question of the day: Why isn’t Hailee Steinfeld a leading actress?

Have you seen True Grit? Have you noticed how it’s pretty much all about a 14-year-old girl — played by Hailee Steinfeld — who hires a bounty hunter to bring in the man who killed her father? Have you noticed that not only is Steinfeld’s character the one who drives the story, but she also has at least as much screen time as Jeff Bridges, perhaps even more? So here’s the thing:

Why isn’t Hailee Steinfeld a leading actress?

She isn’t, according to almost all the movie professionals who think about these things. She’s nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Both the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists gave her our Best Supporting Actress awards. The BAFTAs nominated her for Best Actress, and the London Critics Circle nominated her for Actress of the Year, but every other notice she’s gotten for her fantastic performance has been as “supporting actress.”

How can this be?
Moira Macdonald at Popcorn & Prejudice explains how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came to nominate Steinfeld in the supporting category:

The acting branch votes on the acting nominations (all branches vote in all categories for the final ballot, with a couple of exceptions), and for guidance are given only a list of casts of eligible movies for the year. The official rules note: “The determination as to whether a role is a leading or supporting role shall be made individually by members of the branch at the time of balloting.” Studios, however, attempt to influence voters by running “For Your Consideration” ads in trade papers, suggesting categories — as Paramount did, promoting Steinfeld in supporting. Why? Probably because young actresses (Steinfeld is 14) do much better in the supporting category. No one under 21 has ever won best actress (side note: if Jennifer Lawrence were to win the category this year for “Winter’s Bone,” she’d be the youngest winner ever, at 20); while supporting actress has been won by a 10-year-old (Tatum O’Neal, “Paper Moon”), an 11-year-old (Anna Paquin, “The Piano”), and a 16-year-old (Patty Duke, “The Miracle Worker”).

But wait — here’s an interesting twist, from the official Academy rules:

The leading role and supporting role categories will be tabulated simultaneously. If any performance should receive votes in both categories, the achievement shall be only placed on the ballot in that category in which, during the tabulation process, it first receives the required number of votes to be nominated. In the event that the performance receives the numbers of votes required to be nominated in both categories simultaneously, the achievement shall be placed only on the ballot in that category in which it receives the greater percentage of the total votes.

Hmm. So it’s possible that Steinfeld — and, for that matter, Julianne Moore (“The Kids Are All Right”) and Lesley Manville (“Another Year”), both of whom lost out this year likely due to disagreements over which category they should be in — got plenty of votes in both categories, but Steinfeld happened to reach “the required number” (whatever that is) in supporting first.

So it’s not official Academy policy that dictated that Steinfeld must be considering a supporting actress: it’s those who did the nominating who decided it. (This is true of both the OFCS and AWFJ, too… though I hasten to add that I did not, in my own personal nominations for those awards, consider Steinfeld supporting.)

Which means the question still remains: Why do so many people who think about movies for a living — you know, actors and critics — consider Hailee Steinfeld’s performance of a supporting variety, and not the leading role it clearly is?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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