Moments after Steven Spielberg‘s The Fabelman family 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 protagonist. In a supporting actor field that was still very much in flux, Williams was instantly moved to the front-runner position. That’s why her next move came as a shock: now promotion in the best actress category, Williams seems to be thumbing his nose at decades of Oscar tradition that cast mothers, whenever possible, in supporting roles rather than leading roles.
Williams now enters a Best Actress race already dominated by buzz Cate Blanchettcommanding turn in Warehouse as well as Michelle Yeoh‘s genre-hopping box office smash Everything everywhere at once, with the female-led one She said and Add still on the horizon. In the supporting category, however, four-time Oscar nominee Williams appeared to be a slight favorite. The ensemble cast of Women speak were celebrated at their Telluride and Toronto premieres, but it’s been difficult for even the film’s most ardent fans to pick a runaway favorite, leaving the possibility that they’ll cancel each other out in the awards voting. Kerry Condon‘s groundbreaking performance in Banshees of Inisherin has gained her considerable buzz, which has Janelle Monae‘s turn in the twisty glass onions; we are still waiting to see about Margot Robbie will be campaigned as leader or support for Babylonand there is still the question of Angela Bassett in Wakanda forever, that had some people ready to give her an Oscar based on the trailer alone. But Williams, especially after The Fabelman family won the People’s Choice Award in Toronto and became the presumed best picture front-runner, seemed to easily lead that field.
Which is probably why this category shift caused such a stir that the phrase “actress” briefly made it onto Twitter. Such things always happen this time of year, as awards campaigns stir up the field and audience reactions to figure out where to most strategically place their stars for maximum success. Oscar purists love to shout “category fraud” when this kind of jockeying happens, but it’s also literally written into Oscar rules, which only say performances can qualify in lead OR supporting. Looking through this impeccably detailed history of Best Actress nominees and their screen time, it’s easy to see how subjective the definition of “leading role” can be. It’s up to the studios to decide where they want to submit, and usually when they get the chance to race in a less competitive field, they’ll go for it. William has instead chosen the more difficult path.
Would it have been category cheating for her to stop supporting? After all, the supporting category has always been filled with supportive mother figures from Fay Bainter in the 1938s Jezebel to Youn Yuh-jung In the 2020s to the pain But Williams is undoubtedly the central figure in the film’s trailer, and first on the cast list. Spielberg, who has made precious few films with women at the center, uses The Fabelman family both to look at his own origin story and to re-evaluate his parents; in Toronto, he called it “a way to bring back my mom and dad.” What tribute would it be to the resurrection act to give in to 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 Fabelman family heavily pregnant, no doubt knows a lot about the societal pressures on mothers and how women’s stories are expected to end as soon as their children begin. She is also very specifically aware of the film 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 future teenage superstar?
An Oscar campaign for Best Actress instead of a Supporting Actress isn’t exactly an act of protest against the invisible work of mothers, but it is something, and potentially a valuable strike against the 95-year-old Oscar tradition that places mothers firmly on the sidelines whenever possible. Will that make Williams’ path through Oscar season more difficult? Probably. But this early in the season, it’s very much a gamble that still pays off.