Gene Hackman, I Never Sang For My Father (1970): More often than is comfortable, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences suffer a strange affliction: They can’t tell who a story’s protagonist is. Usually, they elevate a supporting role (or, more accurately, performance) to the lead: Anthony Hopkins, Forest Whitaker and Annette Bening are not the heroes of Silence of the Lambs , The Last King of Scotland and The Kids Are All Right, respectively. Sometimes the Academy does the reverse. In this case, it should have been evident: The “I” is Gene Hackman’s dissatisfied son, not his aging father (Melvyn Douglas).
Al Pacino, The Godfather (1972): The one constant in Francis Ford Coppola’s breakthrough epic is Pacino’s Michael Corleone, who sports one awesome arc: from mousy prodigal son to tyrranical crime boss. AMPAS, however, thought the real lead was a character who’s absent from giant chunks of the film, including the entire third act. Reminder: just because someone gives the biggest performance doesn’t make him/her the main character.
Tatum O’Neal, Paper Moon (1973): For some reason, kids rarely get treated as leads; Whale Rider ’s Keisha Castle-Hughes is the only kid ever to get a Best Actor nom. So, despite being the co-lead (with father Ryan) of Peter Bogdanovich’s Depression era conman pic, O’Neal wound up becoming the youngest person to ever win an Oscar—but in the wrong category.
Martin Landau, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989): Woody Allen’s drama is split into two stories: in one, Landau has his mistress offed; in the other, Woody considers cheating on his wife. This split evidently caused AMPAS to panic, treating the movie as a film with no leads.
Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007): Just as the real Ford dwelt in the shadow of the man he killed, so Affleck, playing the fanboy-assassin to creepy perfection, was usurped by the A-lister (Brad Pitt) he had to shoot.
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit (2010): (below) See: Tatum O’Neal. Groan. ■