"Lead or supporting? What do you think?"
That's the most urgent question buzzing through panicked Oscarland right now as actors try to determine their best campaign strategy.
Make a mistake and declare yourself in the lead race -- when you should really have the humility to go supporting -- and you could be throwing away your one big chance for academy glory.
Picking the right strategy isn't obvious. It's not a matter of screen time or the amount of dialogue a star gets. Ethan Hawke actually had a bigger role in "Training Day" than his costar who won the Oscar for best lead actor of 2001, but Hawke got demoted to the supporting race.
The reason: Denzel Washington stood out more since he was louder and more demonstrative as a profanity-spewing, fist-hurling cop who likes to break the law -- and thugs' body parts -- while working the narcotics beat.
Geoffrey Rush won best actor of 1996 for his role as Australian pianist David Helfgott in "Shine," but he actually had less screen time than 16-year-old Noah Taylor, who portrayed the music genius as a young man early in the film. Rush took the big Oscar bow, however, because his role was more psychologically complicated later in the film when Helfgott suffers a mental breakdown.
"Put me in the lead category!" Nicole Kidman told astonished Miramax execs in 2002 when it came time to plan Oscar strategy for "The Hours."
Some of those studio honchos must've thought that the insanity of the role she played -- loopy novelist Virginia Woolf -- had affected Kidman's judgment or perhaps she was pulling a diva stunt, refusing to step down to supporting after being nominated in the lead race a year earlier for "Moulin Rouge!"
In "The Hours," clearly the camera spent less time focused on Kidman than her costars Meryl Streep or Julianne Moore. All Kidman really had were two big scenes, but she had secret plusses, too. The movie was really all about Woolf. Hers was the central character. And having that plastic nose helped much, of course, since voters love to reward stars who alter their famous faces and bodies.
In part, that's Meryl Streep's view this year. Anne Hathaway has the biggest role as a fumbling editorial slave at a major fashion magazine, but Streep outranks her. Streep's role is in the movie title and, let's face it, nobody dares to outrank the devil.
This year there's an epidemic of category confusion at the Oscars -- more than we've seen in modern memory -- and there's even another case of a bedeviled demon.
Movie viewers see "The Last King of Scotland" through the eyes of a doctor visiting Africa (James McAvoy), but the film is a dramatic showcase for the fiendishly charming Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker).
Some Oscar advisors urged Whitaker to declare himself for the supporting slot, but, in the spirit of that territory-grabbing Ugandan despot he portrays, Whitaker insists upon shooting for lead.
Some category-straddling stars are opting for the opposite strategy. Ben Affleck has good reason to campaign for best lead actor because he just won that equivalent award at the Venice Film Festival.
Futhermore -- just like Kidman's character in "The Hours" and Whitaker's part in "Last King" -- Affleck's role is the chief focus of "Hollywoodland," which is all about the mysterious death of George Reeves, the actor in the red and blue tights flying across America's TV screens as Superman. But Adrien Brody appears more extensively in the pic as a detective investigating the bizarre death.
Richard Griffiths won many theater awards, including the Tony, as best lead actor in "The History Boys" on stage, but he's dropping down to the supporting race when the film version competes for Oscars.
Why? It's all about strategy. The bottom line: in which category does an actor have the best chance to prevail? In Affleck's case, he and his studio, Focus Features, believe that the lead actor race is probably too crowded at this point, so his best shot is in supporting.
It probably comes as no big surprise that, in Hollywood, size matters. Often the nominee with the biggest roles in those lower races wins. That's why you often see lead actors step down to supporting -- so they can increase their chances. Like Kevin Spacey in "The Usual Suspects" or Rachel Weisz in "The Constant Gardener."
Or Jennifer Connelly, who was really the female lead in "A Beautiful Mind," but she rightfully knew that her best shot was in supporting -- even though things got a bit confusing for a while when the Screen Actors' Guild nominated Connelly in the lead race, which she lost.
Sometimes lead actors must be realistic about facing longstanding academy prejudices. For example, voters seem to think, given certain actors' smaller size physically, that children and teens must be nominated in the supporting race even if their roles are leads. Like Tatum O'Neal, who, at age 11, won best supporting actress of 1973 for her lead role in "Paper Moon."
But it really doesn't matter what actors think. In the end Oscar voters can put contenders in any category they like. In one notorious case back in 1944, they actually nominated Barry Fitzgerald in both lead and supporting for portraying a grouchy priest in "Going My Way, but the academy later changed the rules so that no one can be nominated in both slots. If voters put them in both races, the outcome is decided by whichever shot pulls the most votes.
That caused a major shock in 2002 when Keisha Castle-Hughes suddenly got nominated in the lead race despite the fact that the "Whale Rider" star was only 13 and had been campaigning in the supporting derby just like all lasses before her. She ended up becoming the youngest gal ever nominated for best actress.
This year all of the following stars plan to compete in the supporting category, but could suddenly find themselves promoted by academy members to lead: Adam Beach ("Flags of Our Fathers"), Jack Nicholson ("The Departed"), Brad Pitt ("Babel"), Emma Thompson ("Stranger Than Fiction") and Michael Sheen ("The Queen").
As of now we don't know of lead stars who plan to drop down to supporting, but will probably occur later in the derby like it did last year when George Clooney -- suddenly and rather shrewdly -- stepped down to supporting for "Syriana" and was aptly rewarded for his humility a few months later at the Kodak Theatre.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun