Oscar Gold 2020 – Supporting Actress

Hello everyone and welcome to the annual Oscar Blitz! Over the next 25 days, I will be here to break down every single category of this year’s Academy Awards. For those new to the program, here’s how it works.

It is my singular mission to see every nominated film in every category, so that I can analyze both the merits of the nod and figure out the mindset of the relevant branches of the Academy. Once I take a look at each nominee, pros and cons (if applicable), I will then render my own personal ranking, with the top choice being what I would vote for if I actually had a say in the matter. This is the third year that I’ve done this fun little excursion on this blog, and hopefully the fourth year running that I see every nominee (I’m still trying to track down Poland’s Corpus Christi).

The last two years, I’ve started the proceedings with an easy category in the artistic or technical fields (Makeup & Hairstyling or Sound Editing), with the major categories reserved for Friday night prime slots to give you something big going into the weekend. This year I really can’t do that, as 1) with the accelerated Oscar calendar I can’t take an actual day or weekend off (literally starting now I have 26 days to get through 24 categories and predictions), and 2) I occasionally work a weekend job that requires me to get up at 2am, so I really can’t put all the heft in on a Friday night. I literally have to be in bed by 7pm if I’m to be able to function the next morning.

So with that in mind, let’s start off with one of the big categories, the first one announced yesterday by John Cho and Issa Rae – Best Supporting Actress. There are still scores of people complaining online that Jennifer Lopez wasn’t nominated. My fake hating has passed at this point. I’m sure she did an adequate job, but even if I had seen Hustlers, you’d be hard-pressed to make a case that she’s better than the five women represented here, three of which would have made my personal nominations (though only in two of the selected films), and that’s still ignoring great work from Annette Bening and Jodie Turner-Smith among others. The fact of the matter is that unlike the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which oversees the Golden Globes, the Academy’s Acting Branch watches a whole lot more films than the average HFPA member or casual viewer, and there are way more members making the choices. The HFPA is less than 100 people, and their primary motivation is celebrity status, not merit. I’d wager the Acting Branch’s membership is 10 times that number, and it’s made up of actual actors, not journalists, so they recognize their own craft. Suffice to say, I trust them a bit more to know what they’re looking for and what they’re talking about.

Do I agree with the five nominees? Not really. But does the lack of one person or another invalidate the list? No. These are our five, and it’s time to get over the “snubs” and the #OscarsSoWhite bullshit and just rate who we’ve got. Sorry to sound like such a downer, but I’d kill to even get a vote in this process, but some yahoo on Twitter thinks they know better every year, and it always ticks me off. I’m an amateur that at least tries to be credible because I see as much as I can of the nominees and a rather large sample size to pick from over the course of the year (134 in 2019). Some random teenager who plays “Waiting For Tonight” at their school dance knows jack and shit.

Okay, rant over. Time to blitz!

This year’s nominees for Best Supporting Actress are…

Kathy Bates – Richard Jewell

Alongside Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates represents the only good element of Richard Jewell, a jingoistic hack job from Clint Eastwood that tries to make the suspicions surrounding the title character regarding the 1996 Olympic Park bombing into some grand parallel of persecution for Donald Trump. It’s disappointing – almost disgusting – to see how far Eastwood has fallen into partisan bullshit.

That said, Bates’ performance is the most human of the entire ensemble. Jewell himself is portrayed as a chubby ideal of the American male because he’s bumbling but patriotic and loves guns. Rockwell, though fun, is a pastiche of every fast-talking lawyer in movies. Jon Hamm’s an alpha. Olivia Wilde’s a whore. You could almost make the Cabin in the Woods sacrifices from these archetypes.

But Bates is just a little bit more. You could write her off as just being a mother, the role that seemingly 75-90% of Oscar-nominated women fall into (with the rest being wife), but there is a degree of nuance and balance to her, straddling a fine line between doting love for her son and exasperated annoyance at his continuing idiocy. When the media circus forms, she’s the one to make the impassioned plea for sanity and privacy, which while calculated, is a decidedly human moment. I totally believe her embarrassment at having her vacuum cleaner and undergarments confiscated by investigators, because in this fantasy that Eastwood’s created, what possible purpose could taking them serve, other than to shame her into selling out her only child? I wouldn’t say this was a particularly powerful performance, but it has some depth to it, much more than anything else in the film.

Laura Dern – Marriage Story

I never quite know how to feel about this one. As divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw, she serves as the closest thing to a villain the film has, as she represents just about every horror story you’ve ever heard about money-grubbing lawyers. She’s a greedy, remorseless shrew who’ll win at any cost, but she certainly hopes that cost is high, because Adam Driver’s Charlie has to pay 30% of her legal fees no matter what happens. She doesn’t want an amicable settlement between Charlie and Nicole. She wants acrimony, and to make Charlie suffer. It’s her character that pushes the film very close to Kramer vs. Kramer territory, which makes me angry, because I hated that film’s sense of parental justice. As a character, Nora is infuriating, and she’d probably take glee in that knowledge.

At the same time, that’s what makes this a great performance. Aside from being completely against type for Dern, it’s rare that a woman gets to be just as big an asshole as a man, because you see men play character types like her all the time, and they often get some hardware for it.

There’s one great moment near the midway point of the film, where she calls Charlie to get him to respond to the summons, using a sickly sweet voice to inform him that if he doesn’t lawyer up and respond within 48 hours, he risks summary judgment and loses everything. It’s in this moment that she dons the mantle of every mansplaining douchebag we’ve seen throughout the years, and it’s deliciously annoying.

Scarlett Johansson – Jojo Rabbit

ScarJo is up in both Actress categories this year, a rare feat, especially since she somehow has not been nominated for an Oscar up until this point (she did have three Globe nominations before this and a BAFTA win for Lost in Translation), which ought to be a felony. Of her two nods, this is the one I like best. As Rosie, she too is playing a “mom,” but she’s still a fully-realized character. All at the same time she has to provide for Jojo, entertain him, and serve both parental roles. Meanwhile she flirts with the local military to keep Jojo organized, but also to deflect attention from the fact that she’s harboring a Jewish girl in her house (Thomasin McKenzie, playing the best friend of her late daughter) and working with a local resistance cell.

That’s a lot of figurative hats to wear, to say nothing of the literal ones we’ll cover when we get to Costume Design. But no matter what the script demands of her in a given moment, she rises to the occasion and plays it to the absolute hilt. She’s ebullient, somber, feisty, and nurturing all at the same time, sometimes within the same scene as she tries to do right by Jojo while also attempting to steer him away from his irrational hatred. And while it’s technically not part of her performance, the reveal of her character’s ultimate fate is one of the few legitimately shocking moments of the film.

Florence Pugh – Little Women

Florence Pugh first impressed me earlier in 2019 with her leading performance in Ari Aster’s modern horror masterpiece, Midsommar. Playing an insecure, traumatized student who slowly loses everything before she comes into her own and finds a new adoptive family, she carried every scene with a natural skill rarely seen.

She kind of plays the much more pleasant version of this same role as Amy March. She’s insecure, always in Jo’s shadow. Her teenage problems are treated with the weight of trauma, because for a girl Amy’s age, she’s never had to face any real adversity. And with every misadventure she has, her bond with her sisters only continues to strengthen, reinforcing that joyous familial rapport that Greta Gerwig so deftly displayed throughout the film.

But her best moments, oddly enough, are those she spends with Timothée Chalamet’s Laurie. It’s with him that we see Amy at her most confident and independent. It’s where she’s able to show off her talents and challenge herself and others in ways she otherwise doesn’t get a chance to do. And most importantly, when she asserts her own agency and puts herself on equal footing with Laurie – telling him unequivocally that she won’t be a second choice that he settles for – that fully brings the character into her own. Pugh’s performance radiates the entire way through.

Margot Robbie – Bombshell

If I had my druthers, I’d have nominated Margot Robbie in this category, but not for this role. As Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, she was clever, fun, and at times commanded the entire screen.

As the fictitious Kalya Pospisil, she’s a tool for the film’s villain, and sadly, not a very convincing one. I mentioned this in my review, but sometimes it’s hard to separate actor from role. In Hollywood, I saw Sharon Tate. In Bombshell, I saw Margot Robbie – sexually-liberated Margot Robbie who showed every inch of herself to us in The Wolf of Wall Street and heavily implied other stuff in Suicide Squad and The Big Short – pretending to be embarrassed at having to lift up her dress to the point where you could see an inch of her underwear. I’m sorry, I just don’t buy it. It’s not a sexism thing, either. After watching Shame, if I ever saw Michael Fassbender pretend to be uncomfortable about his body, I’d feel the same way.

Kayla’s character exists to have a real-time victim for Roger Ailes while Charlize Theron’s Megyn Kelly and Nicole Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson narrate their own stories, as all the other stuff we hear about (and briefly see), occur years in the film’s past. But because she’s a composite, none of it feels real. It’s one thing to have composite characters in stories such as these, but it’s another thing to make them so central to the scandal that the filmmakers had to put up the “some things were dramatized” disclaimer before the film even started. She’s meant to represent the live betrayal of a Fox News true believer, but you already had that in Carlson. To create this additional character, and to also have her be a closeted lesbian despite being a “Millennial Evangelical” is gratuitous, superfluous, and intellectually dishonest. Maybe Robbie could have worked better as a different Fox “News Bunny,” or maybe a lesser-known actress like Florence Pugh could have made the doe-eyed ingenue more believable. But we have history with Margot Robbie, great history, and to me this was just a mismatch. Also, the way the film bent over backwards to try to make it work didn’t sit right with me, and sadly, neither did Robbie’s performance.

My Rankings
1. Florence Pugh
2. Laura Dern
3. Scarlett Johansson
4. Kathy Bates
5. Margot Robbie

Next up: I lock myself in a windowless room and scrutinize every frame of video to make sure there are no errors whatsoever! Sorry, flashbacks to the late nights of my early career. It’s Film Editing!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Are you psyched for this year’s Blitz? Whose performance would you pick out of this group? Should Amy March get put in a sci-fi movie so she could be played by Florence Pew-pew-pew? Did I reach way too far for that joke? Let me know!

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