Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Oscars Analysis 2011: Best Supporting Actor and Actress

Someday, an enterprising young man with a degree in applied mathematics and way too much time on his hands – not that I'm looking at anyone in particular – is going to compile a riveting sociological study on the Best Supporting Actor/Actress Oscars and the economic windfall that they yield for their winners. I mean, do these things really matter? I've always argued that the Academy Awards themselves are highly relevant, at least from a commercial standpoint if not an artistic one. Oscar winners immediately become more marketable as business properties, simply due to their increased visibility; once you win an Oscar, you're somebody. Aren't you?

Lately, I'm not so sure. True, following his ferocious Oscar-winning performance in Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz is now every casting director's first call for the part of "Megalomaniacal Villain" (the only reason he isn't playing the baddie in the upcoming James Bond movie is that fellow Best Supporting Actor winner Javier Bardem beat him to it). But do you realize that the winners of Best Supporting Actress over the past decade include Jennifer Connelly (only two worthwhile credits in the 10 years following A Beautiful Mind), Catherine Zeta-Jones (last quasi-memorable role: Ocean's Twelve in 2004), Renée Zelweger (only function these days seems to involve spreading rumors of another wretched Bridget Jones sequel), Jennifer Hudson (virtually invisible post-Dreamgirls), and Mo'Nique (lone credit since Precious? Steppin: The Movie)? And I haven't even mentioned Cuba Gooding, Jr. yet. I thought winning an Oscar was supposed to energize your career, not torpedo it.

So it's entirely possible that winning an Academy Award for a supporting performance has a 30% chance of derailing an actor's career. Just remember this when you look back 10 years from now and think to yourself, "Who the hell was Octavia Spencer?".

But I digress. On to the predictions.


Kenneth Branagh – My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill – Moneyball
Nick Nolte – Warrior
Christopher Plummer – Beginners
Max von Sydow – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Jonah Hill must feel as if he accidentally wandered into some sort of retirement home for the gifted and talented. Do you realize that Branagh is 51 years old, and he's the second-youngest nominee by twenty years? I've never bought into the shtick about how the Academy is basically a fleet of self-congratulatory stuffy old white men, but someone might want to circulate an email reminding the members that handful of working actors were conceived after World War II. You know, if the members know how to use email.

Anyway, Plummer is the automatic pick here. He's already won the Precursor Triple Crown (BAFTA, Golden Globe, Screen Actors' Guild), plus another 11 awards for good measure. There are murmurs that the Academy is feeling sentimental toward von Sydow, given that he's well-liked, 82 years old, and has never won an Oscar, but I don't buy it, primarily because Plummer is also well-liked, also 82 years old, and also has never won an Oscar. No sense needlessly complicating matters.

Can I pass? Don't get me wrong, I like these performances fine, but I don't expect any of them to be remembered a year from now, much less a decade. Plummer is perfectly convincing as a widower trying earnestly to embrace his newfound sexuality, but the role is too thin to carry any resonance. Similarly, von Sydow does a nice job conveying regret and submerged sorrow without overplaying his hand, but he can't compensate for his vehicle's appalling descent into schlock. In yet another similar role, Nolte fares a bit better as a formerly absentee father yearning for redemption – in one spectacular scene with Joel Edgerton, his mingling of confusion, self-loathing, and dashed hope is heartbreaking – but he's simply upstaged by his co-stars.

For me, it's a choice between Branagh and Hill, and as much as I savor the Academy's recognition of a comic talent such as Hill, I'll go with the Irishman. Uncannily impersonating Laurence Olivier, Branagh is frighteningly imperious, effortlessly establishing Sir Laurence as a titan of his craft. It's a tricky challenge for an actor to play yet another actor of such renown, but Branagh drills both Olivier's merciless talent and his exasperation, only to reveal a slender core of feeling underneath. Jolly good.

Albert Brooks – Drive
Michael Fassbender – X-Men: First Class
Bruce Greenwood – Meek's Cutoff
John Hawkes – Martha Marcy May Marlene
John Slattery – The Adjustment Bureau

Brooks' strait-laced turn as a brutally pragmatic mobster is historic both for its harrowing understatement and complete lack of humor. Art-house star Fassbender refuses to mail it in despite a big paycheck, as he lends an otherwise popcorn-munching blockbuster a real sense of menace and pathos. As an inscrutable guide in the Old West, Greenwood is even more understated than Brooks, if nearly as threatening. Fresh off his Oscar nomination for a terrifyingly amoral performance in Winter's Bone, Hawkes is even more disturbing (and disturbingly seductive) as a Charles Manson clone. Slattery eases into his role as a metaphysical "adjuster" with supreme ease.

My ideal winner: Albert Brooks – Drive.

Paul Bettany – Margin Call
Kenneth Branagh – My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill – Moneyball
Jeremy Irons – Margin Call
Patton Oswalt – Young Adult

Bettany masterfully essays the disillusionment of the upper crust in Margin Call, while Irons embodies pure, untainted greed without a hint of remorse. Hill plays off of Brad Pitt wonderfully, countering his co-star's charm and guile with bewildered anxiety and quiet dignity. Oswalt is the essence of broken dreams, and his brief liaison with Charlize Theron's demoness is as painful as it is doomed.

Also deserving: Ralph Fiennes – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (for displaying absolute commitment); Alan Rickman – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (ibid); William Fichtner – Drive Angry (for providing a clinic in scenery-chewing); Andy Serkis – Rise of the Planet of the Apes (because it's going to happen eventually, so it might as well be now).


Bérénice Bejo – The Artist
Jessica Chastain – The Help
Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer – Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer – The Help

The comparisons between The Artist and The King's Speech as works of art are fairly strained, but as Oscar contenders, they're quite pertinent. For example, last year's Best Supporting Actress race was a classic bellwether; if Helena Bonham Carter took home the statuette for her turn as Colin Firth's devoted wife, then The King's Speech was in for a monstrous night. Instead, Melissa Leo won here for The Fighter, and The King's Speech contended itself with just four trophies (albeit all in major categories).

The question, then, is whether The Artist has enough pull to swing a win here for Bérénice Bejo, even though The Help's Octavia Spencer is the clear favorite. The answer? No. Pundits might be quick to point out that Spencer could feasibly split votes with co-star Jessica Chastain, but that hardly mattered last year when Leo fought off competition from Amy Adams (not to mention Hailee Steinfeld for True Grit – excuse me while I go punch something). Besides, Spencer is far more of a sure thing than Leo was last year; not only is her role even showier, but as with Plummer, she has the BAFTA/Golden Globe/SAG trifecta under wraps.

Still, this remains a crucial category to watch, if only for predictive purposes. If Bejo does steal the spotlight from Spencer, then The Artist will presumably flex its muscle in other up-for-grabs categories as well, most notably Best Original Screenplay and Best Costume Design. Nevertheless, Spencer remains the safe pick.

I can't help but be disappointed with this quintet as well, though that's more due to the extraordinarily deep pool of talent in this category than any discontent with the nominees. McCarthy and Spencer are both born crowd-pleasers, and they tear into their respective roles with evident relish (though McCarthy provides a modicum of subtext as well). Jessica Chastain's earnestness suits her well, though I frankly preferred her in The Debt (not to mention any of the other 87 movies she starred in this year). McTeer brings some much-needed humor to Albert Nobbs, though she dabbles in sadness as well – it's a well-rounded, deeply satisfying performance that lingers long after the film itself has faded. And Bejo matches Jean Dujardin glance for outsized glance, capturing the joy in her character's ascent to stardom while always retaining her deep reservoir of empathy.

It's almost unfair to pick Bejo as my winner, given that her character commands so much more screen time than the other four – in truth, she probably should have been nominated as a lead – but her performance is the most indelible. Whether it's prophetic of her own career remains to be seen, but I'm hopeful – hers is a luminous quality that cannot fail to warm your heart.

Emily Blunt – The Adjustment Bureau
Elle Fanning – Super 8
Kate Winslet – Contagion
Evan Rachel Wood – The Ides of March
Shailene Woodley – The Descendants

Blunt takes a clever screenwriting conceit and turns it into a fully spun character, with her own desperate wants and shattered dreams. Fanning is utterly mesmerizing – when she's on the screen, you're never looking anywhere else. Winslet's ability to seamlessly slip into a role is borderline lunacy at this point, but regardless, she's completely credible in a stomach-punching turn as a medical field officer. Wood nimbly toggles from coyly seductive to helplessly fragile without splitting her character in two. Woodley ... I admit that I can't even discuss Woodley rationally at this point.

My ideal winner: Shailene Woodley – The Descendants.

Cate Blanchett – Hanna
Jennifer Ehle – Contagion
Anna Kendrick – 50/50
Juno Temple – Cracks/Kaboom
Emma Watson – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Blanchett camouflages her natural sweetness to play a grade-A villainess, with chilling results. With her bustling academic passion, Ehle elevates an environment as banal as a laboratory to a spectacle of scientific inquiry. Kendrick's sublime portrayal of awkward sincerity is both tremendously funny and profoundly touching. I'm doubling up on Temple films, but it's worth noting her range; she brings haughty, wounded pride and coiled jealousy to Cracks while obliterating everyone else in Kaboom with her smoldering sexuality. Watson, sadly, receives far too little screen time for this viewer's liking, but she typically makes the most of it, hammering every nuanced bit for maximum emotional impact.

Also deserving: Jennifer Aniston – Horrible Bosses (for bringing the heat with zero apologies); Vera Farmiga – Source Code (for her affecting blend of crisp and veiled vulnerability); Mélusine Mayance – Sarah's Key (for stealing the show from Kristin Scott Thomas, which is damn impressive given that she's six years old); Morgan Turner – Mildred Pierce (it's cheating, but she goes toe-to-toe with Kate Winslet and holds her own); Evan Rachel Wood – Mildred Pierce (it's still cheating, and I still don't care – she's just too magnificently repellent).

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