kingrat

Lead or Supporting Role?

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All of us who are enjoying Bogie's best performance year by year thread are having to make some judgment calls about which performances are leads and which are supporting. These are my musings about some of the choices ahead

 

Reviewing the thirty years of the studio era from the year that the Supporting Actor/Actress category was instituted, I’m finding an average of one performance a year which is arguably in the wrong category. In the early years, no star wanted to be listed in the supporting category, nor did the studios want them there. It has been pointed out that after Edmond O’Brien won an Oscar for best supporting actor, he was never again offered a leading role (granted, he was getting leads in B movies, but nonetheless leads). Obviously, things are different these days.

 

1936-1938: We seem to agree that Spencer Tracy’s role in SAN FRANCISCO is not a lead. Filmlover has argued that neither are his roles in CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS and BOYS TOWN. Luise Rainer has the largest female role in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, but it can be argued that this is William Powell’s film, with everyone else in supporting roles. MGM saw Tracy and Rainer as stars, actual or potential.

 

1939: Brian Aherne as Maximilian probably has more screen time than Paul Muni in the title role of JUAREZ. I would classify this as a lead.

 

1940: James Stewart doesn’t get the leading lady in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, which is one argument that perhaps he has a supporting role. The argument could also be made that he has enough screen time to be a leading actor. On the other hand, Walter Brennan in THE WESTERNER probably has a large enough role as Gary Cooper’s antagonist that he should be considered a lead. The dimness of Cooper’s female love interest further skews the film into more of a man vs. man showdown.

 

1942: Some critics’ groups considered Agnes Moorehead’s work in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS in their Best Actress category.

 

1943: SO PROUDLY WE HAIL is an ensemble drama, with Claudette Colbert as the star, but I am by no means sure that Paulette Goddard doesn’t also have a starring role, whereas Veronica Lake would be in the supporting category.

 

1944: Barry Fitzgerald was nominated in both the starring and supporting categories for GOING MY WAY, and he won the New York Film Critics prize as Best Actor. They did not have a supporting actor award at that time. For me the question is purely academic, because I can’t stomach Fitzgerald. Ethel Barrymore won Best Supporting Actress for NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART, but she had second billing and is clearly the second most important character in the film. I would consider this a lead.

 

1946: Myrna Loy wasn’t nominated for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, but she should have been, and in the supporting category, despite her top billing. In my view, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Teresa Wright have the starring roles, and Harold Russell also has more screen time than Loy. In THE YEARLING Jane Wyman has much less screen time than Gregory Peck or Claude Jarman, and this could also be considered a supporting role. Wyman wanted to be seen as a star, of course.

 

1948: Is Ophelia a primary or secondary role in HAMLET? I don’t really object to Jean Simmons being put in the secondary category, and yet this doesn’t quite seem right.

 

1950: Anne Baxter chose to compete in the lead rather than the supporting category for ALL ABOUT EVE, and that probably is accurate, even if she may have cost Bette Davis an Oscar in the process.

 

1951: Oskar Werner wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for DECISION BEFORE DAWN, but he should have been. An argument could be made for either category. Shelley Winters was pleased to be in the top category for A PLACE IN THE SUN, but I would place that performance in the supporting class.

 

1952: Richard Burton obviously belonged in the star category for MY COUSIN RACHEL. I would probably put Colette Marchand there, too, for MOULIN ROUGE. Although she disappears after the first half of the film, it’s much the largest and most important female role, second in importance only to Jose Ferrer’s Toulouse-Lautrec.

 

1953: Children are almost automatically put in the supporting category, even Tatum O’Neal in PAPER MOON. SHANE is seen through the eyes of Brandon de Wilde, and I think he has a leading role. Geraldine Page in HONDO should be in the lead category, too, whereas Antony in JULIUS CAESAR is a supporting role—only Brutus is a lead—and Marlon Brando should be moved to supporting.

 

1954: Humphrey Bogart has a supporting role in THE CAINE MUTINY. Robert Francis has the starring role, but that’s hard to notice because he isn’t a star (imagine someone like Matt Damon instead, and it becomes obvious). Eva Marie Saint chose to be “downlisted” to the supporting category for ON THE WATERFRONT even though some critics’ groups had considered her as a lead. You can make the GREAT ZIEGFELD argument that Brando is the only star, but I would vote for this as a lead.

 

1955: Seeing what had worked for Eva Marie Saint, Betsy Blair was also downlisted for MARTY. I think it’s a lead.

 

1956: Assuming Don Murray should have been nominated for BUS STOP (he wouldn’t get my vote), it should have been as a lead.

 

1960: It’s been quite a while since I saw SONS AND LOVERS, but I think only Dean Stockwell is really a lead, which moves Trevor Howard to the supporting category.

 

1961: Neither Charles Boyer (FANNY) nor Maximilian Schell (JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG) has enough proportionate screen time for the lead category, in my view. Piper Laurie’s role in THE HUSTLER seems comparable to the Eva Marie Saint and Betsy Blair roles mentioned above, but she competed as Best Actress, probably correctly.

 

1963: CLEOPATRA is a long enough movie that Rex Harrison has plenty of screen time, but a less-known actor would probably have been placed in the supporting category. Rachel Roberts has much less screen time than Richard Harris in THIS SPORTING LIFE, so a GREAT ZIEGFELD argument could be made that she has a supporting role. (If Saint and Blair are supporting, so is she.) There’s an even stronger argument that Patricia Neal should have been in the supporting category for HUD, for two other actors (Paul Newman and Brandon de Wilde) have much larger roles than she, and the main story is built around them. The Golden Globes put Neal in the supporting category, where she lost to Margaret Rutherford, who also won the Oscar, so uplisting Neal to Best Actress probably put her in an easier contest.

 

1965: Neither Frank Finlay nor Maggie Smith was well known when OTHELLO was released, and both were placed in the supporting categories where they were likelier to be nominated. Desdemona is a lead role, and Iago has more lines than Othello. They belonged in the star categories along with Olivier.

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I always consider the supporting vs. lead based on who the integral character is to the plot. I am curious if at least in the early days, an actor's credit billing or star status played a role in how they were classified. For example, in some films, even if someone has a very small role, they're still called a "lead" because they're a big star and their name appears above the title or at least higher than others. In one example, not that this role was considered for an Oscar, but it is an interesting example of a star being marketed as a leading actor when in reality, he was a supporting actor. In 1937's The Prince and the Pauper, Errol Flynn is promoted as the star of the film. However, in reality, the stars of the film are the Mauch Twins who appear in the title roles as "The Prince" and "The Pauper." Flynn himself doesn't even appear until at least 30-45 mins in the film and then he comes and goes. However, The Prince and Pauper starring The Mauch Twins isn't going to sell as many tickets as "Errol Flynn stars in The Prince and Pauper."

 

In regard to some of the examples you listed above:

 

Anne Baxter was completely right in demanding to be placed in the Best Actress category. Her character's name is in the title of the film. The film is about a young ingenue (Baxter) who insinuates herself into an aging actress' (Bette Davis) life. Bette Davis and Anne Baxter are the stars of this film. Everyone else is supporting.

 

Re: Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons. While her performance is excellent, I would consider Agnes Moorehead a supporting player. It is the characters of Eugene (Joseph Cotten) and Isabel (Dolores Costello) whose failed romance serves as the focal point for this story. Eugene courted Isabel when they were young, but she rejected him for the much wealthier Wilbur. Later, a widowed Eugene returns to town a prosperous automobile manufacturer. Both Isabel and Eugene have children (George and Lucy, respectively) who fall for one another. It is the prior romance of Eugene and Isabel that motivates almost all of the action in the film. I would consider Cotten and Costello to have leading roles and everyone else is supporting.

 

Re: The Philadelphia Story. This one is interesting. Cary Grant is technically a supporting player, because he doesn't appear in much of the film. His character doesn't motivate much of the plot except for a few scenes, mainly the beginning, the drunk scene with James Stewart, and the ending. He even has top billing. I believe he demanded top billing as one of his terms for accepting this role. At this point in 1940, Katharine Hepburn was trying to remove the "box office poison" label from her reputation and was looking for a hit. She had appeared in this play on Broadway and had purchased the rights to film the play. She sold the play to MGM in exchange for her getting to appear in the film and choose her co-stars. She originally wanted Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, but both were involved in prior commitments. She ended up asking Grant who then demanded the top billing and a large salary. She probably had no choice but to acquiesce to his requests, because she needed a hit.

 

I do agree that James Stewart was a leading actor in this film. It is his character that ultimately helps Hepburn's character realize that marrying George is a mistake. He's also the one with whom Hepburn's character falls in love with and causes her to question her potential marriage to George. I believe though the entire time that Hepburn's character secretly still holds a torch for Grant's character, but it is not Grant's character that makes up the bulk of the plot. In The Philadelphia Story, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart are the leads and Cary Grant and Ruth Hussey are the supporting stars.

 

Re: Paper Moon . Tatum O'Neill most definitely is the lead actress in this film. The film is about father and daughter con artists who travel together during The Great Depression. Tatum and her father Ryan are the leads. Madeline Kahn is supporting.

 

I disagree with this entire tactic of submitting an actor's name in whichever category they have a better shot at winning. A lead role is a lead role. A supporting role is a supporting role.

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Thanks for the thread, kingrat.  I am going to fall back on my excuse of having to see some of these films again before being able to offer an opinion with regard some of the examples you have noted.

 

As we are soon to hit 1937 in the other thread I might say that I think Roland Young in Topper and May Whitty in Night Must Fall both belong in the lead actor category.

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1936-1938: We seem to agree that Spencer Tracy’s role in SAN FRANCISCO is not a lead. Filmlover has argued that neither are his roles in CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS and BOYS TOWN.

 

Thanks for the writeup, kingrat.

 

And, yes, we seem to have our disagreements over Tracy being a lead or not, particularly in Captains Courageous, as thrashed out in another thread. With apologies to filmlover, there is no doubt in my mind that Tracy should be considered a lead player in this film, even if he does have significantly less screen time than Freddie Bartholomew. The film is really about the relationship between Harvey and Manuel, and how Harvey matures into a better boy because of the fisherman.

 

Any other character in that film EXCEPT Harvey and Manuel can be cut out without seriously impacting the story. Tracy's Manuel is central to the story. Tracy was top billed, of course, because of his star status. Even though he does have less screen time than Bartholomew, he still must be ranked as a co star because of his character's importance, as well as the fact that he does have ample screen time, as well.

 

As I stated in the other thread, to call Tracy a supporting player in Captains Courageous simply because he has less screen time than a co-star means, for the sake of consistency, that you must call Gable a supporting actor in GWTW because he had less screen time than Vivien Leigh.

 

 

 

So what about my avatar, Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre? Is he truly support or not, in fact, a co lead in that film? Does Bogart really have more screen time than Huston in that film and, if so, by such a significant degree that Huston should be considered a supporting player? I have never thought so.

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I view Bogie and Tim Holt as the co-leads in Treasure and Walter as the Supporting actor.  More because it is the story of those two guys.

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Speaking of your avatar Tom;

 

They are co-leads in TOTSM

 

And - do you have a thread on Walter they same way you do on Basil?

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As we are soon to hit 1937 in the other thread I might say that I think Roland Young in Topper and May Whitty in Night Must Fall both belong in the lead actor category.

 

My idiocy becomes apparent again...I have both of those two as not only supporting, but [spoiler alert] the winners in those categories!  :o

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My idiocy becomes apparent again...I have both of those two as not only supporting, but [spoiler alert] the winners in those categories!  :o

 

Larry- well, then you are just going to have to stop taking part in this thread as that is weird and Bogie is King.  Furthermore, we will all have  to you taken into the photo captioning fun thread and have you placed in William Powell's position as punishment for making any winner choices until our Lord Bogie has spoken as to lead/supporting issues.  Optional choice since you are a fan of horror movies.

 

If you were a fan of, say, Robert Taylor then we would have you transported back in time so that you could appear as his leading lady in Knights of the Round Table - a film that all Robert Taylor fans agree is the best movie he ever made.

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I view Bogie and Tim Holt as the co-leads in Treasure and Walter as the Supporting actor.  More because it is the story of those two guys.

 

We have different takes on Treasure, Bogie. I see it as a film about all three prospectors, with the two newbies learning a lot from the wise old timer. Huston has almost as much screen time as Bogart, and he is every bit as important to the story.

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Speaking of your avatar Tom;

 

They are co-leads in TOTSM

 

And - do you have a thread on Walter they same way you do on Basil?

 

No, I don't, GregPeckFan. I just carry Huston's pix with me everywhere I go on these threads.

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If you were a fan of, say, Robert Taylor then we would have you transported back in time so that you could appear as his leading lady in Knights of the Round Table - a film that all Robert Taylor fans agree is the best movie he ever made.

 

I guess I'm not a Robert Taylor fan then. I find the dull "Knights" far and away the worst of his three knights in armour epics of the '50s.

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I guess I'm not a Robert Taylor fan then. I find the dull "Knights" far and away the worst of his three knights in armour epics of the '50s.

 

 

I was being sarcastic.  It is boring.  I could not finish it.  I was being funny because Larry said earlier that he never understood the appeal of Robert Taylor and that he was larry's least favourite movie actor of the era.

 

 

Robert Taylor is best in comedies.

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I was being sarcastic.  It is boring.  I could not finish it.  I was being funny because Larry said earlier that he never understood the appeal of Robert Taylor and that he was larry's least favourite movie actor of the era.

 

 

Robert Taylor is best in comedies.

 

To be fair to Robert Taylor, I really thought he became an more interesting performer during the late '40s and '50s, as his face got craggier.

 

He is excellent in The Last Hunt, a western, playing a cold blooded gunslinger who who takes up buffalo hunting and loves shooting down the animals. He is also racist and psychotic, as  well, not a good combination when it comes to long nights of companionship on a wilderness trail.

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I've become more of a fan of Taylor as I have seen more of his movies.

 

At one time on a different website, I ticked someone off accidently by asking about ROD Taylor being in a film when someone typed only R. Taylor.

 

I had never seen a Robert Taylor movie before, and I am a big fan of Hitchcock and The Birds, so I see R. Taylor and think ROD.

 

 

Ooohhhhhh..

 

 

Bad choice of mine on the aspect of which films I had seen by then and by answering a post by a control freak.

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I disagree with this entire tactic of submitting an actor's name in whichever category they have a better shot at winning. A lead role is a lead role. A supporting role is a supporting role.

 

But in the real world, unfortunately, it often just doesn't work out that way when it comes to the Academy Awards.

 

For example, take my subject of my avatar, Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I think he's a lead co-star in that film. But Warners pushed him for consideration in the supporting actor category because, I suspect, they figured he'd have a better chance to win there. For all I know they were also pushing Bogart as best actor in that same film (even though he didn't get the nomination, as it turned out) and were afraid that Bogie and Huston would split the votes with neither one winning.

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To be fair to Robert Taylor, I really thought he became an more interesting performer during the late '40s and '50s, as his face got craggier.

 

He is excellent in The Last Hunt, a western, playing a cold blooded gunslinger who who takes up buffalo hunting and loves shooting down the animals. He is also racist and psychotic, as  well, not a good combination when it comes to long nights of companionship on a wilderness trail.

 

 

I've become more of a fan of Taylor as I have seen more of his movies.

 

Judging by everyone's comments, perhaps I do just need to see other Robert Taylor films to appreciate him. I have seen:

 

Broadway Melody of 1936

The Gorgeous Hussy

Camille

Three Comrades

Johnny Eager

Bataan

Undercurrent

The Bribe

Quo Vadis

Ivanhoe

Knights of the Round Table

The Law and Jake wade

The Night Walker

 

There's a few titles there I liked, but not in any way because of Taylor's contributions. 

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Lawrence, you are watching the incorrect movies here.

 

Richard Widmark and Deforest Kelley (great picture in GUESS WHO, by the way) were the reasons I watched The Law and Jake Wade.

 

Knights of the Round Table sucked.

 

 

The Bribe, and Johnny Eager are great, but no, not for him.

 

 

Camille was depressing.

 

 

 

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Judging by everyone's comments, perhaps I do just need to see other Robert Taylor films to appreciate him. I have seen:

 

Broadway Melody of 1936

The Gorgeous Hussy

Camille

Three Comrades

Johnny Eager

Bataan

Undercurrent

The Bribe

Quo Vadis

Ivanhoe

Knights of the Round Table

The Law and Jake wade

The Night Walker

 

There's a few titles there I liked, but not in any way because of Taylor's contributions. 

 

Lawrence, in addition to The Last Hunt (Taylor's best performance, in my opinion), you might also take a look at the third of his knights in armour epics, Quentin Durward. I think Taylor's quite likeable in this film. There's a certain earnestness about his performance that makes him appealing. The film also has a little bit of a sense of humour (references to Scottish cheapness), and a pretty impressive climactic duel, with Taylor and the villain clashing swords as they both swing by one another on ropes in a tower that's on fire.

 

Taylor, by the way, called Waterloo Bridge his favourite film of his career and, to be sure, it's a superior soaper, with Vivien Leigh in great form..

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Besides Waterloo Bridge, as Tom suggested:

 

 

 

PERSONAL PROPERTY

HER CARDBOARD LOVER

WHN LADIES MEET

ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT

 

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But in the real world, unfortunately, it often just doesn't work out that way when it comes to the Academy Awards.

 

For example, take my subject of my avatar, Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I think he's a lead co-star in that film. But Warners pushed him for consideration in the supporting actor category because, I suspect, they figured he'd have a better chance to win there. For all I know they were also pushing Bogart as best actor in that same film (even though he didn't get the nomination, as it turned out) and were afraid that Bogie and Huston would split the votes with neither one winning.

 

I understand that and perhaps if I were an actor I would want to be put into whichever category would give me a greater chance.  It just seems that if you're a leading performer and you're put into a supporting category, it would somehow give you an advantage as presumably, you are on screen for more time and thus would have more time to make an impact on the voters. 

 

It seems impressive when someone who is in a film for say less than 15 minutes total, manages to score an Oscar.  That to me is more indicative of a great supporting performance.  I believe Judi Dench pulled off this feat in the late 90s when she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Shakespeare in Love where she had less than ten minutes of screen time in the entire film.

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Thanks for the thread, kingrat.  I am going to fall back on my excuse of having to see some of these films again before being able to offer an opinion with regard some of the examples you have noted.

 

As we are soon to hit 1937 in the other thread I might say that I think Roland Young in Topper and May Whitty in Night Must Fall both belong in the lead actor category.

 

I would concur with Roland Young being a lead in Topper.  After all, he plays the title character, Topper.   I might even go as far as to say that Topper has three leads: Young, Cary Grant and Constance Bennett.  The other characters, like Young's wife in the film, Billie Burke, are definitely supporting.

 

(Off topic in regard to the lead vs supporting discussion, but, how whipped was Roland Young's character in that film? Billie Burke had him on a short leash!)

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It seems impressive when someone who is in a film for say less than 15 minutes total, manages to score an Oscar.  That to me is more indicative of a great supporting performance.  I believe Judi Dench pulled off this feat in the late 90s when she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Shakespeare in Love where she had less than ten minutes of screen time in the entire film.

 

Another illustration of that is Beatrice Straight as William Holden's wife in Network. She has a confrontation scene with Holden about his affair with a younger woman (Faye Dunaway) that is shattering in the pain and intensity that she brings to it. But, aside from that, she's barely in the film. And, yes, she got the Oscar for that memorable screen scene.

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Like Tom, I prefer Robert Taylor in his later roles. Haven't seen THE LAST HUNT, but I recommend DEVIL'S DOORWAY and WESTWARD THE WOMEN. Good films, whether you like RT or not. And in the earlier films, WATERLOO BRIDGE is indeed one of his more appealing roles.

 

MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION made the young Robert Taylor a big star of women's films, with CAMILLE another big hit. When filmlover did his 1939 day by day thread a few years back, there was a surprisingly snarky review of a Taylor western (in the Minneapolis paper, if I remember correctly) that talked about MGM's attempt to "defeminize" Taylor.

 

About those really short supporting roles: Jo Van Fleet has one scene in COOL HAND LUKE, and I would have given her the Oscar and every other acting award for that one scene.

 

 

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Westward the Women, which kingrat mentioned, is a highly unusual film. I suppose it could be called a feminist horse opera, as it deals with a wagon train of women heading west, all intending to be brides to the expectant inhabitants of a mining town. Robert Taylor is very good as the wagon master initially cynical that the women will be able to make the tough crossing. As directed by Wild Bill Wellman, it's a very good film, based on a story by Frank Capra.

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