Oscar Politics: Winslet’s Role in The Reader–Lead or Supporting?

Finally a major film organization, BAFTA (British Academy of Film and TV), got it right by nominating today the enormously gifted Kate Winslet for two leading roles, in Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road” and in Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader.”

Earlier this week, Winselt emerged at the big winner at the 2009 Golden Globe Awards, scooping the Best Actress (Drama) Award for “Revolutionary Road” and the Supporting Actress kudo for “The Reader.” No one in the room was more shocked than she was.

It may not be the most burning question of the day, but is Winslet’s role in “The Reader” lead or secondary? The studio, the Weinstein Company, has been campaigning for her in the Supporting league, knowing that two strong roles in the same category will cancel each other out, or split the Academy voters.

If you have seen the film, I think you’ll agree that Winslet’s role in the Holocaust drama is decidedly a lead, and a dominant one at that. She is the center of the story, and the only actress who plays the figure of Hanna Schmitz both as a younger and an older woman (with bad, heavy makeup). Hanna does disappear from the central chapters of the yarn, but at the end, in the courtroom and prison scenes, she reemerges as a fully-developed character to the bitter finale. The two supporting actors in this picture are David Kross and Ralph Fiennes, who play the same character, Michael Berg, in different ages.

There’s nothing new in this debate. What constitutes a leading part and what qualifies as secondary role has been an endlessly disturbing question, plagued the Oscar race ever since 1936, when the Academy established the Supporting Acting Oscars in an effort to distinguish between lead and secondary roles.

In 2002, Julianne Moore received two nominations, a lead for Todd Haynes “Far From Heaven” and a supporting in Stephen Daldry’s “The Hours,” in which she had a co-starring role with Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep. A British journalist examined the screen time of each of the three actresses and concluded that Moore actually had more screen time than Kidman (who went on to win the Best Actress Oscar).

Moore and her publicists, and the studios behind her two pictures, knew that had she been nominated for Best Actress for “The Hours,” she would have competed against herself and thus split the votes; some Academy members would have voted for her as a lead in “Far From Heaven,” while other for “The Hours.”

Welcome to the annual confusion over the definition of a lead versus supporting role.