New This Week
San Francisco was both the highest grossing film of 1936 and the first of three films for which one of its Oscar nominations was later declared to be category fraud. That, however, was technically not the case as Spencer Tracy in San Francisco, Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld, and Stuart Erwin in Pigskin Parade were all nominated in the categories they were eligible for under AMPAS rules in force that year.
The acting categories were expanded from six (three each for Actor and Actress or more when ties were involved) to 20 (five each for Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress). Frank Capra, the then-AMPAS president set up a blue ribbon panel nominating committee consisting of fifty members to make the nominations. Actors and actresses considered stars by their studios were eligible for Best Actor and Best Actress. Actors who were classified as supporting players were eligible for the awards for Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress regardless of the size of their parts. Thus, Tracy and Rainer, who were rising stars, could only be considered for Actor and Actress and Erwin, who was generally considered a utility player, could only be considered as a Supporting Actor even though he had the lead in the film he was nominated for.
That rule was changed the following year when the voting was open to the entire acting membership of the Academy. The new rule allowed for studios to send out reminder lists in which each film’s stars were identified with an asterisk. Those stars were eligible only for consideration for Best Actor and Actress. Those who weren’t so identified could be nominated either for Best Actor or Actress or Best Supporting Actor or Actress, but the original idea lingered in voters’ minds. Thus, character actors who had co-lead roles in their films were more likely to be nominated in support while major stars who had supporting roles in their films were more likely to be nominated for Best Actor or Actress for the next few years.
Roland Young in Topper and Charles Coburn in The Devil and Miss Jones were clear examples of co-leads who were nominated in support while rising star Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips was a clear example of a major star in a supporting role nominated for Best Actress. Many thought that Garson and Olivia de Havilland, nominated in support for Gone with the Wind in 1939, should have switched categories but Garson’s asterisk prevented that and even though de Havilland’s role was substantially larger, she was the second female character in a film where the female lead, played by Vivien Leigh, dominated her film. I think both nominations were justified, as were those of Young and Coburn.
Further blurring of the lines occurred in 1943 when Paulette Goddard, a major star who had the second lead in her film, So Proudly We Hail, behind Claudette Colbert, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Jenifer Jones, who won that year’s Oscar for Best Actress in The Song of Bernadette, pulled a Goddard the following year when she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Since You Went Away in which she, too, had the second female lead behind Claudette Colbert.
There was a bigger monkey wrench thrown at the confusion between categories when Barry Fitzgerald was nominated for Both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for Going My Way, winning for Best Supporting Actor and losing to the film’s star, Bing Crosby, for Best Actor. The rule was quickly changed to prevent an actor or actress from being nominated in two categories for the same performance, though like Fay Bainter in White Banners and Jezebel and Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees and Mrs. Miniver, they could continue to be nominated in two categories for different performances.
The notion of category fraud reached its zenith when Anne Baxter insisted on being considered for Best Actress for 1950’s All About Eve in which she had the second lead behind Bette Davis. Voters acquiesced to her wishes and she was nominated for Best Actress causing some to suggest that Davis lost the Oscar to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday because of vote splitting between the two stars. This is nonsense of course. Have you ever met anyone who though Baxter should have won that year? More likely Davis split votes with Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, another aging actress playing an aging actress on screen. To this day, people argue as to whether Davis or Swanson deserved to win that year. Few think Holliday should have won.
Charges of category fraud came into focus later in the decade when Eva Marie Saint, Marlon Brando’s leading leady in On the Waterfront, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and won her category in 1954 and Jack Lemmon, given star billing with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and William Powell in Mister Roberts in 1955, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and won. When Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, who shared star billing with Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall in 1956’s Written on the Wind, were nominated in support with Malone winning, it caused another furor which caused another rule change. For several years thereafter, studios were required to designate which actors and actresses in their films were considered stars and which were considered supporting players.
In the 1970s, tongues wagged when Tatum O’Neal was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Paper Moon and won in that category despite being in just about every frame of the film. Some were incensed when Louise Fletcher won the Best Actress award for what was generally considered to be a supporting role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest despite 1975 being a very weak year for leading actresses. No one had complained when Patricia Neal won Best Actress for her supporting role in 1963’s Hud over a stronger field on nominees.
In the modern era, category fraud reached a new level of scrutiny beginning in 1994 when John Travolta was promoted and nominated for Best Actor and Samuel L. Jackson for Best Supporting Actor for Pulp Fiction in which their roles were of equal weight and importance to the film. They were both stars of their film and should both have been considered for Best Actor, or conversely they were both members of an ensemble in a film with no clear lead and should both have been considered for Best Supporting Actor.
Most recent complaints about category fraud have been over the shoehorning of lead actors into the supporting categories when another actor of equal star power is promoted in the lead categories, although those complaints seem to have simmered down to a whimper with the recent
popular win of Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… opposite Leonardo DiCaprio.
All films mentioned here, except for White Banners, are available on home video for your perusal. For more on the subject, read Brian Lindsay’s excellent 2016 book Category Fraud.
This week’s new releases include the sci-fi classics The War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Caught Fire.