There’s a lot of interesting history associated with this award. Most famously, Hattie McDaniel’s win for her role in Gone with the Wind made her the first black performer to take home an Oscar. We’ve also seen youth get rewarded, as both Tatum O’Neal and Anna Paquin won as children. And of course, we’ll always have the half-joke about the “controversy” (air quotes) of Marisa Tomei winning for My Cousin Vinny. Sorry Joan Plowright, and to a lesser extent, Rex Reed.
But one of the coolest bits of trivia with this category is just how diverse the winners’ group has become. The first time the category was held was in 1937, and since then there have been an astounding 79 different winners. Only Dianne Wiest and Shelley Winters have gotten a second victory. One of this year’s nominees has the chance to join them in the twofer club, but I find it utterly amazing that throughout the history of the Oscars, there have been so many different actresses recognized here. Contrast this with the Supporting Actor category, where there is a three-time winner in the form of Walter Brennan, and six who’ve won twice.
The other main contrast is with the diversity in roles. More often than not, the Best Actress category comes down to one of three basic parts. The winner is either a) an ingenue, b) a wife/mother, or c) an historical figure, sometimes a combination of these. Those pigeonholes are also represented in Supporting Actress, but you also get singers, career-oriented women, villains, royalty, comic relief, and more. Maybe that’s why there are so few repeat winners. This category actually allows an actress to stretch her range and be more than just a trope, though ironically, this year the nominees are three mothers, one spinster, and a wife. Go figure.
This year’s nominees for Best Supporting Actress are:
Mary J. Blige – Mudbound
As the matriarch of the Jackson family in the dual-racial tale of Mudbound, Blige carries the brunt of the emotional weight. Her family shares land with the white McAllan family, but due to the social constructs of 1940s Mississippi, and their own bad luck trying to work the land, the Jacksons become slaves in all but name. First Blige as Florence is a nanny to the McAllan children, then she has to tend to her husband Hap’s injuries and take over for his duties on the farm. And beyond that, she has to spend every day while her son Ronsel is away at war praying he’ll come back, then when he does, praying he doesn’t get himself killed by some racist.
There’s a pained grace to the entire performance, because she can’t just scream out like any normal person would under the strain. She has to be calm, reserved, and pick her battles with surgical precision, because one false move (or really just one move interpreted as false by hateful southerners), and her family becomes destitute or worse. The silent struggle she faces throughout the film is best represented when the Jacksons leave the farm, passing by Jamie and Henry as they’re burying Pappy and asking for help. She just stares at them through dark sunglasses, a cold symbol of the “choice” that Jamie was given as to how the Klan was going to mutilate her son. It’s haunting.
Allison Janney – I, Tonya
LaVona Golden is quite possibly the worst mother depicted on film this side of Joan Crawford. Throughout I, Tonya, she’s an ever-present, ball-busting antagonist. She’s abusive, verbally and physically. She seems to only exist to make others miserable. The chip on her shoulder from a lifetime of living on the bottom rung of society could power a supercomputer.
And yet, she’s also hilarious. She would be considered a caricature of every redneck woman in every trailer park if the real LaVona wasn’t exactly like this. Allison Janney took the interviews and news footage of the real woman and laid her bare before the world, and it made us laugh. Her horrid treatment of Tonya is abhorrent in a vacuum, but oddly comical on screen. Even her “Oscar moment” where she monologues about the “sacrifice” she made of pushing Tonya her entire life knowing she’d be hated is almost at the level of satirical undercutting of the actual prestige speech scenes that are used during the ceremony. It’s a testament to her skills as an actress that Janney could so perfectly embody this white trash dilettante and somehow make us smile. We might not actually feel any empathy for her. She may disturb our very notions of decency, but then she talks to a parrot on her shoulder, or breaks the fourth wall by commenting on how long it’s been since the movie’s checked in on her storyline, and we just guffaw.
Lesley Manville – Phantom Thread
I really don’t have much to say about this performance. Lesley Manville’s a fine actress, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that there’s not all that much to her performance in this particular film. Part of that is by design, so it’s not a knock against her. I’m just surprised at the nomination is all.
As Cyril Woodcock, sister to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds, she’s in charge of his business affairs, and keeping things in order. Her very first action in the film is observing his annoyance at his current girlfriend, then asking in private if she wants her to break up for him, which of course he does. God forbid he take any responsibility for himself. And that’s largely the problem. In a way, the nomination makes sense, as Cyril truly is a supporting role. All she does is support and prop him up, placate his behavioral antics, and clean up his messes. At the same time, she shows sympathy towards Alma (but never tries to stop her doing what she knows will upset Reynolds) and the other workers while commanding their obedience. It’s hard to tell whose side she’s on, if any. She clearly resents Reynolds’ personality and habits, but she never truly challenges him. So what does she gain from all this? Manville’s performance is fine, but there’s nothing spectacular about the character of Cyril in my eyes to warrant serious consideration here.
Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird
This is another overbearing mother dishing out heaping helpings of criticism and what would only charitably be called “tough love” to her daughter. The difference between Laurie Metcalf’s performance and Allison Janney’s is that Metcalf’s character has multiple dimensions. She has emotions, empathy, and an earnest motivation. You can tell that while she’s hard on Lady Bird, it comes from a place of love, from wanting her daughter to better her lot in life, particularly as the life she built with her husband is crumbling beneath them as the economy falters. We never truly know what LaVona Golden’s reasons are for pushing Tonya other than possibly sadism and spite. With Marion McPherson, she outright tells us, “I just want you to be the best version of yourself.”
There’s an honesty to Metcalf’s character that goes beyond the black-and-white realism of LaVona. Yes, she’s a real person who acted this way, but Marion is much more relatable. There’s a genuine pain and a sense of betrayal when Lady Bird reveals she’s going to college on the east coast. It’s not because it’s a disruption of her plan for Lady Bird to go to a state school and be close to home, or even that the state school was much more affordable. It’s the fact that her relationship with her daughter was that strained that Lady Bird didn’t trust her enough to tell her, that she feared her reaction that much, and that literally she was the only one who didn’t know. And yet, she’s still the mom. She’s always gonna be the mom, and that’s why the entire theatre wept as she pulled the car around at the airport one last time to see her daughter off. It’s a truly tremendous performance from beginning to end.
Octavia Spencer – The Shape of Water
As previously mentioned, only two actresses have gotten multiple wins in this category. Octavia Spencer could be the third. She won for The Help a few years ago, and was nominated last year for her role in Hidden Figures. If there’s anyone poised to get a second win and join this illustrious class, it’s Spencer.
This is both a plus and a minus for her. It’s a plus obviously because it’s in recognition of a great actress. On the minus side, however, I fear she’s being typecast as “sassy black woman sidekick.” That’s what she was in The Help. And that’s what she is in The Shape of Water. As Zelda Fuller, she’s the perfect comic foil for Sally Hawkins’ Elisa. One is mute, the other doesn’t stop talking. One is sensitive and shy, the other boisterous. They make one hell of a pair, and Zelda talks enough for the both of them. She’s also pretty funny to boot, particularly the way she reacts to Elisa using, shall we say “creative” sign language to explain her tryst with the Creature. Half the fun lies in the fact that Zelda just goes with it, no matter how absurd. This puts her in the Manville camp of truly being a supporting character. The one moment she gets to herself is standing up to Michael Shannon when he invades her home and her husband (who she’s joked about the entire film) does nothing to defend her or Elisa. It’s certainly a fun role in service of Elisa’s story. I just wish there was a little more to it, and that Spencer could get some juicier roles.
1) Laurie Metcalf
2) Allison Janney
3) Mary J. Blige
4) Octavia Spencer
5) Lesley Manville
Up next: Only a few categories left, and on Monday we’ll conclude the short subjects with Live Action Short!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Which bad ass mama do you prefer? Was I too hard on Lesley Manville? How would Octavia Spencer have mimed monster genitalia? Let me know!