Golden Globes: Shots Fired in the Very Serious Fight Against “Category Fraud”

This morning, a small battle was won in the single most inconsequential war in American culture. The battleground was the nominations announcement for the Golden Globes, the annual award ceremony for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association — an organization that, despite their comically small membership (“about 90 members”) and history of totally goofy nominations, has attained a reputation as some kind of bellwether for the Academy Awards. And the war that’s being waged concerns the scourge of (sit down for this, cover your children’s ears, etc.) “category fraud.”

“Um, what’s category fraud?” you might ask, with an understandably puzzled expression. I’ll tell you. Every year, come awards season, the publicity teams in charge of each distributor’s hopefuls determine which nominations they’re “campaigning” for. Those helpful suggestions go out on the DVD screeners, awards websites, and “For Your Consideration” print and web ads, and they usually work, steering the eventual nominations and wins among critics’ groups, awards-giving bodies, and the big enchilada, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And quite often, either in the interest of increasing their chances for a win in a weak field or to keep their actors from competing against each other (and, quite possibly, cancelling each other out), the campaign strategists will fudge a bit — putting what might be considering a leading performance into contention for a supporting nomination, or (less often) vice versa.

Alicia Viklander in "The Danish Girl"

This year, cries of “category fraud” have grown considerably louder thanks to a handful of controversial campaigns. Chief among them is that of Carol, in which the Weinstein Company has asked voters to “consider” Cate Blanchett the Best Actress in a Leading Role, and Rooney Mara the Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Similarly, Focus Features has asked voters to consider Alicia Vikander not for Best Actress but Best Supporting Actress. Both distributors are presumptively keeping their co-stars out of this year’s highly competitive Best Actress race; TWC is also hoping to nab nominations (and perhaps, wins) for both Blanchett and Mara, rather than one or the other. Elsewhere on the campaign trail, A24 is pushing nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay for Best Supporting Actor and Brie Larson for Best Actress, though the younger actor has more screen time than his co-star, which again seems a case of keeping an actor out of a more competitive field (and, as The Atlantic’s David Sims notes, very young actors tend to do much better in the supporting races).

And how’s that gone so far? Well, it’s sure been interesting! Several groups have nominated or awarded Mara for Supporting Actress, including the Satellite Awards, the New York Film Critics Online, the Online Film Critics Society, and (most recently) the SAG Awards. But Mara shared the award for Best Actress at Cannes and is nominated in that category at the Independent Spirit Awards. The SAGs, the OFCS, and the Satellites also nominated Viklander for Supporting, but the British Independent Film Awards nominated her as Best Actress. And while Tremblay has picked up a few “breakthrough” or “youth” performance awards, he hasn’t yet picked up any Best Supporting Actor awards of note, partially because that field has also proven surprisingly crowded, thanks in no small part to the Spotlight team pushing all of their actors there, even though the New York Film Critics Circle gave Michael Keaton their Best Actor award, and… Asleep yet?

Point is, film scribes and awards bloggers and the rest of Film Twitter have gotten all bent out of shape about category fraud — or, as I’ve seen it described with a presumptively straight face, “the spreading cancer of category fraud.” The phrase “let us not embolden category fraudsters” was bandied about during my guild’s nomination process, along with a reminder on the ballot itself that “Studios, celebrities or publicists may not dictate the placement of an actor in one category or the other.” Stern blog posts have been written, angry missives have been tweeted, and when this morning’s Golden Globe nominations placed Mara and Viklander in the “Best Actress” camp, there was widespread adulation for the integrity of an organization that, on the same ballot, handed a Best Picture nomination in the Musical/Comedy category to this year’s laugh riot The Martian.

Anthony Hopkins in "The SIlence of the Lambs"

Why is The Martian (and, for that matter, the seriocomic drama Joy) up for Musical/Comedy? Simple: because it has a better chance of winning there. That’s the way the game is played — and that’s how it’s been played for decades. Variety’s Tim Gray gives a pretty thorough rundown of the “long and honorable history of ‘category fraud’” here; the highlights include Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs (won Best Actor with 25 minutes of screen time), Frances McDormand in Fargo (won Best Actress, doesn’t even show up until a third of the way into the movie), and Jennifer Connolly in A Beautiful Mind, Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People, and Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (all won Supporting Oscars for what most consider lead performances). I first became aware of the phenomenon when Siskel & Ebert complained about it clear back in 1990, a year that found arguable leads Martin Landau (Crimes and Misdemeanors), Danny Aiello (Do the Right Thing), and Denzel Washington (Glory) competing for Best Supporting Actor.

The point is, it happens — and will continue to happen as long as a) awards campaigns are run like political operations, and b) people have, oh what are they called, subjective opinions. I think there’s a compelling case to be made that Rooney Mara’s is, in fact, a supporting performance in Carol, not because Harvey told me it is, but because of something less definable, an overall gut feeling about the picture’s point-of-view and the subtlety of Mara’s work in it. And you can counter that by comparing Mara and Blanchett’s screen time, but y’know what? Until there’s some kind of objective standard, with official awards-season refs running stopwatches in screenings to meet bylaws about screen-time percentages, we’re all gonna have to tend our own gardens on this one.

And such an image makes the most sense this time of year: that of sports fans arguing over stats ands starting line-ups and bad calls, which is what this all boils down to anyway. Now that I’ve seen the contenders, the year’s drawing to a close, and my self-imposed embargo has expired, I’ve found myself getting sucked in to the Awards Conversation — and sure, it’s fun, like following pre-season football or presidential elections a year out. But it’s got fuck-all to do with art. So the amount of hyperbole and film-geek rage swirling around the nonsense issue of “category fraud” is altogether disproportionate to the amount of actual relevance even the big bad Oscars have, at least insofar as the quality of the films at hand and what will actually endure about any of them. It’s much ado about nothing, a tempest in a teapot, the cliché of your choice. So for God’s sake, settle down, (fellow) nerds.