I’ve yet to see American Fiction, but I’m sure that when I do, I’m not going to come out of it viewing Sterling K. Brown as a rightful lead. That being said, I think I can safely go ahead and deem this a category fraud-free year in the context of the Oscars. In my opinion, it’s only the 14th such year ever (out of a possible 88) and the third in a decade after 2014 and 2021. Since I view Michelle Williams (The Fabelmans) as the sole misplaced nominee from the past three years, I’d say things are progressing in the right direction, as they should after an embarrassing amount of leads competed as supporting in 2020.
As is practically always the case, I know my opinion regarding this year’s nominees isn’t universally shared. There are several actors whose placements I’m compelled to defend, but none more so than Lily Gladstone (Killers of the Flower Moon). Yes, she and Williams made the same successful category switch and yes, Williams’s screen time percentage is 7.5 points higher, but I assert that Gladstone is the only one of the two who should be considered leading. Her screen time matters in the sense that if it were significantly lower (say, under 20% – or even if Leonardo DiCaprio’s was significantly higher than 53%), her lead placement would probably be unjustifiable. But, as usual, it ultimately comes down to the film’s narrative, in which Mollie and Ernest serve as complementary protagonists. The same doesn’t apply to The Fabelmans, nor is Mitzi even a secondary protagonist. The argument that it’s primarily a mother-son story is ridiculous when the truth is that sole lead Sammy’s relationships with his mother and father are presented equitably, thus putting Williams and Paul Dano on the same level.
I must also say that Robert De Niro is not a lead antagonist in KOTFM, nor should he and Gladstone be in the same tier. I get that he feels more active upon reflection, but those who boldly argue that Gladstone does next to nothing in the film and spends the majority of her time sick in bed are in dire need of a rewatch. Both of their screen time totals (hers being larger) are split about 60/40 between the film’s two halves – so, she doesn’t fade away any more than he does. And she only spends about 12% of her total screen time bedridden, with those moments all being confined to the film’s fourth 20% increment. Ernest pulls the most focus, but the gap between them isn’t nearly enough to classify her as supporting under him, and that’s clearly not the intended takeaway.
Other than that, I guess I should briefly mention that Carey Mulligan (Maestro), Ryan Gosling (Barbie), and Jodie Foster (Nyad) are all where they belong, although I’ve heard minimal contrary opinions. Maestro is a relationship examination, not a one-person biopic. Ken gets his own arc, but Barbie’s (in which he serves as a supporting quasi-antagonist) absolutely dominates. And, despite almost hitting a screen time percentage of 50%, Bonnie Stoll might as well have it written on her forehead that her sole narrative purpose is to literally support Diana Nyad.
Again, I’m very pleased that the people responsible for these decisions made all the right calls, and I hope they’ll only continue to do so.