All this angst over the Academy placing Jake Gyllenhaal in support for Brokeback Mountain is really misplaced. The IMDb. lists nine pre-cursors for which he was either nominated or won in support prior to the Oscars. Blame the on-line soothsayers who predict these things long before the films are even seen. By the time Oscar campaigns begin the dye has been cast.
This practice of separating star players of the same sex to lessen competiton goes back to Vanessa Redgrave in 1977's Julia. The most egregious campaign was the one that had Leonardo DiCaprio being pushed for supporting actor for 2006's The Departed even though he was that film's most valuable player, not because any other actor from the film had a stronger chance of winning, but because he was in competiton with himself in Blood Diamond. That was a practice that began in earnest with Julianne Moore in 2002's The Hours, but at least in that case there were two other stars of the film who could, and in one case, did, compete in the lead category. In actuality, however, it goes all the way back to Jessica Lange in Tootise.
And then there's the unusal case of Kate Winslet in The Reader. Although the actress had a larger role than either of the actors who split the film's main character, her character is gone from large chunks of the film. A case could be made for either a lead or supporting nomination, but the campaign for support was itself wrongheaded because the push for support was based on the strong possibility of her receiving more votes for Revolutionary Road in lead. The Globes and SAG nominated her in both categories for both performances, the Globes actually awarding her in both, while BAFTA nominated her for both in lead and Oscar rejected her performance in Revolutionary Road altogether, awarding her in lead for The Reader.
I understand what Reza is saying about Gyllenhaal's star power even if I don't quite agree. Glyllenhaal has been on the verge of major stardom ever since 1999's October Sky. He is equally at home in blockbusters and small independant films, but if he hasn't broken through by now - he's 31, going on 32 - chances are his career will remain at the same level. He could, like William Holden at 33, find the one role that redefines him, but more likely he will remain like Christian Slater, Keanu Reeves and dozens of others, someone who will over time receive fewer and fewer offers for lead roles and turn up in supporting ones, perhaps leading to another supporting nomination down the road.
And while I agree with what Tripp is saying about lead and supporting vs. Best Movie Star and Best Character Actor, the first year that the supporting awards were given, Spencer Tracy, a genuine Movie Star was nominated for Best Actor for his below the title supporting role in San Francisco while Character Actor Stuart Erwin was nominated in support for his lead role in Pigskin Parade. Today's practice makes more sense even if sometimes the politics behind the category placements aren't always right.