How Lead and Supporting Actor Oscars Are Determined

The rules for the acting categories of the Academy Awards

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio accepts the Best Actor award for 'The Revenant'
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio accepts the Best Actor award for 'The Revenant'. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Surprisingly, there are no concrete rules on the amount of time an actor spends on the screen when it comes to determining the eligibility for either the lead or supporting actor or actress categories. Usually, it comes does to what category a studio thinks an actor or actress has the best shot at getting considering the competition. The studio behind the movie then mounts a "For Your Consideration" campaign for that particular actor or actress in either lead or supporting categories.

Leading Role vs. Supporting Role

In fact, the Academy does not assign restrictions for the determination of what is considered a "Lead" and what is considered a "Supporting" role. The official 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. If, however, all the dialogue has been dubbed by another actor, the performance shall not be eligible for award consideration." An exception to the dubbing rule comes into play when it comes to actors whose singing voices are dubbed by another performer, which isn't uncommon in musicals. Unless the entire performance consists of singing, having another performer sing will not disqualify that performance for an acting Academy Award.

Ultimately, it's up to voting members of the branch of the Academy to determine if an actor or actress has a lead or supporting role while they are casting their votes, which is why studios try to influence the voting beforehand with the campaigns. If Academy members split their votes between lead and supporting for the same actor or actress in the same film, whichever category first receives the required number of votes to be nominated is the one in which the actor's performance is placed. If when the votes are tallied the actor receives the required number of votes in both lead and supporting categories simultaneously, then whichever category receives the most votes overall is where the actor will be placed.

The History

Both the Actor and Actress Supporting categories were introduced at the 9th Academy Awards in 1937. For obvious reasons, the Best Supporting Actor/Actress winners usually have more limited screentime. Dame Judi Dench won in the Best Supporting Actress (officially known as 'Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role') despite being on screen for a mere eight minutes in 1998's Shakespeare in Love, and in 1976 Beatrice Straight won the Supporting Actress Oscar for appearing for a little less than six minutes in Network. However, both Straight and Dench were defeated in the shortest-time-on-screen-yet-still-nominated race by Hermione Baddeley. Baddeley's two minutes and 20 seconds in Room at the Top places her at the top of the list, although she lost in the Best Supporting race to Shelley Winters in The Diary of Anne Frank. Still, that must be considered an extraordinary 140 seconds!

In addition, if an actor or actress is nominated in the same category for two separate films, only one performance will earn the actor a nomination. In other words, an actor cannot compete against himself/herself in the same category.

The Controversy

There is frequently controversy over nominations for the individual categories. For example, Rooney Mara was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for 2015's Carol, though she had a comparable amount of screentime to Cate Blanchett, who was nominated for Best Actress for the same film. Critics argued that The Weinstein Company, which launched campaigns for the actresses, made the distinction because it did not want Blanchett and Mara competing with each other in the same category. This is why studios usually decide which category it will campaign for in regards to a particular performance, and voters will follow suit.

Timing on screen isn't everything when voters cast their ballots. For example, Anthony Hopkins won the Academy Award for Best Actor in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), yet his character was only on screen for about fifteen minutes of the film. 

Edited by Christopher McKittrick