moments after Steven Spielberg‘s The Fabelmans Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, the verdict was clear: Michelle Williams for her role as Mitzi Fabelman, the free-spirited mother of the film’s Spielberg-inspired protagonist, a “tour de force performance” and “finally able to take home an Oscar.” In a still very fluid supporting actress field, Williams was immediately promoted to the top spot. That’s why her next move came as such a shock: now Election campaign in the best actress In this category, Williams seems to be flouting the decades-old Oscar tradition of placing mothers in supporting roles rather than leading roles whenever possible.
Williams is now entering a race for best actress already dominated by rumours Cate Blanchettgive in under orders tar as well as Michelle Yeoh‘s cross-genre blockbuster everything everywhere at once with the female led she said and until still on the horizon. In the supporters category, however, four-time Oscar nominee Williams appeared to be a slight favorite. The cast of the ensemble women talk was hailed at its Telluride and Toronto premieres, but it’s been difficult for even the film’s most ardent fans to pick a runaway favorite given the chance they’ll annul each other on price voting. Kerry Condon‘s breakthrough performance in The Banshees by Inisherin has won her considerable buzz, as well as Janelle Monae‘s turn in the winding glass onion; we are still waiting to see if Margot Robbie is advertised as a lead or supporting Babylonand there is still the question of Angela Bassett in Wakanda forever, which had some people willing to give her an Oscar based on the trailer alone. But Williams, especially afterwards The Fabelmans won the People’s Choice Award in Toronto and was named best picture contender, appearing to be able to top that field with ease.
This category change probably caused such a stir that the term “supporting actress” was briefly popular on Twitter. Things like this always happen at this time of year when awards campaigns are examining the field and audience reactions to determine where to most strategically position their stars for maximum success. Oscar purists love to yell about “category cheating” when this kind of tussle happens, but it’s also literally written into the Oscar rules, which only state that performances as a lead OR a supporting actor can qualify. Looking at this impeccably detailed history of the best actress nominees and their screen time, it’s easy to see how subjective the definition of “leading actress” can be. It’s up to the studios to decide where to submit, and usually they’ll go for it if they have the opportunity to run in a less competitive field. William chose the more difficult path instead.
Would it have been category cheating for them to run for support? After all, the supporting actress category has always been littered with supporting mother figures, starting with Fay Bainter in the 1938s Jezebel to Youn Yuh-jung In the 2020s Minari. But Williams is arguably the central character in the film’s trailer and comes first in the cast list. Spielberg, who has only made a few films with women as the focus, uses The Fabelmans both to consider his own origin story and to reevaluate his parents; in Toronto, he called it “a way to bring my mom and dad back.” What homage to this act of resurrection would it be to indulge the most solipsistic adolescent impulse and declare Sammy Fabelman, Spielberg’s cinematic stand-in, as the film’s sole lead?
Williams, who had her first child at 25 and attended the Toronto premiere The Fabelmans heavily pregnant, no doubt knows a lot about the societal pressures on mothers and how women’s stories should end once their children begin. She is also very familiar with the film industry’s double standards for women in general; Need we remind you that the current Best Actor winner won his statue for playing a supportive dad to a future teenage superstar?
An Oscar campaign for Best Actress instead of Supporting Actress isn’t exactly an act of protest against the invisible work of mothers, but it is some, and potentially a valuable blow to the 95-year Oscar tradition of firmly marginalizing mothers whenever possible. Will it make William’s journey through Oscar season more difficult? Probably. But this early in the season, it’s a gamble that could yet pay off.