There’s no strict definition as to what constitutes a supporting performance versus a lead one. It’s basically an eye test. A film’s studio or production company may submit any number of actors in any number of categories, but when it comes right down to it, the Acting Branch divvies up the nominations however they collectively see fit. Sometimes this results in some curious choices, like Anthony Hopkins being nominated for Best Actor for The Silence of the Lambs despite only being on screen for 24 minutes, or splitting Brie Larson and Alicia Vikander into Lead and Supporting Actress categories even though both were leads to ensure both won Oscars without major competition.
For this year’s class of Best Supporting Actor nominees, there is no such confusion or ambiguity. All five men up for the award here are in roles that supplement the overall story and journey of the central character. In one case, the nominee has enough independence to command basically an entire subplot of the film, and he is certainly the largest male character of his movie, but even he still spends the vast majority of the time taking a thematic back seat to the main character.
A slight note before we get into the breakdown. I did record a YouTube video for this category’s analysis, but for the time being, it is blocked by copyright claims. Commentary falls under Fair Use guidelines, so I presume at some point you will be able to watch the video and the accompanying clips used from the nominated films. I’ll even post the video inside this post right now for easy reference going forward once it’s approved, which could take as much as 30 days.
Ain’t my tuxedo t-shirt cool?
So, since you’re likely unable to watch the 14 minutes that I’m sure would change your life right now, I’ll provide a rough transcript here in the traditional Blitz format. It is still my intent to create videos for some more of the major categories as the Blitz rolls on, but what I might end up doing is front-loading them so that the 30-day claim response period can pass before I attempt to post them on the day I cover the category. Fingers crossed. I mean, it’s not like I’m trying to monetize any of this. I’d need a hell of a lot more followers, views, and subscribers to make that happen.
This year’s nominees for Best Supporting Actor are…
Ciarán Hinds – Belfast
As the nameless “Pop,” one of four adult figures in Buddy’s life only referred to by their familial titles, Ciaran Hinds performs every scene with a gentle humor that’s delightfully infectious. In most of his screen time, he trades good-natured barbs with his wife, Granny, played by fellow nominee, Dame Judi Dench, and their chemistry throughout is charming as all get out.
What I really liked about Hinds’ performance in particular is just how much of a fun grandpa he is. In nearly every conversation he has with Buddy, he performs a lovely balancing act of making sure his grandson gets the life lessons he needs, while at the same time shielding him from the harshest truths about what’s going on with The Troubles. It’s a fine line that every parent and guardian has to walk, figuring out what a child can cope with in a given situation, and Hinds handles that job the best out of the entire stellar cast of the film.
My one issue isn’t so much with Hinds’ performance as it is with the overall characterization of Pop. That’s the fact that the resolution of his part of the story is telegraphed pretty much from the first moments. You can only fault Hinds himself insofar as he does nothing to try to dissuade the audience from anticipating his fate with ease. There are no potential misdirects or surprises as the plot unfolds. He simply knows his task and goes along with it. Still, it’s a tremendous turn and one of the reasons that “Belfast” is such a charming film overall, and one of my absolute favorites of 2021.
Troy Kotsur – CODA
You can argue that Kotsur’s inclusion here owes a lot to Paul Raci being nominated last year for his role in Sound of Metal. Raci, a CODA himself, brought a good amount of attention to how deaf people were portrayed in media, and opened the door for more representation for the deaf community. But to simply attribute his nomination to past precedent would be sell him monstrously short. For one thing, CODA was filmed in 2019, so it’s not possible for Sound of Metal to have influenced the casting. It may still have had an effect on how the Acting Branch voted during nominations, but it’s superficial at best.
And even if there is a direct connection, so what? Kotsur plays Frank Rossi to the absolute hilt. An unlikely combination of a blue-collar fisherman and an aging hippie, Frank is something of a contradiction, but he’s also absolutely hilarious. More than anything else, he’s a man of passion and realism, as evidenced by any number of scenes where he innocently embarrasses his daughter, tells bureaucrats to suck his dick, or expresses his continued wild romance with his wife, played by Marlee Matlin.
Not only does his role require an inordinate amount of skill in terms of physical speech and comedy, not to mention the fact that he’s interacting with both deaf and hearing actors and crew members, of all the nominees, I’d submit that his character is the most human of the bunch. While everyone involved here gave great performances, the other four nominees fall into fairly well-established archetypes as emotional and moral support characters or foils for the leads. Frank, on the other hand, while he is a parent, his role defies any kind of traditional pigeon-holing, and he is completely in his own element, at times starring in his own story where Ruby (Emilia Jones) ends up as his support. This isn’t scene-stealing, it’s the structure of the script. And Kotsur makes the most of every single moment.
Jesse Plemons – The Power of the Dog
I’ve been a fan of Plemons for years now, and I’m so glad he finally got his due. He should have been nominated long before this, if nothing else than for his role in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, where he and co-star Jessie Buckley both got snubbed but redeemed this year. That said, this is not his strongest role. That’s not his fault, merely the structure of the movie.
As George Burbank, Plemons has the rather thankless job of being the “nice guy,” the polar opposite of his brother, Phil. As such, his characterization is very narrow in terms of what he can do. He has to be the one to pick up the pieces when Phil insults and threatens others, occasionally offer proof of a latent goodness in Phil, and generally just be the decent human being that his brother vehemently refuses to be. This also translates into the physical side of the performance, as George is noticeably stiffer and more upright than the looser, more casual-looking Phil. The formality of George’s role in society manifests itself in his posture, something that Phil mocks him for on more than one occasion.
A lot of the charm in his performance is in relation to George’s eventual wife, Rose, played by Plemons’ real-life fiancée, Kirsten Dunst, nominated for Supporting Actress. There’s a natural chemistry in every scene they share, given their actual relationship, and it serves both of them well. It’s just not enough for large chunks of the movie.
I suppose, in a way, this is a textbook example of a supporting performance, because in nearly every scene he’s in, it’s Plemons’ job to prop up his co-stars. He tees up some of Phil’s more diabolical moments, occasionally asserting his own viewpoint and agency in the process. He comforts and loves Rose, allowing her to have some relief from Phil’s abuse. He encourages Peter in his endeavors, determined to give him a life better than he could have imagined before George entered the picture. It’s all very sweet stuff, just not all that expansive.
J.K. Simmons – Being the Ricardos
I mentioned in my review of Being the Ricardos that Aaron Sorkin has a habit of creating central characters who just have to be right in all things, no matter how much of an asshole it makes them. Sometimes this works, like in The Social Network, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and The Newsroom. Sometimes it doesn’t, like on Sports Night or in Molly’s Game.
But whichever way the lead ends up going, there’s always one trick that Sorkin uses to try to buy back some of their behavior and humanize them. That’s by including a character who is allowed to effectively call them on their bullshit. On The Newsroom, you mostly had that in the forms of Emily Mortimer and Sam Waterston (and occasionally Jane Fonda). In Chicago 7 it was Mark Rylance. In The Social Network it was a combination of Andrew Garfield for most of the film and Rashida Jones at the end.
Here, the role is filled by J.K. Simmons as I Love Lucy star William Frawley. Throughout most of the movie, he’s the only one who’s basically allowed to tell Nicole Kidman’s version of Lucille Ball that she’s got things wrong or to simply lay off of people once in a while. He keeps her in check, and thus, keeps her sane, becoming a father figure through low-level negging.
Apart from that, Simmons’ main job is to be the shit-talker. He channels J. Jonah Jameson and rattles off some fast-paced digs and insults whenever he gets the chance, earning the biggest laughs of the film, at least from where I sat. Because of that, Simmons’ performance was one of the few things about Being the Ricardos that I truly enjoyed, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the only one that deserved a nomination.
Kodi Smit-McPhee – The Power of the Dog
Previously best known for being Nightcrawler in the rebooted X-Men movies, Smit-McPhee gets a true breakout moment in The Power of the Dog by doing something that is nearly impossible, standing toe to toe with Benedict Cumberbatch.
It’s one thing to play a clever, meticulous, detail-oriented character like Peter Gordon, and as far as that goes, Smit-McPhee does quite an admirable job. In just about every scene he proves just how smart he is even without having to say anything if the moment doesn’t call for it. And nearly every time he’s put into an untenable situation, his actions always hint at a deeper wisdom and intelligence. He’s always just a bit more on top of things than anyone gives him credit.
But to then take all that and use it in a battle of wits against one of the absolute titans of the acting world is something else entirely. No matter how cruel or duplicitous Phil gets, Peter is there to meet him, accepting his challenges and making the mental notes necessary to serve the all-important comeuppance when the time is right. Even when he’s being belittled, his eyes show that somehow, just beneath the surface, he knows that has the upper hand. The fact that he’s eventually able to lull Phil into enough of a false sense of security to make him take on a combination mentor/admirer role would seem almost silly were it not for Smit-McPhee’s skill in delivering a believable character. It’s honestly amazing at times how well he shares the spotlight with Cumberbatch, asserting an equal agency without any of the theatrics that his antagonist uses in his repertoire of torments. Seriously, if this kid isn’t made a true star after this movie, then something is horribly wrong with the Hollywood system.
Again folks, sorry this couldn’t simply be in video form as planned, but hopefully you can see it, and if not get the gist of what I’m going for here. I’ll keep at it, copyright strikes be damned!
1) Troy Kotsur
2) Kodi Smit-McPhee
3) Ciarán Hinds
4) Jesse Plemons
5) J.K. Simmons
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up next, New Zealand shows once again through a camera lens that it has no right to be so pretty. It’s Cinematography!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What type of supporting performances do you like best? Do you feel there was a worthy performance left out of this year’s set? Can YouTube’s copyright claim algorithm go suck a dick along with Frank Rossi’s fishing regulators? Let me know!