In recent history, the Supporting Actress category has unfortunately been treated as a foregone conclusion. Part of it is a side effect of trying to make the Best Actress category less competitive (see: Vikander, Alicia), and part of it is recognizing great actresses who you’d never see on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine. It’s become a de facto home for any aging actress not named Streep, Mirren, or Dench, as well as the only place where minority actresses can get their due, sigh, with recent wins by Viola Davis, Mo’Nique, Lupita Nyong’o, and Octavia Spencer.
The other side of the problem is that this is one of the earliest categories to be set in stone by Awards Season buzz, marketing hype, and lower circuit ceremonies. And a lot of that comes from character actresses simply playing against type. Was Alison Janney’s performance in I, Tonya good? Certainly. She was sharp, funny, and she had a hair and makeup job that made her basically unrecognizable. But it seemed more important that the Alison Janney who normally played upper class or professional women was playing a white trash character than it did any sort of nuance and skill in the performance. Laurie Metcalf basically accomplished the same goal in Lady Bird, but since she already played the working class friend for over a decade on Roseanne, voters didn’t see it for the brilliant piece of work it was. They just saw Jackie Harris as a middle-aged mom in Sacramento.
Thankfully this year, there seems to be a bit of competition, thanks to some interesting diversity in the nominations and the winning results thus far. I have an idea as to who’s going to win, but for the first time in years the result is sort of up in the air.
This year’s nominees for Best Supporting Actress are:
Amy Adams – Vice
We always have to look out for the “Lifetime Achievement” Oscar, and if there’s going to be one for this category, it’s Amy Adams. I’ve been a fan of hers for years, and she has a body of work that would certainly be worthy of the Academy’s highest honor. I just don’t think she deserves it here.
As Lynne Cheney, Adams is equally up to the Machiavellian task as Christian Bale is as Dick, but her performance is more low key, and comes in smaller doses. If there’s a flaw to Adam McKay’s recent prestige films, it’s that there really isn’t much for women to do. By necessity, he had to make room for Lynne and Liz Cheney’s power-hungry ways at the expense of Mary. He’s really good at writing and directing men, but for women there’s still room to improve. And when you have such a committed, over-the-top lead like Christian Bale, it’s hard for someone even as good as Amy Adams to stand out. If you don’t believe me, watch American Hustle.
Marina de Tavira – Roma
I’ll be honest, I had to look up who Marina de Tavira was in the movie. Aside from Yalitza Aparicio as the lead, Cleo, there are two main female characters, the family matriarch Sofia and the grandmother Teresa. Marina de Tavira is the former, an underappreciated upper-class housewife who relies on Cleo to keep her sane and increasingly accepts her as a member of the family, mostly out of need for emotional support and skill in raising the children.
If you thought Aparicio’s nomination was unexpected, then this one really comes out of nowhere. While Sofia was a sympathetic character, de Tavira’s performance not only wasn’t superlative, it left almost no impression whatsoever. She literally has no other major nominations, and while I usually do research into nominees and their past works, I’ve never had to actually remind myself who someone was. The marketing campaign was strong for Roma, but this is beyond overkill. When other circuit nominees like Emily Blunt and Claire Foy are left out, you’ve got to have a reason, and “Man, we really want Alfonso Cuarón to think we loved his movie” isn’t good enough.
Regina King – If Beale Street Could Talk
The entire cast of this film is superb. It’s probably the best acted film of the entire year. Somehow, only Regina King as Tish’s endlessly supportive mother got nominated. It’s a worthy role, and a spotlight for a uniquely talented actress. King won the Golden Globe for Supporting Actress, which is not separated by genre like the other major film awards, and she’s up for the Independent Spirit award. At the same time, she wasn’t even nominated for SAG or BAFTA.
As Sharon Rivers, King plays an ideal supporting role. Not only is she the emotional support to the main pair, but she also gets her own fully realized subplot, as she raises money and travels to Puerto Rico to find the woman who falsely accused Tish’s fiancee Fonny of rape and get her to recant her claim. There’s genuine emotion in that side story, as Sharon needs the truth to come out while still remaining sympathetic to the woman’s plight, as it becomes clearer and clearer that she was in fact assaulted, but she fingered Fonny at the request of crooked, racists cops. King handles the heaviest of the film’s material with ease and grace.
Emma Stone – The Favourite
Our final two nominees represent the same film. This is the first time we’ve had two Supporting Actress nominees from the same movie since Amy Adams and Viola Davis were both up for Doubt 10 years ago. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz both gave brilliant performances in their rivalry with each other, but it’s in their service – such as it is – to Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne, where they arguably shine the brightest.
For Emma Stone, it might have been an easier task, as her character is always in the ascendancy. She starts from nothing and builds her way up into Anne’s favor (and her bed) at Weisz’s expense. It’s the more typical angle to start at the bottom and make one’s way to the top. Where Stone separates herself is in her ability to manipulate. She weasels her way in, plays everyone like a harp, and before you know it, she’s conducting the whole orchestra. But victory is short-lived, as she still has to pay the piper and please Anne on command no matter how high her horse gets. Stone plays the highs and lows to the hilt, and if she wins here, she’d be only the sixth actress to win both Lead and Supporting honors (and the fourth to get the Supporting award second).
Rachel Weisz – The Favourite
Of the two supporting performances in Yorgos Lanthimos’ erotic laugh riot, I’d argue Rachel Weisz had the harder job. Emma Stone, being a leading lady, naturally draws the sympathy of the audience, and as such people root for her to succeed. Weisz, on the other hand, was already landed in the aristocracy, and was established as being skilled in manipulating Anne to bend to her political whims.
With the arrival of Abigail, Weisz as Sarah Churchill has to juggle competing forces, both of whom are capable of ending her privileged existence. Obviously, she can’t hold out forever, so watching her inevitable collapse is incredibly compelling. She’s the strongest character in the film, asserting her power in almost phallic terms as she puts Abigail in her place while pigeon shooting. And she’s strong even in defeat, taking over a brothel and anticipating her own exile. She’s the most versatile of the characters, and that’s saying something for such a rich film.
* * * * *
1) Regina King
2) Rachel Weisz
3) Emma Stone
4) Amy Adams
5) Marina de Tavira
Next up: A bunch of shiny stuff on the screen! SHINY! It’s Visual Effects! SHINY!!!!!!!!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Which performance did you like best? Do you prefer Emma or Rachel? Am I being too hard on Roma? Let me know!