Monday, February 21, 2011

Oscars Analysis 2010: Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress

And now, we get to the good stuff.

Of course, you could argue that the supporting actor/actress categories are, in a weird way, overrated by the moviegoing public. That's partly because the awards often pay homage to the quality of the role more so than the actual performance, meaning they're saluting the screenwriter rather than the actor. There's also a visibility issue: Everyone notices actors, but fewer viewers appreciate the labors of cinematographers, art directors, composers, and other craftsmen whose contributions are no less essential to the overall quality of a film. And because so many performers these days are so damn talented, supporting actors typically sport a low VORP (value over replacement player) – swap one out for another, and it's unlikely your movie will suffer terribly as a result.

(For the record, I briefly addressed VORP and its unlimited allegorical potential here. But I'm going to repeat what I said previously: Never, ever use VORP as a metric for evaluating girlfriends. Not unless you want to become the most reviled misanthrope this side of Louis Farrakhan.)

But that last point is exactly why I love the supporting categories. Hollywood is absolutely loaded with high-caliber actors right now. As far as movies go overall, I only find myself blown away 2-3 times per year, but I'm astounded by the quality of a particular performance with far greater frequency. The movies may be stagnating – that's a debate for another day – but the actors keep getting better, and there's no harm in paying homage to that.


Christian Bale – The Fighter
John Hawkes – Winter's Bone
Jeremy Renner – The Town
Mark Ruffalo – The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush – The King's Speech

More than any other category, this race represents the threshold test for The King's Speech. Christian Bale is the heavy favorite here for his transformative work in The Fighter, and it would be foolish to predict anyone else. That said, he isn't officially a lock, as it's feasible that Geoffrey Rush could sneak away with the statuette. If that happens, then The King's Speech's awards pedigree mutates from sturdy frontrunner with coattails (think Slumdog Millionaire) to absolute behemoth that will slaughter everything in its path (think The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Currently, I have The King's Speech pegged to win seven Oscars out of its 12 nominated categories; if Rush wins here, then the pleasant prestige picture could feasibly take home 11 trophies (a win for Best Sound Mixing isn't happening), which would tie it for the most in Oscar history.

What's especially intriguing is that the Best Supporting Actor award is usually announced early in the telecast, so we'll know early on what to expect. If Bale wins, Social Network fans can keep holding onto that fledgling feeling called hope. If Rush wins, we could be in for a long, boring, thoroughly depressing night.

See what I mean about talented actors? Just a tremendous group here, with Jeremy Renner as the lone weak link, and even his performance is eagerly entertaining, if entirely lacking in subtext. Hawkes' nomination is particularly satisfying, as the reliable character actor of "Deadwood" fame disappears into his role without a hint of artifice. Another scruffy character actor, Ruffalo has received somewhat better recognition for his talents to this point, but he nevertheless delivers a career-best performance in The Kids Are All Right, adding a barely perceptible scent of desperation to his otherwise easygoing charm. Geoffrey Rush faces the danger of being swallowed in Colin Firth's formidable shadow, but he proves a worthy foil, parrying his costar's pronounced pain with both empathy and sly wit.

Christian Bale, however, is in another league here. As my sister pointed out, the minute he walks onto the screen, you're transfixed. The performance is simply mesmeric. Unfortunately for The Fighter, he's only in about half the movie, and the other half is dominated by the haplessly outmatched Mark Wahlberg, but that doesn't make Bale's work any less of a knockout.

Christian Bale – The Fighter
Andrew Garfield – The Social Network
Sean Penn – Fair Game
Mark Ruffalo – The Kids Are All Right
Justin Timberlake – The Social Network

The Academy's utter indifference toward Fair Game represents the quietest injustice at this year's Oscars, and Penn's portrayal of righteous dignity ranks among the best performances of his career (and this is Sean Penn, so that's saying something). Garfield – one of the hottest risers around and starring in the upcoming Spider-Man reboot – counterbalances Jesse Eisenberg's ruthless intellect with painful poignancy, bringing pathos to a picture already brimming with feeling. Timberlake, meanwhile, demolishes every scene he's in, reeking so heavily of charisma that you can almost smell his cologne.

Niels Arestrup – A Prophet
John Hawkes – Winter's Bone
Danny Huston – You Don't Know Jack
Geoffrey Rush – The King's Speech
Michael Shannon – The Runaways

Forgive me, but I can hardly limit myself to five. If Penn brings righteous fury to Fair Game, Arestrup brings merciless cruelty to his role as an aging gangster in A Prophet. As Jack Kevorkian's lawyer, Huston nimbly straddles his character's dual nature as protective surrogate and wily opportunist. Shannon is absolutely electric as the flamboyant rock promoter in The Runaways – he gets bonus points for taking a role diametrically opposed to his work as the terrifying prohibition agent in "Boardwalk Empire" and being frighteningly convincing in both.

Also deserving: Kieran Culkin – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (for being hilarious every time he opens his mouth, thanks as much to his perpetually winking delivery as the stellar screenplay); Edward Norton – Stone (for continuing to take adventurous roles long after he's ascended to the A-list); Sam Rockwell – Iron Man 2 (for never mailing it in); Michael Sheen – Tron: Legacy (for being the only person in the movie who seems to be having any fun).


Amy Adams – The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter – The King's Speech
Melissa Leo – The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
Jacki Weaver – Animal Kingdom

This is where the pros make their money. With the exception of a few categories (namely Best Picture and the lead acting fields), this year's Oscar races are generally difficult to handicap, but the Best Supporting Actress field is easily the toughest of the entire show. Aside from Jacki Weaver, any of the nominees has a legitimate chance at the prize. If you're going to win your pool on Oscar night, you need to drill this category, and you're probably going to guess wrong.

Alright, I'll knock off Amy Adams, as she'll function more as a vote-siphoner from Leo than as an actual contender. (Oddly, this is the second time in three years in which Adams has shared a nomination in this category with a colleague, last time with Viola Davis in Doubt.) But a strong case can be made for the remaining three. Leo was the de facto frontrunner following the nominations, and she strengthened her case with a win at the Golden Globes, but she's facing several obstacles. First, The Fighter's buzz has dimmed noticeably over the past month, as the movie failed to cross the magical $100 million mark at the box office. Second, there's the Adams issue, and even while Leo has the showier role, Adams is well-liked and just happens to turn in the superior performance. Third and most bizarrely, Leo took the unprecedented step of actively campaigning for herself by purchasing her own "For Your Consideration" ads, which has drawn considerable flak from the Oscar community. (I would say such a reaction is inexplicable, but there might still be some residual fear after Harvey Weinstein bought up nominations during the late-'90s like a teenage girl who just stole her mother's password to

Meanwhile, if The Fighter has diminished as a vehicle, Bonham Carter has the virtue of appearing in the year's most beloved film. She's also highly regarded in Hollywood but has never won an Oscar, meaning she could be in line for a sympathy vote, though perhaps it's a bit early in her career for that. Finally, she's British, and it's a known truth that British people give superior acceptance speeches specifically and that they're just better than we are generally.

The real wildcard here, though, is Steinfeld, as it's difficult to get a read on her chances because we weren't even sure which category she'd be up for until three weeks ago. And even though voters grotesquely marginalized her when they shunted her into the supporting category, they actually did her a favor in terms of her awards chances. Not only is this a weaker field overall (i.e., Natalie Portman isn't in it), but young actresses have traditionally had success in the supporting category (with Tatum O'Neal and Anna Paquin serving as the prime examples).

Of course, all of this analysis hasn't brought me any closer to predicting a winner, but I'm going to take Steinfeld, and here's why: Presumably, at least a handful of voters acted with sense and initially nominated her for the lead actress award, yet she still had enough strength to muster her way into the supporting field. Now, those (sensible) voters can consolidate their ballots with the other (lazy) members who pegged her as supporting in the first place. Throw in the fact that Leo will split votes with Adams and that Bonham Carter, well, just isn't that good, and Steinfeld gets the edge.

Steinfeld. Not by a little.

Keira Knightley – Never Let Me Go
Mila Kunis – Black Swan
Lesley Manville – Another Year
Ellen Page – Inception
Emma Watson – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Keira Knightley effortlessly embodies the hopeless struggle that chokes the characters in Never Let Me Go, conveying her predicament with heartfelt passion and despair. Kunis seethes sexuality in Black Swan, transforming a seemingly innocuous pursuit such as ballet into a wrathful seduction. Manville defines heartbreak and will make you fucking cry. Page pulls off the tricky feat of acting as the audience's surrogate while also shaping a fully developed character with her own fears and desires. And Emma Watson, sidelined for the better part of the past two Harry Potter pictures, returns to the fore in Deathly Hallows and continues to shine, imbuing Hermione Granger with both fierce intelligence and radiant warmth.

(Note that I'm not including Hailee Steinfeld here because I consider her to be the lead in True Grit because I am not an ageist.)

Amy Adams – The Fighter
Rosemarie DeWitt – The Company Men
Gwyneth Paltrow – Iron Man 2
Mia Wasikowska – The Kids Are All Right
Naomi Watts – Mother and Child

Take a look at Amy Adams and you wouldn't exactly peg her as a foul-mouthed bartender from Lowell, but there's such feeling in her performance that you'll find yourself convinced. DeWitt takes an assignment fraught with danger (nagging wife alert) and somehow spins a testament to the enduring strength of marriage. Paltrow parries one-liners with Robert Downey, Jr. with experienced ease (and blows Scarlett Johansson out of the water in the process). Ironically, The Kids Are All Right earned most of its critical praise for its adult actors (who were certainly better than all right), but Wasikowska is equally compelling as a frustrated and confused teenager coming to grips with life's sticky unpleasantness. Watts, meanwhile, bares her fangs in Mother in Child, then bares her soul in a vain quest for redemption.


Anonymous said...

I love that you mentioned Kieran Culkin. He was definitely the best part of Scott Pilgrim.

Luke said...

100% agree with you about Steinfeld being the "should win" for supporting actress.