Sunday, August 13, 2006

Size Queen: Supporting Actress Style

StinkyLulu here:

As some of you know, StinkyLulu's a little obsessed with the Supporting Actresses. And while Lulu's no size queen, the question of "what's too big" and "what's too little" pops up again and again in deciding what performances should count as "supporting." In Oscar's history, at least three performances have taken the trophy with approximately 10 or fewer minutes of screentime. They are:

the most recent "small wonder"

the micro-Oscar among the boys

and the current title-holder

Leave it to Emmy to take this to a whole 'nother level of absurdity... Witness the emerging controversy about the 2006 Emmy nominations for "Best Supporting Actress in a Movie or Mini-Series"...

O'course, LaBurstyn has not won. ('Twill be interesting to see if the nomination even stands, or whether it instigates further Emmy-rule tweaking.) Anyway, comparing Oscar winners to Emmy nominees is like comparing apples to raisins. Though all of this does seem to underscore the relevance of clocking screentime for the nominess. (Certainly, Una Merkel's 1961 nominated performance clocked in right at or below the 10 minute mark...) But Emmy's recent shenanigans have nonetheless rustled the film obsessive questions that often haunt StinkyLulu on cold dark nights...
  • Are there really no small parts? Can a cameo warrant a trophy?
  • And, on the flip, how big is too big for a supporting actress nomination?
  • Are promotional, nomination-mongering maneuvers a constitutive part of the category?
  • Is StinkyLulu a loon for thinking so much about this?
What do y'all -- devotees of the FilmExperience -- think?

Thanks, Nathaniel, for sharing the platform. (And happy vaycay.)


John T said...

This is absurd-I ADORE Ellen Burstyn, would give her many trophies through the years, but fifteen seconds is incredibly extreme (though this nomination did get me to want to see the movie, so I suppose that it served its purpose that way).

By the way, if I'm not mistaken, the shortest nominated performance at the Oscars is for Sylvia Miles, with four minutes in Midnight Cowboy (by Burstyn's standards, that's practically a leading role, being sixteen times it in size).

And I believe that Oscar should put some sort of rule on leading/supporting performances (not for length of the role, though I have a feeling something like Burstyn's would never happen at the Oscars), but to prevent another Jamie Foxx in Collateral type nomination.

John T said...

Oh, and if she wins, it would be rather funny to see a speech that will be longer than the film.

Anonymous said...

15 seconds is ridiculous, but I can't see the fake outrage from a lot of the media directed at Burstyn herself. It's the people who vote for nominations who should be taking most of the heat for this one. The real loser here is the film, which is pretty good, and deserves to be seen on its own merits.

Anonymous said...

I just watched her 14 or 15 or 11 or whatever it is seconds. She must have some really good friends voting and their votes somehow must have weighed a lot, because I don't see how else this could have happened. I think it's hilarious. And, like, John T., it got me to watch it (or, at least, the first hour).

Anonymous said...

You see, I really wish there was a separate category for Best Cameo, or something. To me, 14 seconds in no way warrents a nomination, let alone 8 minutes. That's not a "supporting" performance in the traditional sense, it's just, well, a cameo. It really doesn't need to be adorned with awards unless it is actually substantial. Also, if there was a separate category or even a time limit, then the inexplicable love for William Hurt in A History of Violence would not have transfered to a nod.

Hm, maybe there shouldn't be a time limit and instead there should be a rule or definition stating what a supporting performance is. Maybe they should rename the category "featured performance" like the Tonys if they are going to keep nominating cameos.

adam k. said...

I agree that there should be a cameo category. It would solve a lot of problems.

It was funny to see Hurt and Gyllenhaal competing in the same category.

Anonymous said...

I don't know re: the time limit. I mean, I think Dench deserved her nomination more than some of the other nominees that year. It was a totally fully-rounded characterization. But 14 seconds is ridiculous.

Glenn Dunks said...

Judi Dench's nom and win is fine with me (I thought she was great and she was that wonderful side character who shows up sporadically, say a funny line and leaves).

But, yeah, wtf? Ellen's nomination is absurd. How on earth can the Emmy voters justify that? If the film was theatrical they wouldn't put up a campaign for Burstyn, that's for sure.


John mentioned Sylvia Miles for Midnight Cowboy, I remember watching that earlier this year and wondering when her character was coming back into it. She didn't and I was confused as to how she got nominated.

There's also the whole debate in terms of screen time when it comes to movies like The Hours and Closer. Are they all leads or all supporting?

Vinícius P. said...

14 segundos? Só pode ser brincadeira... rssss. Acho que vai muito da competência do ator para conseguir uma nomeação por uma atuação tão limitada quanto ao tempo em cena. Judi Dench é um caso típico, ganhou mais pelo retrospecto do que por seu trabalho em Shakespeare in Love.

adam k. said...

In any other year, Streep would've been nominated for The Hours and might even have won. It was just that kind of role that might've won as a kind of career tribute, had things been different. Only the double whammy of vote splitting with Kidman (bigger campaign, more oscary) and with herself in Adaptation (more critically acclaimed, more of a "stretch") could possibly have derailed Streep in The Hours. And even then, she was obviously in 6th.

The double whammy worked out well for Moore, however. I buy her as supporting. Her character was so quiet and passive, and served to link the two leading ladies rather than really having her own "active" kind of story. I buy it. And while I don't think she was really one of the 5 best supporting perfs that year, I was happy to see her nominated... I think she was better than both Bates and Latifah, whose spots really should've gone to Pfeiffer and Clarkson. Argh.

adam k. said...

Actually, seeing Toni Collette nominated for About a Boy would've been nice... Maybe I'd prefer her to Julianne. But that was never gonna happen anyway.

See, if there were a cameo category, Collette could've been nominated in two categories. It would've been amazing if The Hours had seen noms for:

Kidman, Streep - leading actress
Moore - supporting actress
Collette - cameo actress

With the actual statues going to Moore, Pfeiffer, and Viola Davis, respectively.

Anonymous said...

Beatrice Straight was terrific in 'Network' regardless of her screen time. I definitely felt that, in just one big scene, she took the stock role of scorned wife and created a truly memorable and heartbreaking characterization of a woman enraged and bereved over her philandering husband, the demise of her marriage, and the end of life as she knew it. I grew more fond and admiring of her performance with each repreat viewing to the point that, although 'Network' is my favorite movie, I didn't have any qualms with why she won the award back then.

Anonymous said...

I'm outraged by Burstyn's nom, and I didn't have a clue about the 15 second controversy.

...which sorta makes me wonder whether the Emmy voters knew about it either. Half of their nominations suck up to Hollywood stars, so they probably put her name on the ballot without viewing the material: "Oh, it's Ellen Burstyn. She's great."


J.J. said...

Thank you, StinkyLulu, for the post. I had no idea about this Burstyn brouhaha.

My view: The lead/supporting debate should be all about narrative placement, not screentime or lines of dialogue or level of celebrity.

A cameo statuette: Absurd. It would further complicate the system, and we'd be blogging twofold about the vagaries of the system. Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall is a definite cameo. William Hurt in A History of Violence is definitely *NOT* a cameo. But Brian Cox in Adaptation -- is he a cameo? Toni Collette in The Hours? Regardless, they are all true supporting performances, cameo-length or not.


hey y'all.

i'm almost back but thought i'd chime in here. I totally don't agree with them adding a cameo category ... i have one myself but i think w/ Oscar it'd be pointless. It would even be more about stardom rather than acting than the races already are. I mean, the acting would barely figure in.

but that said, i have no problem with nominations for mere minutes of screentime. as long as the performance is awesomely fine-tuned or powerful (as most of these aforementioned winners were)

i agree for the most part with the narrative placement argument brought forth by JJ... but then the semantics argument with small cast films like Closer becomes are they all lead or are they all support (?)

all that said i'm OK with SOME category fluidity. I'm OK, for example, with CZJ being supporting for Chicago because the film did actually shove Roxy further into the lead role than the source material which was much more or a two-hander between Roxy and Velma.

as for 2002... i can't even talk about it. Pfeiffer losing out on a slot to Latifah or Bates or Moore for placement is one of the great travesties of the new millenium, Oscarly-speaking. It's a f***ing masterpiece of character construction.

StinkyLulu said...

Partly because of the bees that got buzzing in my bonnet as a result of writing this post, I did a whole 'nother thing about the category over on StinkyLulu just now...

StinkyLulu's Criteria for Best Supporting Actress (+ LaLansbury)

And thanks, gents, for the conversation here. Very stimulating.

BTW -- I'm all for a cameo category. (But then sometimes I'm all for reviving the juvenile awards and/or the animal prizes.) And I also have no idea how a cameo category could/should/would work. I don't profess to understanding Oscar, just being obsessed...

Glenn Dunks said...

Considering the Academy is trying to lessen the number of statues they hand out per year a cameo category is never gonna happen. An Ensemble category, perhaps.

But, yeah, it'd just be like "we'll shove Meryl Streep in here for a couple of minutes! We'll be an Oscar winner come March!"

And how absurd would it be to see on ads "Academy Award Winner Toni Collette" or something when the award she won was for a very brief cameo.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Great post and comments. Among others, Claire Trevor in 1937's Dead End might give Sylvia Miles a run for her money for the shortest nominated Supporting Actress performance. Trevor has one great scene as Humphrey Bogart's former girlfriend-turned-prostitute. Counting the two takes of Trevor strolling onscreen and strolling off, she still clocks under five minutes of screen time.

For winners, Straight probably holds the record (I don't have a problem with her winning with limited screen time, but I'd have to pick Piper Laurie in Carrie as 1976's BSA- she's brilliant as the cinema's craziest mother); however, I'm curious regarding Gloria Grahame's screen time in The Bad and the Beautiful. Unless I saw an edited version, I believe she's in three brief scenes, and therefore her total scene time could be in the Straight-Dench range (can someone-Stinkly Lulu?- confirm this? I don't have Beautiful on DVD yet). Grahame had a good year in '52, also appearing in Macao, Sudden Fear, and The Greatest Show on Earth; Grahame's amusing and sexy in Bad, but I think the award was granted for her 1952 "body of work." I love Grahame, but I'd give her the Oscar for 1953's The Big Heat- no harm, no foul, unless you're Jean Hagen, who lost out for Singin' in the Rain (virtually everyone's favorite 1952 supporting actress performance- Hagen would place high on the "all time" list, for that matter).

Looking at the other extreme, Tatum O'Neal appears in all but a handful of scenes in Paper Moon (compare her screen time to that of costar and fellow SA nominee Madeline Kahn's) but Paramount, knowing O'Neal's chance for a Best Actress win (or even a nomination) were slim, wisely placed the newcomer in the Supprting Actress race.

Mike z said...

Supporting denotes that a character is important to the plot, but not intrinsic to it. Therefore, a supporting character furthers the story/action, but is not the main focus of that story.

Vertigo's Psycho said...


Great list. As a fellow Oscar nerdie, I dug out my old VHS of The Bachelor Party to check Carolyn Jones screen time: Jones has a brief scene in the street with Don Murray and some of the other male Party players, then rapidly talks non-stop (she gets a lot of dialogue in) for two scenes when she meets Murray again at a party, for a total time onscreen of six minutes and 5 seconds. This is definitely a quality-over-quantity performance by Jones (no one could've portrayed this attractive yet sad and lonely beatnik better, and I think her nomination was fully justified).

I also clocked Gladys Cooper onscreen for approximately 8 1/2 minutes in My Fair Lady and Thelma Ritter at just under seven minutes of screen time for Pillow Talk. Others to check out for possible inclusion in the "Ten and Under" club are Maria Ouspenskaya in Dodsworth and/or Love Affair Grahame (again) in Crossfire, Ellen Corby in I Remember Mama, and Ritter in Birdman of Alcatraz.