Oscars: Supporting Actors Who Campaigned for Lead

With the news of Michelle Williams campaigning for lead actress, instead of supporting actress, for her performance in Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” many are wondering if this big move will pay off. With bona fide contenders such as Cate Blanchett from “Tár” and Michelle Yeoh from “Everything Everywhere All at Once” already staking their claims as frontrunners, the category decision caused quite the stir on social media and punditry circles. Not only because many felt Williams had the supporting category locked up for herself to win, but there is also a feeling that she is, in fact, a supporting player as free-spirited mother Mitzy Fabelman. The film centers around Gabrielle LaBelle’s role as Sammy, a teenager who falls in love with cinema.   

WmLeader is taking a look back at some of the most notable modern-day “supporting performances” (after 1990), that were campaigned for lead actor or actress attention. Most of these entries worked out in the actors’ favor.

Category fraud is always a hot topic every awards season, with clearly leading performances entered in supporting categories for an easier pathway to a nom or a win. It’s not too often we see it the other way around, with a questionable supporting turn angling for leading attention.  

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When considering the instances that didn’t work out in the actors’ favor, there are a few that come to mind. Most prominently was Richard Gere, who won the Globe and was nominated for SAG for his tap-dancing lawyer Billy Flynn in “Chicago” (2002), but he missed out on the Oscar nom in the end. Other examples include Delroy Lindo’s PTSD veteran in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” (2020) and Steve Carell’s hedge fund leader in Adam McKay’s ensemble dramedy “The Big Short” (2015).  

In the early days of the Academy, you can find a ton of short-timed performances. Time-wise, David Niven holds the current record for the shortest performance ever awarded in the best actor category, at 23 minutes and 39 seconds, for playing Major Angus Pollock in Delbert Mann’s “Separate Tables” (1958). For best actress, that record belongs to Patricia Neal, whose turn as housekeeper Alma in Martin Ritt’s “Hud” (1963) only lasts 21 minutes and 51 seconds.  

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Read WmLeader’s list of the 13 best examples of supporting actors who campaigned for lead Oscar categories below.

Honorable mentions: Amy Adams, “American Hustle” (2013); Samantha Morton, “In America” (2003); Kristin Scott Thomas, “The English Patient” (1996)

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