By Jim Keller
With the fall film festivals behind us, we’re staring down the barrel of the Oscars’ gun and in a few short months, we’ll have our nominees. Still, it’s a long time until then on the campaign trail. So while the would-be contenders are out hustling and bustling, shaking the right hands and making the right appearances, let’s examine the Best Supporting Actor and Actresses races in the third installment of this three-part series.
The Transformer : Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club (director: Jean-Marc Vallée)
To portray Rayon a transgender, HIV positive, heroin-addicted woman who stands against the backdrop of the AIDS = Death 1980s, Leto lost 40 pounds and shed his rocker persona as the front man of rock group, 30 Seconds to Mars. Let’s be honest, Leto’s name isn’t the first that comes to mind when one thinks of an Academy Award winner, but he has imbued Rayon with enough country sweetness to counterbalance Matthew McConaughey’s caustic Ron Woodroof, resulting in a ray of light that shines clear through the film’s ill-ease. While Leto hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar, he has already earned critical acclaim for this role in the form of the Best Supporting Actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle and is widely regarded as the frontrunner in this race.
The Look alike: Tom Hanks – Saving Mr. Banks (director: John Lee Hancock)
You might recall that I covered this role in the September issue of Natural Selections, only I had originally penciled Hanks in as a lead and later noted that he would be supporting. Here is what I wrote about the role then:
This biographical drama centers on the production of the 1964 Walt Disney Studios film, Mary Poppins and in particular hones in on author P. L. Travers’ (Emma Thompson) two-week briefing in Los Angeles as she is persuaded by filmmaker, Walt Disney (Hanks), as he works to obtain the screen rights to her eponymous novel. Disney seems to have been a man larger than life, what with his legacy living on with no signs of ever stopping. Given the circumstances, it would take an actor of not only of the right temperament, but large enough to fill his shoes (and to some degree, those of a mouse), enter Hanks. He first caught Oscar attention with Big in 1989 earning him a Best Actor nomination, which this writer was surprised to learn. Five years later, Hanks accepted his first Best Actor win for Philadelphia and the next year, another for Forrest Gump. He was then nominated again for Best Actor for Saving Private Ryan in 1999 and finally for his leading role in Cast Away in 2001—a role somewhat similar to that Redford portrays this year. It’s important to look at the diversity of Hanks’ roles and portraying such a grand, American icon as Disney, could be just the ticket to a third golden statuette. Update: If so, it won’t be for lead as the studio announced, after this writer completed this segment, that Hanks’s role is supporting.
Since then, the film has been shown to critics, several of whom have found Hanks performance to be sufficient, but nothing special. While this may be the case, it isn’t likely that Hanks will take home the Oscar for his leading role in Captain Phillips and so, I submit to you that this is where he may be rewarded. Despite not having a powerhouse performance in the film, he is Tom Hanks and he is loved by the Academy.
The Scalawag: Michael Fassbender – Twelve Years a Slave (director: Steve McQueen)
Last year in this column, I discussed Leonardo DiCaprio’s chances of Oscar glory for his role as brutal Mississippi plantation owner, Calvin Candie, in Django Unchained. In this context I explained that it’s very difficult for one to secure a nomination for portraying an unlikeable person, and in his case, a bigot, racist, slave owner. It is largely due to this conviction that I, unlike many of the critics, believe that Fassbender—who is not campaigning—will be overlooked for his role as brutal Louisiana plantation owner, Edwin Epps. This is also because he has yet to earn a shred of Academy recognition, despite numerous strong performances where he has displayed a great deal of range, see 2011’s Shame.
The Renaissance Man: Matthew McConaughey – The Wolf of Wall Street (director: Martin Scorsese)
In a year ripe with slam-dunk performances, it’s inevitable that someone is going to get hurt. It seems fair to say then, that those with more than one egg in the basket could lose in one category and win in another, thereby enduring a softer blow: enter McConaughey. As mentioned previously in this column, this is a man who has experienced a career resurgence beginning with 2011’s Killer Joe, including 2012’s Mud and Magic Mike, and continuing with this year’s aforementioned Dallas Buyers Club. He has caught the critics’ attention every step of the way and seems to be circling around Oscar with these performances. With his role in Scorsese’s adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s memoir, he once again has two chances to win, but with only one month until nominations voting ends, scarcely anyone has seen the film, which covers everything from Wall Street corruption to drug addiction and mob infiltration. So we have to look at what we know: the film’s trailer, which suggests McConaughey’s chest-thumping colleague of DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, is an interesting, enigmatic character and if given enough screen-time, Academy catnip. The film will be released in December, so by the time you read this, we will have a pretty good idea if McConaughey’s back pocket ace paid off.
The Newcomer: Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips (director: Paul Greengrass)
In this film recount of the true story of the eponymous captain and his crew who navigated the water off the Somali coast aboard the MV Maersk Alabama, Abdi portrays another, lesser known captain: Muse. Picked from a group, which included his friends (who also appear in the film), the Somali-transplant-turned-actor more than holds his own against industry heavy-weight, Tom Hanks (Phillips), as the desperate Somali pirate leader—not an easy feat by any stretch. It is Abdi’s personification of Muse that is largely responsible for the film’s great depth and that enables it from becoming a simple soup to nuts thriller. With not a single credit to his name, don’t look for Abdi’s name come Oscar night, instead, relish in his ability to land a nomination after facing off against Hanks indomitable performance, because his nomination should be a sure thing.
The Icon: Oprah Winfrey – Lee Daniels’ The Butler (director: Lee Daniels)
While the film traces our nation’s history through the eyes and ears of White House butler, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) à la Forrest Gump, Winfrey plays the boozy, outspoken woman behind the man and her performance— wrought from the same chops that earned her a nomination for 1985’s The Color Purple—nearly eclipses Whitaker’s. In the film, Winfrey effortlessly eases into her first major motion picture role since 1998’s Beloved, which spells trouble for her biggest competition, newcomer, Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, see below). While Winfrey’s long list of credits includes winning twelve Daytime Emmy Awards and a Producer’s Guild Award, outside of her honorary Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award Oscar, presented last year, it doesn’t include Academy Award winner, but you can nearly bet that will change come March 2nd when the Award winners are announced.
The Patsy: Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave (director: Steve McQueen)
The film, based on Solomon Northrup’s 1853 autobiography, tells of Northrup’s tragic kidnapping in Washington, D.C. in 1841 where, despite being born free, he was forced into slavery in Louisiana until his rescue twelve years later. Before his life is restored, Northrup encounters plantation slave Patsey (Nyong’o), who has engineered a way to keep her misery to a minimum by cozying up to her master (Fassbender). In this role, Nyong’o delivers a range of emotion and eats up every last bit of scenery she appears in. It is impossible to turn away from the sorrow she engenders when her master quits her to appease his wife (Sarah Paulson). This category loves newcomers (see Octavia Spencer’s win for 2011’s The Help or Jacki Weaver’s nomination for 2010’s Animal Kingdom), so Nyong’o’s nomination is likely secure and a win is not too far off-base if Winfrey should falter.
The Coot: June Squibb – Nebraska (director: Alexander Payne)
This black and white film centers on an aging boozehound and his son who trek from Montana to Nebraska to chase down a million dollar sweepstakes prize. But Squibb’s Kate Grant is the dog nipping at their heels along the way as the hilarious, begrudging wife to Bruce Dern’s befuddled Woody Grant. Each scene she’s in features a cutting remark from her that will leave you gasping for air—especially if you have poorly timed a sip from your drink. Squibb has been a character actor for 23 years and has never come remotely near a nomination. The film is on-track for a Best Picture nomination as well as a nomination for Dern in a leading role, if both of these things happen, look for Squibb to land her own nomination, but a win is unlikely.
The Lynchpin: Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle (director: David O. Russell)
These days, the Oscars just aren’t complete without an O. Russell film, and now, it seems, without Lawrence. As I predicted in the Crystal Ball edition of FYC, way back in March, we can look for this film—which features crime partners (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) forced to collaborate with out of control federal agent (Bradley Cooper) in an FBI sting in the 1970s—to make a big splash. But as the curtain goes up on one of the year’s most-anticipated films, critics are saying that it isn’t Amy Adams—despite her crazy-sexy-cool appearance in the trailer—but Lawrence’s trashy, foul-mouthed wife of Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld that steals the show. Lawrence burst onto the scene with 2010’s Winter’s Bone, proving a force and earning a Best Actress nomination. She then went on to land the lead in the film franchise of Suzanne Collins’ young adult series The Hunger Games, the first of the series, which minted her a star in 2012, and to win the Best Actress Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook (also directed by O. Russell) in the same year. I have to remind you, this is all speculation, since only a handful of critics have seen the film, but given her star power, it isn’t too off-base to say that Lawrence might have something to say about this Winfrey v. Nyong’o bout. Moments after I finalized this section, Lawrence won the Best Supporting Actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle, it looks like she just landed her first punch after all. Boom!
The Pretty Woman: Julia Roberts – August: Osage County (director: John Wells)
In this Pulitzer Prize -and Tony Award- winning play from Tracy Letts, a family overcomes their differences when their alcoholic patriarch goes missing. Roberts’ Barbara Weston is the daughter of Streep’s matriarch, Violet Weston—a pill-popping cancer patient of the devilish kind. While consensus has lead to Meryl Streep being touted as lead, when the film emerged this summer there was some discussion of Roberts campaigning as lead and Streep as supporting. The initial idea has been dispelled and now Roberts finds herself in the thick of the Best Supporting Actress race, while Streep will likely earn her 15th Best Actress nomination. Roberts’ track record with the Academy is a comparatively short one. She was first nominated for Best Supporting Actress for 1989’s Steel Magnolias and then went on to earn nominations for her leading roles in 1990’s Pretty Woman and 2000’s Erin Brokovich, respectively—the latter of which netted her an Oscar. A win isn’t likely for Roberts, but a nomination isn’t out of the cards.
There’s plenty more to chew on as we digest our holiday meals in preparation for January, which will yield us our nominees and eventual winners. In the case of the men, I say it again, someone is going to get hurt—the only question is, can that person fall back on the pillow of a second nomination or not. For the women, it’s a question of whether or not a young woman can muscle her way into what appeared to be a contest to be settled between two very different ladies: an icon and a newcomer. For now, it’s looking like that may be a three-way race.