Sunday, January 26, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Supporting Actor

Last year, I commented that the pool of legitimate candidates for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar was so deep, it bordered on absurd. This year, however, that's more true of the Best Actor race, which is so stacked that it makes this category seem strangely light. That's more praising 2013's leading men than criticizing their supporting counterparts, but it nevertheless makes me wonder if the winner of this year's award will ultimately prove to be forgettable.

Barkhad Abdi—Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper—American Hustle
Michael Fassbender—12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill—The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto—Dallas Buyers Club

I'm searching for a reason to pick against Jared Leto here, and I'm not having much success. He's already racked up a whopping 17 wins on the precursor circuit, including all-important victories at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors' Guild (more on those in a moment). By comparison, Fassbender has four pre-Oscar wins, while none of the remaining three challengers has earned a single one. The only red flag on Leto is that he lacks a BAFTA nomination, as the last Oscar winner in this category who whiffed with the Brits was Morgan Freeman in 2004. But the BAFTAs shut out Million Dollar Baby entirely that year (mainly because most voters hadn't seen it), and they did the same to Dallas Buyers Club this year; given that Leto's film tallied an additional five Oscar nominations, it's safe to say that Academy voters viewed it more favorably than did those across the pond.

Besides, consider this: In the 20 years since SAG started bestowing awards, only twice in either of the supporting categories has a performer won at both SAG and the Globes but failed to complete the trifecta with the Oscar. (Those two cases, for the record: Lauren Bacall in 1996 for The Mirror Has Two Faces, and Eddie Murphy 10 years later for Dreamgirls.) The only way Leto gets dethroned here is if either American Hustle or 12 Years a Slave pulls a sweep, and while that's a slight possibility for the latter, I can't see it happening in such a hotly contested, three-way Best Picture race. Jared Leto takes his first ever Oscar, thereby finally compensating for the victory he should have earned 13 years ago for his searing performance in Requiem for a Dream. (Not that I'm still bitter or anything.)

Remember what I said about this field feeling slight compared to the Best Actor race? That's not exactly a coincidence: Four of the five films featured here also nabbed nominations for their leading men, so the supporting players feel a bit overshadowed (rightly so, for the most part). The only performer who isn't the victim of nomination overlap is Barkhad Abdi (though Tom Hanks' miss for lead actor was a major surprise), who does a remarkable job holding his own against one of America's screen legends. There's a shiftiness to Abdi's work in Captain Phillips, as well as the sense of a brain operating frantically despite his ostensible control of the circumstances. As those circumstances spiral and that control becomes increasingly tenuous, Abdi silently illustrates his character's inner panic and desperation without relinquishing his outward command of the situation. He isn't a savage, but neither is he above a bit of savagery, and the unpredictability of his actions makes him both dangerous and fascinating. (His sudden exclamation, "I love America!" injects a blast of gallows humor into proceedings that are otherwise relentlessly grim.) He also generates a surprising amount of sympathy, as it becomes increasingly clear that his marauder is little more than a cog in a not-that-well-oiled machine. Hanks' emotionally naked performance will serve as Captain Phillips' legacy, but Abdi's savvy mixture of intelligence and ferocity provides for an intriguing counterpoint.

Three of the remaining four contenders are less successful in evading the long shadows cast by their costars, though given the extraordinary work of those costars, this should hardly denigrate the persuasive nature of the supporting performances. As he did in Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper proves himself a sound fit for David O. Russell's manic sensibilities once again in American Hustle. He initially fashions his enterprising FBI agent as a hard-boiled go-getter, but that sense of steadfastness quickly begins to fray, and shards of doubt and anxiety start to pierce his fa├žade of fortitude. Gradually, Cooper reveals his character as a lovesick fool, and as his behavior slips from dogged to obsessive—most memorably in a pair of electric scenes with Amy Adams, but also in a surprisingly tender moment with his mother—American Hustle becomes partly the story of his moral disintegration. (I say "partly" because American Hustle tells many stories, which is both its brilliance and its flaw.) It's an impressively committed performance, and if it nevertheless pales compared to the work of Christian Bale—who's on the short list for the title of best contemporary actor—that's hardly Cooper's fault.

Jonah Hill is a bit less magnetic in The Wolf of Wall Street, but that's more a function of the role than the performance. There isn't much shading to Hill's part as Leonardo DiCaprio's lieutenant; it says something that his most memorable scene involves him terrorizing a subordinate by swallowing his pet goldfish. Still, that scene is uproarious, and in general, Hill hammers the role of an id-driven sycophant, effectively demonstrating how wealth-obsessed cretins will happily leech onto visionaries in the hopes of drafting off their success. (He also receives a wonderfully low-key moment late in the film, reminding audiences that the sex-crazed teenager from Superbad really can act.) With that said, if Cooper is eclipsed by Bale's paralyzing helplessness, Hill is absolutely dwarfed by DiCaprio's incomparable brio.

The same is true, for the most part, of the likely winner in this category. Jared Leto is largely effective as an AIDS-stricken drag queen, never more so than when he swallows his dignity and dresses as a man in a desperate plea for help from his disapproving father. But Dallas Buyers Club is Matthew McConaughey's movie, and Leto's performance feels supporting in the most literal sense; he exists to prop McConaughey up and to serve as the fulcrum for his arc of redemption. Indeed, aside from that aforementioned scene with his father, it's difficult to recall Leto's character doing anything on his own. Again, there's nothing wrong with Leto's work, which functions as a compelling portrait of amused curiosity—he approaches his partnership with McConaughey's bigoted entrepreneur with the wide-eyed wonder of a boy befriending an escaped zoo animal—but it's disheartening that he'll receive an Oscar for playing a part that feels so subservient.

The notion of subservience is antithetical to Edwin Epps, Michael Fassbender's role as a vicious plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave. He is, as he makes abundantly clear time and again, the master of his flock, and he exercises his dominion with remorseless brutality. Yet the genius of Fassbender's performance, and what makes it so sickeningly memorable, lies in how he shapes Epps as a man both terrifying and rather pathetic. He is revoltingly violent to Chiwetel Ejiofor's title character not because he hates the fact that a black man is more intelligent and insightful than he is but because he simply cannot comprehend that such a black man exists. And he lashes out at Lupita Nyong'o's cotton-picker because he is baffled and repulsed that he finds himself attracted to her in the first place. That quality of confused self-loathing adds an emotional dimension to Epps, and this measure of humanity renders his actions staggeringly inhumane, far more so than if he were just a callous monster. Fassbender is an actor of impeccable rigor—there's a reason he's appeared in all three of Steve McQueen's features—and his snarling speech and lordly demeanor are deceptively precise. But that technical precision is secondary to his overwhelming disgust, both with his slaves and with himself. He orders a whipping with horrifying relish, but it's his fumbling justification for the whipping that truly stings.

George Clooney—Gravity
Michael Fassbender—12 Years a Slave
Will Forte—Nebraska
James Franco—Spring Breakers
Sam Rockwell—The Way, Way Back

Clooney delivers another impeccably controlled performance, effortlessly conveying aeronautical expertise simply through his perfectly modulated vocals. Bruce Dern may have received a nomination for Nebraska, but it's Forte's understated performance that anchors the film, as he never pleads for sympathy yet quietly suggests a lifetime of sufferance. Franco goes for broke in Spring Breakers, personifying a world of glittering excess while also hinting at its underlying emptiness. Rockwell is a live wire in a movie in dire need of a spark, and with any justice, his acerbic mentor will become an iconic character for years to come. (Rockwell also scores bonus points for the way in which he brilliantly deadpans the lyrics to Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero" to a crowd of mystified teenagers. On a related note, I'm crushed that this scene isn't viewable on YouTube. Poor form, random people who upload things to YouTube. Poor form indeed.)

My ideal winner: Sam Rockwell—The Way, Way Back.

Barkhad Abdi—Captain Phillips
Jason Bateman—Disconnect
Sharlto Copley—Elysium
Benedict Cumberbatch—Stark Trek Into Darkness
Colin Farrell—Saving Mr. Banks

Bateman has made a career out of understatement—most obviously in his hilarious, perpetually bemused star-making turn on Arrested Development—but in Disconnect he burrows deeper, suggesting reserves of emotion through sidelong glances and calculated stillness. Copley follows up his spectacular performance in District 9 with an entirely different but no less spectacular performance, devouring the scenery and enlivening Elysium with welcome touches of camp. Cumberbatch, that British chameleon, is chillingly inscrutable, with a newly built physique to match his imperious vocals. Farrell pours his soul into Saving Mr. Banks, reminding us for the hundredth time that he really needs to hire a new agent.

Also deserving: Casey Affleck—Out of the Furnace (for proving that he can play savage as well as pensive); Michael Cera—This Is the End (for gleefully mocking himself); Nathan Fillion—Much Ado About Nothing (for locating the nobility in stupidity); John Gallagher, Jr.—Short Term 12 (for shunning helplessness and pressing on despite every reason to give up); Karl Urban—Star Trek Into Darkness (for this line).

Previous Oscar Analysis
Best Original Song

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