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Actors position themselves for Oscar

Much of the discussion on the Oscar derby has to do with which categories certain actors and actresses will compete.  By Stuart Levine
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

For the casual moviegoer, the Oscar race doesn’t start until the nominations are announced at the end of January.

That would be akin to a baseball fan saying the season doesn’t start until the playoffs in October. For Red Sox, Dodgers or Yankees diehards, it all begins back in spring training, when lineups are determined, positions are earned and careers made.

That’s why this is my favorite time of year in the Oscar race — late fall, when the buzzed-about movies are making their way into screening rooms for first and impressionable looks, opinions confirmed or dissuaded and stars sent to bloom.

Much of the discussion on the Oscar derby has to do with which categories certain actors and actresses will compete. While it might seem like a no-brainer in decided where to place a Meryl Streep (“The Devil Wears Prada”) or Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”), it’s both a complicated and very personal decision.

Ultimately, it’s up to the actor to decide where they would like to place themselves — though the studio, publicist, manager and Oscar consultants usually chime in with their opinion. Often, the choice is obvious.

Last year’s winners — Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”) and Reese Witherspoon (“Walk the Line”) — both had clearly leading roles and triumphed as such. And in most films, the decision about where to submit an actor is non-controversial.

What happens when there is no ‘lead’?Each of those movies had clear, defining lead performances. It’s in films where there’s no one particular above-the-title actor or actress that the situation grows murky.

“Crash,” for example, without a singular A-list star, captured best ensemble at the SAG Awards and went on to win the best-picture Oscar. Choosing someone to run as a lead actor or actress would’ve seen counter-productive to the awards chances for the film and, although Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton and Don Cheadle were in the mix as well, Matt Dillon ended up with a supporting nomination and championed the film as it made it way through the awards circuit.

With Lionsgate’s urging, all the actors had to agree to suppress their egos and agree to run in the supporting category. But that’s not always the case.

In the first “Lord of the Rings” films, it was suggested by New Line — and its Oscar consultants — that Ian McKellen, who played the wise, kind wizard Gandalf, run as supporting. The choice seemed obvious. McKellen was just in a portion of the three-hour film, his character was not the protagonist and nobody was paying their $10 just to see him.

McKellen would have none of it.

According to sources at the time, McKellen saw himself as lead and was strictly opposed to running in the supporting category. It took several conversations to change his mind and he eventually did sign off to compete in supporting — and earned a nomination. (He ultimately lost to Jim Broadbent for “Iris,” and some would say that his initial reluctance might have hurt his chances with voters.)

What if there is more than one ‘lead’?Since most films have a dominant male lead, the category in which to place the top female can be tricky. Take Jennifer Connelly’s role in “A Beautiful Mind,” for example.

She was clearly the leading lady in the film yet there was little doubt she would run as supporting. Two big reasons why:

1) The star of the film was Russell Crowe, and even though Connelly had a dominant presence in the Oscar-winning movie, having both run as leads would’ve seemed overkill and voters might’ve had a hard time voting for both Crowe and Connelly in their respective lead categories. By separating one from lead, it was Universal’s subtle way of saying, “Don’t feel like it’s overkill by voting for Crowe in lead and Connelly in supporting. They’re both worthy in those categories.”

2) Connelly’s role was big and expansive enough that it overshadowed most other actresses in the supporting category whose screen time was much less. Though quantity isn’t always more important that quality — remember Judi Dench won in 1999 for appearing in all of about three minutes in “Shakespeare in Love” — if voters are stuck between who to nominate, being in large portion of the film normally helps.

This year’s race already has a few interesting scenarios of category conundrum.

Whitaker is clearly in much less of “Last King of Scotland” than impressive newcomer James McAvoy, the Scottish doctor who ends up in Uganda and befriending dictator Idi Amin. Whitaker’s reviews, however, have been so outstanding that Fox Searchlight feels like it’s justified in running him in the lead category. His performance is overpowering and placing Whitaker as a supporting player would almost, in some ways, feel like a slight against the actor.

Also helping his cause to run as lead is that in a career that dates back 25 years, Whitaker has never been nominated — even after stellar turns in “Bird” and “The Crying Game.” A chance for a lead actor Oscar gives him career acknowledgement that a supporting win might not convey.

What if there’s a huge star involved?It’s an interesting scenario for Streep in “Prada.” Clearly, Anne Hathaway is the central character of the film and in practically every scene. Streep, however, is such a riveting presence that, while there was discussions early on where she should run, Fox decided that she’s the reason people are going to see the film and lead actress is the way to go.

The people at Warner Bros. have some interesting decisions to make regarding “The Departed.” Clearly, Jack Nicholson is supporting but a case could be made for both Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon to compete against each as lead. That might easily cancel out each other’s chances, so the studio might make more of a case for Damon in “Departed” if DiCaprio is sensational in the upcoming “Blood Diamond,” and can campaign hard for that instead.

Taking a cue from the “Crash” example, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s compelling “Babel” offers two of the biggest names in Hollywood — Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett — in addition to rising star Gael Garcia Bernal. Like Inarritu’s “21 Grams,” however, there is no lead performance as the film takes three disparate and equal storylines and weaves them together.

So everyone will campaign as supporting, as anything else would look like the studio was touting one actor or actress as more important than another. That’s not the case, of course, but like in politics, everything in Hollywood is about perception, not reality.

Reality kicks in on nominations morning, Jan. 23. Those actors and actresses who hear their names called and say later on “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood,” “I’m just so surprised. I didn’t even realize today the nominations were announced” are awful liars. In Oscarland, opening day began a long time ago and they’ve just won the pennant.

Stuart Levine is a senior edtior at Variety. He can be reached at .