere All at Once.
There have been plenty of other Oscar sweeps, but never in the acting categories. The so-called ‘Big Five’ of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay (either Original or Adapted) has been won by three films: It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs.
While The Lord of the Rings films were well-received by the Oscars, with the final instalment The Return of the King earning a record-equalling eleven wins tied with Ben-Hur and Titanic, the only acting nomination across the entire trilogy was for Ian McKellen in The Fellowship of the Ring despite audience and industry-lauded performances by Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Miranda Otto and many, many more. To be fair, the Oscars created an impossible task for themselves. How are you supposed to squeeze all that talent into four awards?
Similar concerns have been raised regarding the critically acclaimed performances of the casts of TV shows The White Lotus and Succession in the upcoming Primetime Emmy Awards season. All eight nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series come from just these two shows, as well as six out of eight nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. Reception on whether the decision to favour these shows so heavily over others is split, but what remains true is that there is no way to recognise them all for their work. Like the Oscars, there is no Emmy for Outstanding Ensemble.
West End awards show the Oliviers attempted to solve this problem by nominating all six actresses from Six the Musical jointly for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Musical but even that felt strange – so who’s the non-existent Lead?
Some studios do not even campaign for multiple actors in the same show, fearing that they will split the competition. After HBO chose not to submit them for Emmy consideration, Game of Thrones actors Gwendoline Christie (Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series), Alfie Allen (Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series) and Carice van Houten (Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series) each forked out the $225 entry fee to submit themselves and were all successfully nominated.
Category fraud, as much as I dislike it when done deliberately by studios, will continue to exist as long as awards shows do not allow for any flexibility to reward the best work of the last season. What is even more common than category fraud is this idea of category vagueness where an actor does not fit neatly into a box, because no story ever does.
Killers of the Flower Moon will be released in Australia on October 19 and the 96th Academy Awards ceremony is due to take place on 10 March 2024.