Oscars Revision: Best Supporting Actress

Quirky. Loud. Funny. Leap off the screen. Eccentric. Those kind of bewitching performances have had a tendency to rule in the Best Supporting Actress category, the last 25 years tells us, more so than the male counterparts. Does this reflect the industry roles available to women? Is it more to do with actresses shining in this more colorful roles? I’m not really here to debate that right now, but some of the Best Supporting Actress winners have been bittersweet or comic (or both) relief from the sometimes relentless barrage of drama. No doubt that the dramatic roles nominated in this time outnumber those with a comedic edge, but given the numbers, the brighter, exuberant roles have a great record. And make for great viewing, both on film and Oscar history.

The 1990s kicked off with this kind of theme, Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost), Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King), and Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny) earning victories. Although in subject and delivery they were not all sunshine, they were certainly not wholly dramatic roles either, especially compared to those that were nominated alongside them. The Woody Allen eccentric double of Dianne Wiest (Bullets over Broadway), and Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite) would also prevail in consecutive years later that decade – the former a sure-thing, while the latter was something of a surprise. The surprise element has been quite a common occurrence in the Supporting Actress field. And they come in various shapes and sizes, whether contributing to the tally of the eventual Best Picture winner like Juliette Binoche (The English Patient), or Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love), or a part of a movie grabbing what it can on its way to Best Picture bridesmaid status, like Anna Paquin (The Piano), or Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton).
The awards race, though, has changed significantly over the years, with expensive campaigns and the prolific internet season coverage, nowadays it seems all so constructed to an extent, we follow the directional echoes of form and statistics. Who knows how long it will be before we see an unprecedented victory from a Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock) again. Those unexpected Oscar wins carry their own back-stories of course, these were not merely stabs in the dark – ask Pete Hammond. Though some, like the spirited Tomei, might remain a mystery to many, even to the extent that many have said perhaps Jack Palance had read out the wrong name when opening the envelope. He sure didn’t. Dench’s win perhaps owed more to her losing for Mrs. Brown a year earlier, some inner conflict of guilt, as well as a solid showing for the film.


Also previously nominated in roles screamed as potential winners, Renée Zellweger (Cold Mountain), and Cate Blanchett (The Aviator), may well have benefited from the losses for Chicago and Elizabeth respectively. Don’t believe that thought process? Ask the Academy about Ron Howard. As for Binoche, who herself was “so amazed” when she took to the stage, this has to sit in the history books outside of the ‘surprise’ category. The best thing in The English Patient surely, and another successful venture outside of her native tongue, the French actress had a solid body of work behind her – and exceptional work to come. Not to mention this was really a lead role – let’s compare the screen time to that of co-star Kristen Scott Thomas, or even the eventual Best Actress winner Frances McDormand (Fargo). This is a very relevant / intriguing / sore subject this year with 3 of the 5 nominees for Supporting Actress. It has not always warranted the label ‘category fraud’, the concept of applying the right role to the right acting category has often been an issue with Academy voters. Do we go by screen time? Prominence of the character? Whether or not they form a part of the main story or are secondary? Discuss.
Look at Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener), and Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables), seemingly crucial roles in their movies, but the stories dictated they were only featured in specific chunks – almost a true definition of Support. On the flip side, I know Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), and Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago), were certainly at one time or another touted and genuinely considered as leads in their movies. They won for Supporting, and might I add very accomplished, solid wins, much more deserving here than their respective movies winning Best Picture. The Academy appeared to ignore campaigning when Kate Winslet (The Reader) famously competed with herself (with the more deserving Revolutionary Road) to shift categories to Lead – and win. Paving the way for another Woody Allen directed Supporting Actress Oscar, this time Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Sometimes the Oscar process is more indulging than the Oscar race.

More often or not, though, as the Oscarologist predictions and influence on the awards season followers is far more accessible, we are getting an assertive feel for knowing the winners weeks before the ceremony – see Angelina Jolie (Girl, Interrupted), Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls), Octavia Spencer (The Help), and Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), to name but four. Where’s the anticipation gone? Winners like Mo’Nique (Precious), and Melissa Leo (The Fighter), were also fairly easy to call, but there was a lingering doubt for both heading towards the Oscars due to their respective, late, awards season controversies concerning their contrasting, public views on such Oscar-driven publicity.
Refreshingly, and thankfully, the Supporting races can be the most exciting, in that we can’t always follow such a simple path to who will get the gold. We often just don’t know. The Gloria Stuart (Titanic) and eventual winner Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential) head-to-head was more enticing than people remember. And more recently Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) scraped over the finish line, defeating recent Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle). I love the competitive buzz of the awards race, the not knowing, the last-minute guessing. Even when I am eventually wrong. I remember trying to figure out who win between Vanessa Redgrave (Howards End), and Miranda Richardson (Damage), or never really making up my mind about if I wanted Virginia Madsen (Sideways) or Natalie Portman (Closer) to win. The Supporting Actress contest is one of the best, plain and simple, one I, and I know others too, really get behind with whole-hearted passion. Roles worth relishing, and performances tough to ignore. So hard to predict, we are seldom left with disappointment, shock, jubilation, depending on where you stand. Look at the likes of Winona Ryder (The Age of Innocence), Kate Winslet (Sense and Sensibility), Kate Hudson (Almost Famous), and Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) – somehow recorded in the history books as non-winners.

The current crop, then. Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight) is the only nominee who really provides any light relief, but largely due to Tarantino’s controversial, but throw-away, subject matter and dialogue. A win here would fit the classic, quirky, non-dramatic model of Supporting Actress winners, while it not exactly has you rolling in the aisles. The three big serious contenders, then, are very much drama-driven lead performances. Rooney Mara (Carol) has been in contention since her Best Actress win in Cannes, and fair to say her loss for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but more directly, the omission of Carol for some of the bigger categories, could influence votes for her. Previous winner, and current late-surger, Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs) also has that film-ignored angle, as well a true likability factor, not to mention playing the real person, and having an incredible amount of dialogue to chew up. Oh yeah, and she’s great in it. The real favorite though appears to be Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), no secret announcing that this is not only one of the finest performances of 2015, but also a vote for Vikander could well be votes for the stunning array of roles this year, including Testament of Youth and Ex Machina. In all honesty, though, if the Academy voters do judge her on the disappointingly received The Danish Girl alone then this may well be her Achilles heel.

Quickly looking at stats (and forgive my miscounts), of the 125 nominees for Supporting Actress since 1990, as much as nearly half of them were for movies with actual Best Picture nominations. And roughly 1 in 5 of those movies with Supporting Actress nods went on to take the big prize. Not an amazing stat in recent years given the increase in Picture nominees. Of the 25 last Supporting Actress winners, then, 15 of them featured in Best Picture nominees – so that must carry some weight surely. As for the winners, 5 of those actresses won for eventual Best Picture winners. So this year, then, there is only Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) who can represent a Best Picture nominee, whether a winner or a loser. This would also be the most surprising winner of the 5 nominees, even if the only one who can improve on that Best Picture statistic. McAdams’ inclusion in Supporting Actress though, whether she wins or not, for me says more about the popularity of the film with the Academy. Jus’ sayin’.
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