Moments later Steven Spielberg‘s The Fabelmans premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, the verdict was clear: Michelle Williams gave a “tour de force performance” and “may finally take home an Oscar” for her role as Mitzi Fabelman, the free-spirited mother of the film’s Spielberg-inspired main character. In a supporting actress field that was still very much in flux, Williams was immediately moved into the frontrunner position. Which is why her next move came as such a shock: now campaigning in the best actress category, Williams seems to be thumbing her nose at decades of Oscar tradition that puts mothers, whenever possible, in supporting roles instead of lead.
Williams now enters a best actress race that’s already dominated by buzz around Cate Blanchett‘s commanding turn in Tar as well as Michelle Yeoh‘s genre-hopping box office smash Everything Everywhere All at Once, with the female-led She said and Till still on the horizon. In the supporting category, however, the four-time-Oscar-nominated Williams seemed to be an easy favorite. The ensemble cast of Women Talking was celebrated at their Telluride and Toronto premieres, but it’s been hard for even the film’s most ardent fans to pick a runaway favorite, leaving the possibility that they’ll cancel each other out in awards voting. Kerry Condon‘s breakthrough performance in The Banshees of Inisherin has gained her considerable buzz, as said Janelle Monae‘s turn in the twisty Glass Onion; we’re still waiting to see if Margot Robbie will be campaigned as lead or supporting for Babylonand there’s still the matter of Angela Bassett in Wakanda Forever, who had some people ready to hand her an Oscar based on the trailer alone. But Williams, particularly after The Fabelmans won the Peoples Choice Award in Toronto and became the presumed best picture frontrunner, seemed capable of easily leading that field.
Which is probably why this category switch caused such a stir that the phrase “supporting actress” briefly trended on Twitter. Things like this always happen this time of year, as awards campaigns suss out the field and audience reactions to figure out where they can most strategically position their stars for maximum success. Oscar purists love yelling about “category fraud” when this kind of jockeying happens, but it’s also literally written into the Oscar rules, which only say that performances can qualify in lead OR supporting. Looking through this immaculately detailed history of best actress nominees and their screentime, it’s easy to see how subjective the definition of “lead” can be. It’s up to the studios to decide where to submit, and usually when given the chance to run in a less competitive field, they’ll go for it. William, instead, has chosen the harder path.
Would it have been category fraud for her to run in support? After all, the supporting actress category has always been littered with supportive mother figures, from Fay Bainter in 1938’s Jezebel to Youn Yuh-jung In 2020’s Minari. But Williams is arguably the central figure in the film’s trailer, and first-billed in the cast list. Spielberg, who has made precious few films with women at their center, is using The Fabelmans both to look at his own origin story and reassess his parents; in Toronto, he called it “a way of bringing my mom and dad back.” What tribute would it be to that act of resurrection to give into the most solipsistic teenage impulse and declare Sammy Fabelman, Spielberg’s cinematic proxy, the film’s sole lead?
Williams, who had her first child at 25 and attended the Toronto premiere of The Fabelmans very pregnant, undoubtedly knows plenty about societal pressure on mothers, and how women’s stories are expected to end as soon as their children’s begin. She’s also very specifically familiar with the movie industry’s double standard for women in general; need we remind you that the current best actor winner won his statue for playing a supportive father to a teenage future superstar?
A best actress Oscar campaign instead of supporting actress is not exactly an act of protest against the invisible labor of mothers, but it’s something, and potentially a valuable strike against the 95-year-old Oscar tradition that places mothers firmly on the sidelines whenever possible. Will it make Williams’ path through Oscar season trickier? Probably. But this early in the season, it’s very much a gamble that could still pay off.