Oscars Revision: Best Supporting Actor

Let’s take a brief look at the last 25 years of Best Supporting Actor winners. Will it help us determine this year’s winner? Or at least drift us a little closer? Probably not. I mean, Christian Bale could certainly win – quirky, quippy, comedic roles have won in that time. Though he won a few years back already. Does that even matter? Well, how about the man who is everywhere, Tom Hardy. Hey, bad guys have won a lot in this category over the last 25 years. What about Mark Ruffalo, he plays a genuine good guy, he wants to help the plight of humanity – just like that guy in real life, Mark Ruffalo. Or Mark Rylance, his character is misunderstood, and passive, a subtle and memorable turn – that can bag you gold too. Or how about the aging, come-back story, the kind of personal battle too, like Sylvester Stallone shows us? I mean, they don’t come much more underdog than Rocky nearly 40 years on.
There is a lot more to pigeon-holing, though, when it comes to that batch of AMPAS voters making their choices and seeing what comes out the other end when they are all totted up. And this applies to all categories, not just the acting ones of course. The acting honors are not always about the portrayal of a historical character, someone struggling with a mental or physical illness, or simply having a beard. But those components, and others, can certainly play a part in the thinking when trying to establish a choice for Best Supporting Actor.
As I look back over 25 years, then (I have to cap my historical throw-back somewhere – yikes), there is the very popular way of voting we all like to call sentiment. An actor who has put in the stellar work over the years maybe – a real sense of career longevity. Perhaps they were overlooked before, whether nominated or not. They may stand a shot at winning due to a showy or perhaps outside-the-box role for them. We’ve not seen them do that in decades maybe. Playing a sympathetic character, too, certainly helps this cause. I’ll leave it up to you to decide where the likes of Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive), Martin Landau (Ed Wood), James Coburn (Affliction), and Christopher Plummer (Beginners) fit in here. And might I add I am not disclosing my opinion here that any of these were undeserved.

Often, like the Screenplay categories, the Supporting Actor winner can imply some reward for a film that is not going to win the big prize, or is in fact regrettably not even nominated, and requires some lavishing here. This is very abstract of course, but those of us that have been circling this insane awards circuit this long know this concept like the back of our hands. As good as they were, Tim Robbins (Mystic River), and Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire), for example, were rewarded for films that were not evidently going to win Best Picture after all. And what of Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects), and Chris Cooper (Adaptation) – two popular winners deeply encouraged by lovers of the films that did not even make the Best Picture list – sinful. That kind of potential consolation prize notion can indeed coincide with the sentimental view, like Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting), and Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) – Michael Caine (The Cider House Rules) also had the power of Miramax on his side of course.
Every once in a while, it appears a general consensus, of sorts, of what is considered to actually be the best of the year goes and wins. Yeah, really. God forbid. Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight), Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club), and J. K. Simmons (Whiplash) went above and beyond ‘locks’ status, four of the most undisputed winners of Best Supporting Actor of the last 25 years, right? As I have rattled on about before though, the Waltz win for Django Unchained was one that carried little weight with stats or form, except I do believe somewhere in the unconscious this was a payment of debt for Leonardo DiCaprio’s role in the same film (in similar ways Tarantino’s Screenplay win for this was a little bit of justice for the superior Basterds). Who really knows how things rub off on voters, were the wins for Jim Broadbent (Iris), and George Clooney (Syriana) in any way representative of their work on Moulin Rouge and Good Night, and Good Luck respectively.

Benicio del Toro (Traffic) was also a commanding win in its own right for a film that should have / was meant to / was ever so close to winning Best Picture. That weight of the Best Picture status is often crucial to not only being nominated for an Oscar, but also winning. Playing devil’s advocate, would / could have Gene Hackman (Unforgiven), and Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby) won had their movies not seemingly started their journey to the Best Picture finish line? The same question is answered much easier in regards to Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), so captivating was he, the Oscar was his regardless of what won Best Picture.
I know most of us have a damn good idea who is going to win already, or think we do. But how do we use this information to gauge a potential winner this year? Can we do it with stats? Let’s get some interesting insight then. So, in the last 25 years we have had 125 Supporting Actor nominees, right? Of those nominees, then, only 15 of them were for Best Picture winners. Hmmm. So 60% of the time one of the films nominated for Best Picture would also receive a Supporting Actor nod. Another way is to say of the 5 slots each year available, that’s just 3 occasions every 5 years a Best Picture winner will receive a Supporting Actor nomination. Also, only 3 of the Supporting Actor winners were for Best Picture winners – in 25 years. We don’t know the Best Picture winner this year yet, of course, but these stats do favor Stallone (Creed, the only one not nominated for Best Picture), and Rylance (Bridge of Spies is not winning Best Picture). Can we assume then that Bale, Hardy, or Ruffalo wins are more likely if their movie is less likely to take the big prize? Head spinning?

Another stat would be that 60 of the 125 nominees for Supporting Actor since 1990 did feature in Best Picture nominees. I can clearly state that this is misleading somewhat as the weight attached to nominees is not as great as that to which a Best Picture winner can be identified. A film’s sheer Oscar power can bring acting nominees to the table almost like an entourage. See Andy García (The Godfather Part III), James Cromwell (Babe), John C. Reilly (Chicago), and Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), for example. Working with Brad Pitt and Martin Scorsese didn’t hurt Jonah Hill either. I guess that knock-on effect can also shift the balance of an awards race, not just during the season, but in our minds on Oscar night itself as we watch the events unfold. Awards for Supporting acting are often early in the schedule. Wins for Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List), Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave), or Edward Norton (Birdman) may have told us to some extent what we already knew about what was going to win the big award. In other years, however, indicators of where Best Picture might go on the night may have altered slightly if, say, Ed Harris (Apollo 13), Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), or Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) had won. Think about how close the Best Picture race might have been in 2012, reflected perhaps in a possible split between Alan Arkin (Argo), Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook), or Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln), paving the way for a much more surprising winner.
With no Idris Elba, or Michael Shannon, or Jake Tremblay, we are left to guess who will win from three actors whose films are in a three-way tie for the Best Picture crown, and two actors considered the favorites. Is Stallone the sentimental choice? Is Rylance the real ‘best’ performance according to form? It is not a done deal, however you look at it, and nothing can emphasize this more than when Oscar night comes around and the name Bale, Hardy, or Ruffalo is read out – and somewhere in your mind you wonder if the race is changing yet again. Personally, with regards to Supporting Actor and Picture, I can’t shake off my own instincts as to where the spotlight will venture towards after all.
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4 responses to “Oscars Revision: Best Supporting Actor

  1. Interesting you cut off at 25 years, as one of the most unusual (although really not) wins was for Kevin Klein in A Fish Called Wanda, probably one of the best comedic performances of all time.

    Your analysis fully documents how the Academy will take chances with the choices for the supporting category that they wouldn't dream of allowing in lead.

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  2. I went with the most recent history to make it accessible, I actually started my thinking with the 80s, but it was just too much to fit into one piece. I had to chop this beast down. Though the same sort of themes apply in the 80s. I feel an era by era analysis could give too similar results. Posting the Supporting Actress ramble tomorrow.

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