Why Is Philip Seymour Hoffman a “Supporting Actor”?

Your Oscar questions, answered.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the nominee list for the 81st annual Oscars on Thursday morning. Although the criteria for some categories, like best picture, are obvious enough, others are a bit harder to parse. Below are answers to your most pressing Oscar-related questions from the Explainer archive.

The Academy nominated Philip Seymour Hoffman for best supporting actor, even though he gets a whole lot of screen time in Doubt. How does the Academy decide who’s in a “leading role” and who’s in a “supporting” one?

It’s up to the voting members of the Academy. No rule determines the category for which an actor can be nominated. Every actor in every role in every movie that was released in 2008 was eligible for a nomination for either the leading or supporting award.

How does the voting work? The Academy uses a preferential voting system—members rank up to five preferred nominees in descending order. Click here for a detailed explanation of the system used by the Academy, and click here for a “Chatterbox” that discusses the system.

The voters who select the nominees can be influenced by the publicity campaigns orchestrated by movie studios to promote their pictures and stars. Back in 2001, A Beautiful Mind’s ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter promoted Jennifer Connelly for best-supporting actress, not best actress. That may be because Connelly believed she had a better shot at winning a supporting-actress nomination than a best actress nod.

My favorite French film of the year, A Christmas Tale, isn’t up for a foreign-language Oscar. Why not?

Each country can enter only one film into the best-foreign-language-film competition, and this year the French nominating committee gave the nod to The Class, a drama about a high school in a tough neighborhood. Academy rules also state that nominated movies “must be predominantly in a language of the country of origin.”

What’s the difference between all the cinematic groups that dole out end-of-year awards?

The National Board of Review is perhaps the most curious of the lot, since it comprises “film professionals, educators, students, and historians” rather than working critics. The organization was founded in 1908, in response to a New York City mayor’s efforts to shutter movie theaters on moral grounds. The board’s solution was to create a seal-of-approval system, a forerunner to the ratings system now employed by the Motion Picture Association of America. Movies deemed morally upstanding were tagged with the on-screen graphic “Passed by the National Board of Review.” But when the MPAA launched its own self-censorship in the 1920s, the board began to morph into a film appreciation society, publishing cinéaste journals and hosting panel discussions.

The board is often confused with the National Society of Film Critics, which consists of 52 of the nation’s most prestigious reviewers. The society is known for its intellectual tastes and often opts for art-house and foreign fare in lieu of Hollywood epics. In 2000, for example, the group gave its best-picture nod to the Taiwanese film Yi Yi (A One and a Two) while the Oscars chose the decidedly more mainstream Gladiator. The society’s members include newspaper, magazine, and online journalists.

The society was actually founded in 1966 as an offshoot of the New York Film Critics Circle, which, at the time, didn’t accept magazine writers in its ranks. The Circle has been handing out hardware since 1935, when John Ford’s The Informer earned best-picture honors.

The most well-known Johnny-come-lately is the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, founded in 1975 and known for its populist bent. In 1977, for example, the association feted the box-office sensation Star Wars as its best picture while virtually everyone else (including Oscar voters) went for Annie Hall. Every other big North American city worth its salt also seems to boast a critic’s group—Toronto, San Francisco, and Chicago all have them. There’s also the increasingly influential Broadcast Film Critics Association, which consists of 182 film critics who appear on local newscasts, cable, and in syndication.