Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Oscars Analysis 2008: Best Supporting Actress

After examining the Best Visual Effects field two days ago, it’s time to switch it up to one of the sexier categories and break down Best Supporting Actress. Although frankly I think Best Visual Effects is a more important category, cinematically speaking, but never mind. Let’s get to it.


Amy Adams – Doubt

Penélope Cruz – Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Viola Davis – Doubt

Taraji P. Henson – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Marisa Tomei – The Wrestler


This one was supposed to be easy, only then Harvey Weinstein got involved (yes, again). Not satisfied with landing a Best Picture nomination for The Reader at the expense of rival producer Scott Rudin’s Revolutionary Road, Weinstein bullied voters into nominating Kate Winslet as lead actress for The Reader, which they did at the expense of, that’s right, Revolutionary Road (Winslet had been pegged for a nomination for Rudin’s film in the lead actress category). To be fair, it was the correct call in addition to the politically savvy one, as Winslet is clearly the star of The Reader, no matter how debonair Ralph Fiennes looks. Unfortunately, whereas Best Supporting Actress would have been a gimme had Winslet appeared here, her departure leaves the category completely wide open. Awesome.

Alright, the only candidate I’m willing to dismiss completely is Amy Adams. If people are talking about Doubt, they’re either talking about Meryl Streep or Viola Davis – absolutely no one is talking about Adams. (Of course, no one was talking about Tilda Swinton for Best Supporting Actress last year either, but never mind.)

Beyond that, things get really tricky. Davis has been lauded for going toe-to-toe with one of the most accomplished actresses ever and holding her own, but she’s barely on screen for 10 minutes. Cruz absolutely smoldered in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but the movie came out way back in August, and given its (inexplicable) lack of a screenplay nomination, voters appear to be giving it short shrift. Henson is the lone candidate attached to a Best Picture nominee in Benjamin Button, but her performance is far more low-key than those of her competition, and such reserve rarely translates to Oscar success.

The biggest question mark here is Marisa Tomei as a past-her-prime stripper in The Wrestler. She has a far showier role than either Davis or Henson (though it’s downright restrained compared to Cruz’s flamboyance), and while it’s tempting to imagine voters being seduced by the bravura of her performance, you have to remember that most Academy members are so fucking old they make Hootie Johnson look progressive. Watching Tomei bare body and soul during an agonizing sequence near the film’s end, they’re as likely to harrumph at her audacity as applaud her dedication. If they are in the mood to reward dramatics, I expect they’ll acknowledge Cruz and her fiery bilingual work in Vicky Cristina instead.

So we’re left with three, and I’m probably going with my heart over my head here, but I just can’t imagine Viola Davis winning an Oscar for 10 minutes of work. Yes, I know Judi Dench won for just eight minutes for Shakespeare in Love (10 years ago, in fact), but I can’t accept it. Similarly, I think Henson will be overshadowed by her higher-profile costars. This is through no fault of her own – I just don’t see voters walking away from a movie with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett and remembering her.

And so, I’m going with Penélope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. It’s far from a subtle performance, but it’s electric and memorable, so in spite of the August release date, the Spanish beauty should have enough to pull away from the field. At least I think so. Honestly I have no idea.

(By the way, in predicting an actress from Vicky Cristina Barcelona to win the Oscar, you might say I wrestled with a curious case of doubt. Anyway.)


Ugh. I’ll be honest, this is a weak group, and it pales compared to last year’s extraordinary quintet (well, “extraordinary” minus the whole Ruby Dee thing). Anyway, I’ve basically already said my piece on Viola Davis. She stands her ground next to Meryl Streep just fine, and she doesn’t yield to the temptation to overact despite the obvious sentimentality of her character. As a result, she earns the emotional payoff at the end of her scene precisely because she doesn’t ask for it. It’s a very well-acted scene, but that’s my problem: It’s one scene. If you’re going to deserve an Oscar for a single scene, you damn well better be fucking extraordinary (think Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross). Or you can be a hot Asian chick in a lesbian sex scene. Davis fulfills neither requirement.

Staying with Doubt, Amy Adams is one of my favorite young actresses. I started drinking the Kool-Aid with everyone else after Junebug, but Enchanted is what truly won me over. That wildly appealing Disney musical showcased both Adams’ perky charm and her remarkable sincerity. That sincerity remains evident in her performance as a conflicted nun in Doubt – never more so than in a beautiful scene in which she castigates a student, only to become crestfallen and desperately apologize – but she is forced to submerge the charm, not without difficulty. I imagine it was a struggle for such an effervescent personality to play such a withdrawn character, but she nobly accepts the challenge; unfortunately, she seems to be trying awfully hard. It’s a valiant effort, and perhaps it was selfish of me to miss her natural ebullience, but I preferred her effortless, captivating performance this year in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

(On the plus side, it appears that this is finally coming out soon. It premiered at Sundance over a year ago, and I’ve been craving it ever since. Simple formula: Amy Adams + Emily Blunt = AWESOMENESS. Be excited.)

Taraji P. Henson, in contrast, is perfectly suited to the role of Queenie in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, with her natural warmth and protectiveness. It could have been a flashy performance (perhaps along the lines of her work in Talk to Me opposite Don Cheadle), but she wisely exercises humility, recognizing that this is Pitt’s and Blanchett’s movie, not hers. As a result, however, her acting – while perfectly serviceable – lacks spark. She does what is required of her role, and she does it well, but her character is not particularly memorable.

The same cannot be said of the final two nominees. Penélope Cruz and Marisa Tomei are both charged with playing assertive, sexually charged women, but they do so in notably different ways. For her part, Cruz is a pure firecracker. As Maria Elena, Javier Bardem’s unstable ex-wife, she is off-kilter and possibly psychotic, but she is also tender and warmly honest, and Cruz’s natural vibrancy gives Maria Elena’s antics true dimension and clarity. The role also functions as a polar opposite to her work in Almodóvar’s Volver. In that picture, she played an anxious single mother struggling to raise her daughter in a chaotic world. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, she is chaos, unleashing self-destructive fury and simultaneously pleading for love, all while unconsciously slipping from her native tongue to English and back. It’s a delightfully raw performance, exciting, bold, and without a hint of artifice.

It is not, however, particularly subtle, unlike Marisa Tomei’s work in The Wrestler. This a particularly impressive achievement given that Darren Aronofsky has never been one for subtlety. Tomei’s character of Cassidy – essentially the Hooker with the Heart of Gold – is even more ludicrous than Cruz’s Maria Elena, at least on the page, but Tomei somehow fashions a fully realized individual, imbuing her with true desperation and fear. Cassidy makes a number of outlandish decisions during the course of The Wrestler, but Tomei makes them believable, conveying both hesitancy and resolve. The scene in which she agrees to take Mickey Rourke’s character shopping – after an intense bout of internal deliberation – is a triumph of non-verbal acting. She does everything with her eyes, but her eyes tell us everything we need to know.

So which of the pair deserves the statuette? I’d be happy with either, but I’ll go with Marisa Tomei. She may not be playing the most believable character, but her performance is entirely real.

(By the way, when I wrote earlier that Tomei plays a stripper who’s “past her prime”, that’s what the script calls for; Cassidy ostensibly serves as a mirror to Mickey Rourke’s title character in that both have become beaten down by life but are desperately hoping to turn things around. As an actress, however, Marisa Tomei remains very much in her prime. In fact, her prime might extend for another 20 years, given that she’s as smoking hot now as she was when she won Oscar gold for My Cousin Vinny, and that was 16 years ago.

In fact, right now I’d say her career path closely resembles that of … wait for it … Kurt Warner. No, seriously, think about it. Warner toiled in the Arena League for years, then randomly burst onto the NFL scene and won a Super Bowl and an MVP with the Rams, then faded from memory only to resurrect himself this year for the Cardinals and come within a preposterous Santonio Holmes catch of winning another Super Bowl. Well, Tomei made a whole lot of dreck until her career launched with My Cousin Vinny, had one of the all-time great cameos on “Seinfeld”, then disappeared from relevance for the better part of a decade (with the exception of a pitch-perfect turn in 2001’s In the Bedroom) before unleashing a jaw-dropping performance in last year’s exceptional Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Now she’s back in the Super Bowl with The Wrestler. And for the record, those last two movies don’t just represent two great performances, they also stand as the greatest back-to-back nude scenes by a 40-plus-year-old actress in the history of cinema. There’s no arguing this.

So yeah, I guess what I’m saying is that I really hope the Cardinals re-sign Kurt Warner next year so that Marisa Tomei can keep it going. Moving on.)


Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Dark Knight. Perhaps lost in the understandable hullabaloo over The Dark Knight is just how significant an upgrade Maggie Gyllenhaal represented over Katie Holes in the role of Rachel Dawes. I’m not a Katie Holmes hater – I thought she was good in The Ice Storm, Go, and Thank You for Smoking, and I thought her breasts were phenomenal in The Gift – but she nearly ruined Batman Begins for me. Really, we were supposed to buy Katie Holmes as the no-frills tough-talking Assistant District Attorney of Gotham City? Not a chance. So when Gyllenhaal arrives on the scene in The Dark Knight and immediately brings intelligence and poise to Rachel without breaking a sweat, it constitutes a saving grace for the movie. She also creates an element of actual poignancy in the relationship between Rachel and Bruce Wayne – something Chris Nolan strove for but failed to achieve in Batman Begins – and that stronger relationship lends the movie true pathos, helping to elevate it to a powerful, gripping tragedy.

Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married. Anne Hathaway has received all the buzz for Rachel Getting Married, and deservedly so, but DeWitt is an invaluable foil as the title character. By turns caring and cruel, she and Hathaway together construct a fascinating fraternal relationship that is caustic and frighteningly realistic but also deeply moving.

Saffron Burrows, The Bank Job. People are going to discover Saffron Burrows eventually (although a nude scene couldn’t hurt). Here she takes a stock character – in this case the Femme Fatale – and brings to it sadness, complexity, and an overall depth of feeling. She will make it eventually.

Emily Mortimer, Redbelt. Speaking of making it, I wrote awhile back that Emily Mortimer was amazing and that she would eventually find the big-time. A few months later, the New York Times wrote a feature on her. And they didn’t even credit me. Assholes.

Cate Blanchett, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I just find it incredibly impressive that an actress who plays the female lead in a strenuously formal romance that received a Best Picture Nomination can in the same year also play the arch-villain in the fourth installment of Steven Spielberg’s adventure series – and in the part of an evil Russian psychic, no less. How’s that for motherfucking range! I was talking with my buddy Tom the other day, and he mentioned that he enjoyed the movie (hey, at least someone else did), and I said, “Yeah, especially Cate Blanchett”. His response: “Wait a minute: Cate Blanchett was in that?” Exactly.

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