Friday, February 21, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Supporting Actress

I typically analyze this category early in my Oscar predictions, but the race is so uncertain this year that I wanted to wait until after the BAFTAs so I had much information as possible. Now, we're nine days away from the telecast, and I'm still clueless. Typical.

Sally Hawkins—Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence—American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o—12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts—August: Osage County
June Squibb—Nebraska

Forget Hawkins, Roberts, and Squibb—this race is all about Lawrence vs. Nyong'o. Both have won upwards of 10 precursor awards for their respective performances, with Lawrence nabbing trophies at both the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, while Nyong'o scored with the Screen Actors' Guild. Both have also earned a number of wins from prestigious critics' groups (National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle for Lawrence, Los Angeles Film Critics Association for Nyong'o). And both appear in well-regarded Best Picture nominees. In short, this is about as close as you can get to a pure coin flip.

In considering this battle, I'm haunted by the spectre of two prior races whose winners I failed to predict. The first was the Best Actress field in 2011, when I backed Viola Davis (and her SAG win) in The Help over Meryl Streep (and her wins at the Globes and BAFTAs) in The Iron Lady, reasoning that the voters might be suffering from Streep fatigue and would be wary of handing her a third Oscar. (They weren't.) The second was for the same category the following year, when Lawrence herself (in Silver Linings Playbook) defeated Emmanuelle Riva (in Amour), despite the latter's BAFTA nod.

If there's a lesson to be learned from those two catastrophes—other than that I'm less than stellar in forecasting the Best Actress race—it may be that precursor wins are overrated. The Academy is often criticized for being overly mainstream, but it tends to vote its own way, and trying to predict its choices via a quantitative formula is just as likely to yield white noise as a clear signal pattern.

Instead, I'll ask this question: Whom does the Academy like? In 2011, voters reiterated that they really like Meryl Streep, and last year, they established that they really like Jennifer Lawrence. (Don't forget that she also scored a nomination in 2010 for Winter's Bone.) In the Hunger Games franchise, she literally plays "the girl on fire", and that metaphor is only too apt; right now, she's hotter than Steph Curry when he gets into one of those zones. I'm not betting against her until she misses. Jennifer Lawrence takes her second straight Oscar.

If you watched August: Osage County—and for your sake, I hope you didn't—you could be forgiven for failing to remember that Julia Roberts even appears in the film. There's nothing wrong with her acting, but it's a bit blank, and that's a problem given the enormous profile of her surrounding cast. The movie is ardently devoted to extreme swells of feeling, and it practically swallows up Roberts' muted portrayal; she isn't grand enough to evade the long shadow cast by Meryl Streep, but she also isn't understated enough to match the delicate emoting of Julianne Nicholson and Benedict Cumberbatch. It's a small, ill-fitting performance in a film that blindly champions outlandish gestures.

Sally Hawkins also faces the unenviable task of supporting a titan, but her work in Blue Jasmine opposite Cate Blanchett is more effective, in part because it feels less competitive. Hawkins recognizes that this is Blanchett's show, but she nevertheless carves out a small space of her own, imbuing her more pragmatic sister with a quiet dignity that clashes poignantly against Blanchett's flailing desperation. Blue Jasmine will be remembered for Blanchett's fearless performance, but Hawkins more than does her part, providing a sliver of hope amidst the madness.

There's nothing so subtle about June Squibb's unapologetically crotchety performance in Nebraska, but that's what makes it so much fun. Torpedoing the stereotype of the kindly old lady, Squibb plays her octogenarian with an appealing mixture of weary resentment and cackling glee. Yes, she's a bit soft in the center, and she flashes a fierce maternal pride when her family is threatened. But she also isn't above taunting the entombed residents of a graveyard, even flashing the headstone of a former suitor. The satisfaction Squibb's character derives from that lewd display transfers to her audience, as we can take pleasure in a performance that, while hardly bone-deep, is never boring.

Neither is Lupita Nyong'o's in 12 Years a Slave, but hers is far more devastating. Nyong'o serves as the perfect foil for Chiwetel Ejiofor's wounded pride, matching his silent intensity with a resounding agency of her own. Her role requires a good deal of screaming, but through all the wailing, Nyong'o never loses sight of the independence of her soul, even if her body is others' chattel. Yet she's fighting a losing battle, and the ashen look in her eyes when she recognizes she's been defeated is simply devastating. It's a stirring performance from a little-known actress that's hopefully the sign of more great things to come.

One could have said something similar following Jennifer Lawrence's striking turn in 2009's the Burning Plain. Suffice it to say that those hints of greatness have since been realized, because right now, Lawrence is just playing in a different league. Save perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio, no actor in 2013 blazes on screen the way Lawrence does in American Hustle. Whether she's careening along to "Live and Let Die" while wearing dish gloves or patiently explaining to her husband why she's the secret inspiration behind his genius, Lawrence emanates an effervescent energy that's both exhilarating and almost exhausting. Yet there's a scene late in the movie when her character is paralyzed by fear and self-doubt, and Lawrence redirects all of her forcefulness inward so that she's perfectly still, with the notable exception of her eyes, which dance back and forth at a million miles an hour. It's a breathtaking moment, and a reminder of just how incredibly persuasive this 23-year-old can be. Perhaps the only thing more electric than Lawrence's performance in American Hustle is the tantalizing possibility of what she might do next.

(Want to know what's truly frightening about American Hustle? Lawrence is this good, yet she somehow delivers the third-best performance in the movie. Crazy.)

Scarlett Johansson—Her
Jennifer Lawrence—American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o—12 Years a Slave
Léa Seydoux—Blue Is the Warmest Color
Emma Watson—The Bling Ring

Johansson impossibly creates a fully realized character using only her voice—with every sigh, stutter, and half-breath, her digitized entity becomes incrementally (and heartbreakingly) more human. Seydoux combats Adèle Exarchopoulos' righteous fury with sublime tentativeness and uncertainty. Watson continues to demolish any preconceived notion of her range, embracing celebrity's spotlight with voracious zeal.

My ideal winner: Jennifer Lawrence—American Hustle.

Meghan Charpentier—Mama
Melissa Leo—Prisoners
Jena Malone—The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Julianne Moore—Don Jon
Andrea Riseborough—Oblivion

Charpentier exhibits extraordinary poise, generating some legitimate pathos within Mama's schlocky ghost story. Leo is her usual masterful self in Prisoners, layering her character with shrewd intelligence and quiet resolve. Malone pops off the screen in Catching Fire. Moore brings some welcome unpredictability to Don Jon, transforming her meager part into the movie's most interesting character. By rights, Riseborough should be 2013's breakout star (she also delivered stellar performances in Disconnect and Shadow Dancer), and in Oblivion, she beautifully conveys unfulfilled desire and sullen self-loathing.

Also deserving: Vera Farmiga—The Conjuring (for making us not only fear for her but also sympathize with her); Emma Watson—This Is the End (for having a blast); Rachel Weisz—Oz the Great and Powerful (ibid).

Previous Oscar Analysis

The "Gravity" Categories
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Original Song

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