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Award season - what a prize mess

The award-season shenanigans surrounding Kate Winslet's multiple nominations reveal a flaw at the heart of the system, says Kaleem Aftab

Red carpets, tearful acceptance speeches, ugly little trophies – yes, the Oscars are coming.

Kate Winslet has a best leading actress nomination for The Reader, but, hang on, isn't this the same performance for which she received a supporting acting gong this week from the Screen Actors Guild, and before that at the Golden Globes? Once again, the Oscars and its hangers-on, supposedly highlighting the best in film, demonstrate that they're a sop to studios and producers.

Everyone knows, not least Martin Scorsese, that five turns as the bridesmaid will make some Oscar voters feel that it's your time to win. The makers of The Reader and Revolutionary Road have together ensured that the 33-year-old British star Winslet sweeps the board this year – so much so that we arrive at the odd situation where different awards are classing Winslet's role in The Reader as either supporting or leading in order not to ruin her chances.

The confusion began at the Globes when she won the best supporting actress award for The Reader. Anyone who's seen the film knows that that is a leading role; she dominates the film, the plot revolves around her, and she has top billing. She plays throughout the movie, while her leading man morphs between David Kross and Ralph Fiennes. So how did it come to pass that Winslet was nominated in the supporting actress category?

Look back at the history of awards, and it seems that whenever a star is nominated twice in the same category in the same year, his or her vote is split and the prize is gazumped by a surprised third party. Such a fate befell Mrs Sam Mendes at the 2005 Baftas; Winslet was nominated for both Finding Neverland and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but the mask went to Imelda Staunton for Vera Drake.

Winslet is not the only anomaly on the gong lists this year. Why is Philip Seymour Hoffman up for a best supporting actor Oscar for Doubt, while his counterpart Meryl Streep is up for the best actress prize, when they have almost equal billing and screen time? And let's not get started on that other Streep film, Mamma Mia!, being nominated for Outstanding British Film at the Baftas. Those litigators claiming that Barack Obama couldn't take office because he was a British citizen at birth must have invented the rules for this category.

It's been reported that the studios of Winslet's respective films campaigned for her performances to be nominated in different categories. So the Reader team campaigned for her to win the best supporting actress gong, while Revolutionary Road was given a free run at the best actress prize.

The discrepancy in category highlights both the whimsical nature of awards and the shenanigans behind the scenes. Actors are thrown into categories that studios believe they're in with a chance of winning. The suspicion must be that the Doubt producers didn't have total confidence that Hoffman would get the best actor nod.

The studios have the power when it comes to nominations. They take out huge adverts in the trade press, put on screenings and orchestrate campaigns. Harvey Weinstein was adept at this in the 1990s, which is why Miramax films always seemed to win big when he was at the helm. Often, it's the film producers who decide what award their talent is up for, but different rules for the Oscars occasionally lead to discrepancies.

In the first eight years of the Oscars, there were no supporting actor awards. The change came after Franchot Tone's performance in Mutiny on the Bounty rivalled the film's leads, Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, in 1935. The next year the supporting category was created – but the Academy didn't stipulate hard rules as to what differentiated a supporting from a leading role.

But the Academy did include a caveat that actors, unlike directors, couldn't be nominated twice in the same category in the same year. So, while you could be up for best actor and best supporting actor, as has happened on three occasions – Fay Bainter in 1938 (White Banners and Jezebel), Jamie Foxx in 2004 (Ray and Collateral) and Cate Blanchett in 2007 (Elizabeth: The Golden Age and I'm Not There) – an actor could not be nominated twice as best actor.

Also, for the Oscars (unlike the Globes), it's the members rather than the studios who decide who qualifies in which category. So when they made the sensible decision to class Winslet's turn in The Reader as a leading role, either that or her turn in Revolutionary Road would be excluded from the final nomination list and so the ruse of her being nominated twice was ruined.

But does any of this really matter, when awards seasons are an excuse for back-slapping by movie producers and have little to do with genuine merit?

The Orange British Academy Film Awards take place on 9 February; the 81st Annual Academy Awards take place on 22 February


Kate Winslet
Supporting Actress, The Reader, Golden Globes
The Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild have classed her performance in 'The Reader' as a supporting role – seemingly to avoid a clash with her turn in 'Revolutionary Road' – while the Oscars and Baftas have, more correctly, viewed the performance as a leading role.

Philip Seymour Hoffman
Supporting Actor, Doubt, Oscars
Despite having as big a role as Meryl Streep, in the face of stiff competition for leading man gongs, Hoffman has been pushed as a supporting actor.

Mamma Mia!
Outstanding British Film, Baftas
The director and writer were Brits. But this film depended on Hollywood cash. And all the main selling points are international.

Film in a foreign language, Baftas
This animation was made in French but in the UK many screens showed it in a dubbed English version.

Ralph Fiennes
Best supporting actor, The Duchess, Golden Globes
Unlike his supporting role in 'The Reader', in 'The Duchess' Fiennes features throughout. It's another categorisation that seems to have awards in mind.