By Jim Keller
Ah, the Best Supporting Actor and Actress races, such tenuous categories where one can know everything one week and nothing the next. Take last year’s Best Supporting Actress race for example—who could’ve guessed that frontrunner Oprah Winfrey would be snubbed on Oscar nomination morning? The New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), the National Board of Review (NBR), the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), and the American Film Institute (AFI) have announced their respective winners. Meanwhile, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Hollywood Foreign Press (Golden Globes) have announced their nominees. These announcements serve as the starting gun for the second leg of an unusually wide open Oscar race. Nowadays the race begins in August with the Telluride Film Festival, but I digress. By the time this article is published various other critics groups will announce their awards/nominees and a consensus will begin to take shape. As I said, anything can happen in these races and the third leg is yet to come. So while the would-be contenders are out in full-force kissing babies and making appearances, let’s examine the Best Supporting Actor and Actress races in this third of the three-part series.
THE NEWBIE: J.K. Simmons — Whiplash (director: Damien Chazelle):
FYC: In this film concerning a young drummer who enrolls in a high-caliber music conservatory, Simmons plays a relentless instructor who knows no bounds when it comes to realizing his student’s potential. While recognized by the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) for his part in the ensemble of Up in the Air in 2010, coming into the race Simmons was yet to be recognized by any film voting body for his individual work outside of a Chlotrudis nomination for Juno in 2008. That changed this year when both NYFCC and LAFCA bestowed their awards upon him and he earned SAG and Golden Globe nominations. These are likely the first of many accolades this season for Simmons as his role is as meaty as that of a leading one. He is the de facto frontrunner in this category for the time being.
THE ACTOR: Edward Norton — Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (director: Alejandro Iñárritu):
FYC: Norton really sinks his teeth into this role as the caustic actor who joins the Broadway play put on by the film’s lead, has-been actor Riggan (Michael Keaton). Unlike his biggest competitor, Simmons, Norton first curried favor with the Academy in 1997 for his supporting nomination for Primal Fear. He went on to earn a leading actor nomination two years later for American History X. The film is somewhat of a critic’s darling and it’s very likely a nomination for Norton will follow. Whether or not he can beat out Simmons remains to be seen, but he did win the NBR award this year and matched Simmons SAG and Golden Globe nominations.
THE GOOD GUY: Mark Ruffalo — Foxcatcher (director: Bennett Miller):
FYC: As the ill-fated David of Olympic wrestler brothers Schultz, who were victimized by paranoid schizophrenic and heir to the du Pont chemical fortune, John du Pont (Steve Carell), Ruffalo gives a well-wrought performance imbued with warmth and tenderness. Ruffalo earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Kids Are Alright in 2011 and has since made inroads in Hollywood for his humanitarian efforts. He also earned SAG and Golden Globe nominations this year. The film is dark, which the Academy tend to shy away from rewarding, but his landing a nomination wouldn’t be too far off-base.
THE FATHER: Ethan Hawke — Boyhood (director: Richard Linklater):
FYC: If you had asked me over the summer if I felt that Hawke had a real shot at securing a nomination for his performance in Linklater’s magnum opus, I would’ve said “No.” But in a less competitive year a film can receive such deafening praise that its inhabitants are taken along on the awards ride like a swift moving current. This is the case with Boyhood and Hawke. This isn’t to say that he isn’t good, it’s just that in a more competitive year where the slots fill up fast, it’s likely that Hawke would’ve been overlooked. He has been nominated for three Oscars: Best Supporting Actor in 2002 for Training Day, Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay in 2005 for Before Sunset and for the same award last year for Before Midnight. Hawke has shared a BFCA Critics’ Choice Louis XIII Genius Award win with Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater for their collaboration on the Before series. Like most of his competitors Hawke earned SAG and Golden Globe nominations this year. As the year comes to a close, his being nominated for Oscar is looking more like a closed subject.
THE COMEDIAN: Josh Brolin — Inherent Vice (director: Paul Thomas Anderson):
FYC: This adaptation, based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel, follows drug-fueled detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) through 1970s Los Angeles as he investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend. Brolin plays Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen and is said to give a hilarious turn.
He earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination in 2009 for Milk and won the NBR award for the same performance, but hasn’t figured into the awards race since then. It’s not uncommon for the Academy to reward a comedic supporting performance—see Christoph Waltz’s one-two punch wins for Inglourious Basterds in 2010 and Django Unchained in 2013 (where he portrayed essentially the same character). So if they feel like going in that direction Brolin is your man, but this is a longshot.
THE QUEEN BEE: Meryl Streep – Into the Woods (director: Rob Marshall):
FYC: This film adaptation of the Tony award-winning Broadway musical features a witch (Streep) who teaches important lessons to various Grimms’ Fairy Tales characters including Cinderella, and the Baker and his Wife. Streep has been discussed every year that FYC has existed. The actress has no fewer than 15 Oscar nominations under her belt (including Best Actress for last year’s August: Osage County) and three Oscar wins—two in lead (Sophie’s Choice in 1983 and The Iron Lady in 2011), and one in supporting (Kramer vs. Kramer in 1980). Any other actress playing this role likely wouldn’t yield serious Oscar consideration, but it’s Meryl-Freakin’-Streep, ‘nuff said. I initially had her slated in the Best Actress category in the July/August issue, but since then it has been announced that Streep will be campaigned for in the supporting category. Oh, and the march has begun with Streep securing SAG and Golden Globe nominations.
THE MOTHER: Patricia Arquette – Boyhood (director: Richard Linklater):
FYC: Much like Hawke (discussed in the Best Supporting Actor section above), early on I felt Arquette’s performance was but a taste of what was to come in this year’s Best Supporting Actress race. But now, those snippets of her captured over 12 years and pieced together to create Linklater’s crowning achievement have made her the frontrunner. The awards chances of such a unique vision could’ve gone either way—fortunately the critics have tipped the scale in its favor. Arquette is perhaps best known for her portrayal of suburban mom Alison Dubois on NBC’s Medium, a role that netted her a Lead Actress Emmy in 2005, back-to-back Best Actress Golden Globe nominations from 2006 to 2008, and Best Actress nominations from SAG in 2006, 2007, and 2010. Like her counterpart Simmons, at the start of the race she hadn’t yet earned recognition by any film voting body for her individual work, but that changed when the NYFCC gave her its award. Arquette has also secured both SAG and Golden Globe nominations.
THE BRAIN: Keira Knightley – The Imitation Game (director: Morten Tyldum):
FYC: In this come-from-behind WWII drama concerning Alan Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) plight to crack the Nazi’s Enigma code Knightley plays Turing’s friend, colleague, and one-time fiancée Joan Clarke. Knightley earned a Best Actress nomination for Pride & Prejudice in 2006, a pair of Golden Globe nominations: one for the same role and the other for Atonement in 2008. The latter film also earned her a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) nomination. Much like others in this category Knightley has received the requisite SAG and Golden Globe nominations for her performance. She should be able to crack the top five, but a win would be astonishing.
THE TART: Emma Stone – Birdman (director: Alejandro González Iñárritu):
FYC: In this tale of redemption and self-reinvention, Riggan (Michael Keaton) is an also-ran working on a Broadway play who once portrayed an iconic superhero and who battles his ego as he works to recover his family and career. Stone plays his fresh from rehab daughter who flirts with disaster, both literally and figuratively. Her star has been rising ever since she slayed audiences in the black comedy Easy A in 2010, for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination. Outside of that, coming into this race, she too, had yet to earn any real recognition. That has now changed as Stone has been nominated for Golden Globe and SAG awards for this performance. Her Oscar nomination is within reach and should follow.
THE BUSINESS WOMAN: Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year (director: J.C. Chandor):
FYC: The film is a thriller set in New York City during the winter of 1981, considered one of the most violent years in the city’s history. It focuses on an immigrant and his family who are trying to expand their business as violence and corruption close in and threaten to destroy all they have. In the three years that she has been in the public eye, Chastain has earned two nominations, one supporting for The Help in 2012 and the second in lead for Zero Dark Thirty—the latter which she narrowly lost to perpetual it-girl Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. Chastain picked up the NBR award and a Golden Globe nomination this year. It’s just a matter of time until one of her nominations becomes a win, this could be the role to do it. Similar to Streep I had her penciled in the Best Actress category in the July/August issue, but it has since been announced that Chastain will be campaigned for in the supporting category.
While critcs’ awards and high-profile nominations certainly boost one’s chances of being nominated for Oscar, they are not everything. Star power can go a long way in the Oscar race as can just showing up to “kiss babies.” Laura Dern has been in the conversation for her work in Wild, as has Kristen Stewart for portraying Dr. Alice Howland’s (Julianne Moore) daughter in Still Alice. Oh, and how about that
SAG nomination for Naomi Watts in St. Vincent?
There’s still a long road to go, consensus be damned.