The 83rd Academy Award nominations contained a few nice surprises (Jacki Weaver for Animal Kingdom, Jeremy Renner for The Town), a few irritating snubs (Christopher Nolan for Best Director, Andrew Garfield for The Social Network), and of course plenty of stuff that got nominated where it shouldn't have been (The Kids Are All Right in every category), but the one thing that most immediately jumped out at me as absolutely bizarre was Hailee Steinfeld being nominated for Best Supporting Actress for True Grit. Which isn't a criticism of her performance at all — on the contrary, she handled her poetic, convoluted, old-timey dialogue with panache and arguably outacted both Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. It's one of the best screen performances of 2010.
But here's the thing: Steinfeld was in no way, shape, or form a "supporting" actress. Her character, Mattie Ross, was the protagonist, at the center of every single scene of the entire movie and with more screentime and dialogue than anyone else by far.
Sure, one could point out that Amy Adams' unexpected nomination for The Fighter may siphon votes from Melissa Leo in the same film, giving Steinfeld a small but extant chance of rallying from behind for the surprise win, something that never would have happened if designated a lead actress. And if that comes to pass, I doubt she or the Coens will shed any tears about it being for the wrong category. But I'm not really discussing outcome or the backstage politics of awards-rangling here, I'm just offering some straight-up real-world talk about when the nomination just ain't right. Hailee Steinfeld is only the most recent of several offenders (and probably a lot more I'm overlooking):
Anthony Hopkins, Best Actor for Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Why's it all wrong? Because Silence of the Lambs is a 118-minute movie and Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter has fewer than twenty minutes of screentime, less than not only every winner but almost every single Best Supporting Actor nominee of the last ten years, with maybe two or three exceptions. It's a supremely creepy, timeless performance so powerful it overwhelms the entire film around it, lingering so strong in the mind that it's easy to believe he had way more screentime than he actually did after your first viewing, but he is objectively not a lead. Not until the shitty sequel, anyway.
Why'd they do it? Because they thought he could win, which he did. But the actual best leading male performance of 1991 (John Turturro in Barton Fink) wasn't even nominated in the first place, so no big loss.
Ethan Hawke, Best Supporting Actor for Training Day (2001)
Why's it all wrong? Because he's the main character, with more screentime than costar Denzel Washington, who was nominated for Best Actor. Note that unlike Anthony Hopkins I'm not arguing that Denzel should been nominated for Best Supporting Actor — he was present through the vast majority of the film and clearly a lead — but simply that there is no way Ethan Hawke was a supporting character. Either they both should have been nominated for Best Actor or they should have just left Hawke out entirely. The Best Supporting Actor nomination almost seems to be damning him with faint praise, saying, "well, you were pretty good, we guess... but not good enough. Here's a consolation Best Supporting Actor nomination for your leading role."
Why'd they do it? Because they didn't want to divert Best Actor votes away from Denzel. Rightfully, as Denzel would go on to win, but as I said up top I'm not talking about outcome here, just nominations.
Jamie Foxx, Best Supporting Actor for Collateral (2004)
Why's it all wrong? Again, because he's the main character, appearing in almost every single scene of the entire film except for the first minute or so where Tom Cruise walks through an airport and a few moments of the final chase we see from Cruise and Jada Pinkett Smith's points of view. He occupies a greater percentage of total screentime than, for example, Bruce Willis in Die Hard, Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller, or Christian Bale in The Dark Knight. If you believe Jamie Foxx's Max in Collateral to be a supporting performance than all the roles I've just named are damn near tertiary.
Why'd they do it? Because they didn't want Jamie Foxx diverting Best Actor votes away from his own performance in Ray, which, again, he would go on to win. Never mind that his performance in Collateral was actually superior — in Oscar land, successfully impersonating any real dead person = masterpiece.