What constitutes a supporting performance? That’s a tough question to answer. Is it based on the amount of screen time an actor gets? Is it determined by a harder to quantify metric like the character’s overall impact on a film’s lead characters or storyline? There have even been times when what could be considered a lead performance has been nominated under the supporting category if only to give it a better chance at securing a win. It could be argued that Winnona Ryder’s role in The Age Of Innocence was more a lead role than a supporting one, even though she was nominated in the Supporting Actress category in 1993. Likewise, Mira Sorvino was definitely the female lead in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite and yet she would be nominated in and win the Supporting Actress category in 1995.
The Academy’s own rules for nominating performers in the Best Support Actor/Actress categories don’t even outline what would differentiate a supporting performance from a lead on, let alone what would define a supporting performance in and of itself. The only thing that they address about the two categories in their rules are what would happen if an actor or actress receives votes to be nominated for the same role in both lead and supporting categories, and that rule only refers to the number of votes received, not to the substance of the role itself.
And that’s where the Academy has run into a bit of trouble.
In 1977, the powerhouse movie at Academy Awards time was Network. Director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s dark satirical take on the television news industry was a hit with critics for its biting deconstruction of the blurring of the line between news and entertainment and the dangers of television news divisions being run as for-profit enterprises – though by today’s standards of 24 cable news channels some of the satire may seem positively quaint. The film received 10 Academy Award nominations, including an unprecedented five nods in the four various acting categories, specifically nominations for Peter Finch for Best Actor for his role as the insane news anchor Howard Beale, William Holden as network news executive Max Schumacher, Faye Dunaway for Best Actress as network executive Diana Christensen, Beatrice Straight for Best Supporting Actress as Max’s wife Louise and Ned Beatty for Best Supporting Actor as network owner Arthur Jensen.
But if you’ve seen Network, the names of Straight and Beatty problem stand out for one reason. Let’s just say that there wasn’t much material to shift through for each actor’s performance clip for the televised awards ceremony. (Though I dare say that they have had to bleep a word or two.) Both are barely in the film, each having just one notable scene apiece. While each moments is indeed a powerful acting moment, are they enough to have those performances considered “supporting?”
Straight has very little screen time, just under six minutes total. (The IMDb lists it at 5:40, while I have timed it out to 5:59.) Of that time, just over a minute is spent with her just walking through the apartment she shares with her cinematic husband Holden and another four seconds is a shot of the back of her head as her family watches Beale’s “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more” speech on live television. While the remainder of her screen time comprises just one scene it is an emotional freight train, a culmination of years of setup that happen off screen.
Ned Beatty’s screen time clocks in at just a little bit less than Straight’s and again it is almost entirely consists of one scene. As Beale’s ratings soar, they do so on the back of him criticizing his own network, UBS. But when he tells the viewing public to write to the White House in protest of a business deal that would sell a controlling interest of the network to a Saudi Arabian investment firm, Beale is hauled into UBS’s parent company’s boardroom where Beatty’s Jensen gives him a blood and thunder lecture on the dangers of “tampering with the primal forces of nature,” i.e., corporate profits. It’s a powerful performance, one that Beatty takes right up to the threshold of cartoonish but never crosses it. It is a far more pivotal role in the story than Straight’s, as it inspires Beale to change his message with falling ratings following.
Outside of Finch’s “Mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” speech, Straight and Beatty inarguably deliver Network’s finest and most memorable moments. But really, their contributions to the movie are confined to those respective scenes, with their characters appearing for the sole purpose of providing a specific plot point and that’s pretty much it. Is that enough to mark the appearance as a supporting role or are they nothing more than a deus ex machina of Chaefsky’s to move the story to the next point it needs to be at?
Both actors bring all their skill to imbue their characters with as much dimensionality as they can with what little they have to work with. It is a testament to Straight’s skill that she loads her monologue with the weight of a woman who has been in that relationship with her husband for decades, selling that moment. But is it a moment that one would consider a role that supports the lead characters or the movie in general or could it be removed from the film to no deleterious effect? I would say “No” it is not essential and the fact that Holden’s Max had left his wife could be conveyed in a line or two of dialogue without damaging the movie too much, as the story’s emphasis is on Max’s relationship with Diana more so than on his relationship with Louise. Having him state “I just left my wife of so many years,” would convey the same information, though the downside to that would be the loss of this moment.
And this is before we even start to compare Straight’s work against the other nominees in the Supporting Actress category that year. Was it better than Jodie Foster’s work in Taxi Driver? Piper Laurie’s in Carrie? Lee Grant’s in Voyage Of The Damned? Even Straight herself admitted that she thought she was the dark horse in the race in her Oscar acceptance speech.
This was not the first time that the Supporting Actor/Actress categories had come under scrutiny over the screen time of a nominee. English character actor Hermione Baddeley secured a nomination nod for her two minutes and thirty-two seconds appearance in 1959’s Room at the Top, the record for the shortest screen time to secure an actor a nomination. And before that, Anthony Quinn received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1956’s Lust For Life. Sylvia Miles has about four minutes of visible work in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and nearly double that in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) enough for her Supporting Actress nomination for each film. It will probably happen again in the future.
To his credit, Beatty would at least take the experience to heart and advise young acting students to “take whatever work you can get. Never be too proud to turn down small parts. I had one day’s work on Network and got an Oscar nomination.”