'Lion' and 'Moonlight' demonstrate that the Academy doesn't know what to make of shared roles.
By
Stephen A. Russell

25 Jan 2017 - 12:12 PM  UPDATED 25 Jan 2017 - 12:12 PM

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Look beyond the La La Land love-in and the 89th Academy Awards have thrown up a recurring bugbear not once, but twice in this year’s definitely less white nominations: penalising the shared leading role.

Australian champion Lion is a case in point. Garth Davis’ incredible true story was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, and Best Supporting Actress for Nicole Kidman. 

After Mad Max: Fury Road scored 10 nominations last year (and went on to become the most-awarded Australian film of all time), Lion's six nods tie with both Aussie stable mate Hacksaw Ridge, directed by the original Mad Max, Mel Gibson, and also with Kenneth Lonergan’s stirring Manchester by the Sea.  

A great result, I hear you say, and it is. However, Lion’s haul throws up the strange case of the casualties of the shared leading role.

British actor Dev Patel has scored a shot at a Supporting Actor statuette for his turn turn as the emotionally tortured (but impeccably Aussie accented) Saroo Brierley. As Lion's central character who searches against all odds for the Indian family from which he was separated as a young boy, the role is clearly a lead one in terms of the emotional heft of the film and extended screen time.

If anything, the also excellent Indian actor Sunny Pawar, playing the young Saroo in the film’s nightmarish 'lost in Calcutta' scenes, with a canny ability for one so young, deserves the supporting nod if they can’t both be up for Best Actor, though that would arguably split the vote.

While Barry Jenkins' incandescent Moonlight tied in second place with Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival for eight nominations apiece, the queer drama also suffers from the shared central turn dilemma.

In Moonlight, three actors play lead role of Chiron at key points in the young black man’s life as he navigates the projects of Miami, trying to find his place in the world while tiptoeing around his sexuality.

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Despite all three being uniformly stellar, it's a tragedy that lead actors Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes are all locked out of this year’s nominations, including the support categories, where the also excellent Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris pick up nods for their roles as the young Chiron’s mentor and his drug addicted mother respectively.

So how exactly is the divide between lead and support discerned? Here’s the kicker. When it comes to the Academy rules and regulations, it’s all fair game. The rules state: “A performance by an actor or actress in any role shall be eligible for nomination either for the leading role or supporting role categories.”

What it really comes down to is a tonne of strategic jostling behind the scenes, often with big money campaigns aimed at swaying Actors Branch voters, especially by super-producers like Harvey Weinstein. He’s renowned for nudging candidates into categories for which he thinks they stand a better chance of winning. See Carol, with the strange scenario of Cate Blanchett up for Best Actress while Rooney Mara was relegated to Supporting despite accruing the same if not more screen time.

Chances are Lion executive producer Weinstein wanted to avoid the Ryan Gosling /Casey Affleck stand-off up top for Best Actor, reckoning Patel stood a better chance against Ali and co.

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It’s not just shared roles that miss out. Last year Spotlight had to field Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams in the support category, overlooking the likes of Michael Keaton and Liev Shcreiber, when arguably all were leads in an ensemble piece. Though the Best Picture win probably softened the blow for Keaton and Schreiber, to be sure.

One way around this might be if the Academy were to take a leaf out of the Screen Actors Guild Awards book and embrace a new gong in the vein of Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Moonlight is a well-deserved presence in this year’s SAG nominees, though sadly there's no love for the Lion ensemble there, either. The winners will be announced in LA on Sunday, to help firm up Oscar tipping sheets across the globe.

Are the Lion and Moonlight divisions fair? Perhaps not, but then, fury at perceived Oscar snubs is all part of the yearly game.

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