There are two bits of history up for grabs at this year’s Oscars with regards to the Supporting Actress category. One is fairly straightforward, while the other requires a bit of help later in the ceremony. Only twice before have two actors won Oscars for playing the same character. The first is Don Vito Corleone. Marlon Brando won Best Actor for the original performance in The Godfather, and two years later, Robert De Niro won Supporting Actor for playing a younger version in flashbacks during The Godfather Part II. Decades later, the feat was equaled when Joaquin Phoenix won Best Actor for Joker, being the second Clown Prince of Crime to be so awarded since Heath Ledger posthumously won Supporting Actor in The Dark Knight.
If it happens, this will be the first time for a female role. The simpler path is for Ariana DeBose, nominated for the West Side Story remake as Anita. In the original film, Rita Moreno won Supporting Actress for that same part. So if DeBose wins, not only will it be the first time two women have won for the same character, but it will also be the first time two have won for the same role in different versions of the same film.
The more indirect one is for Jessie Buckley, nominated here for The Lost Daughter. She has a strong chance to win, as does Olivia Colman for Best Actress. We’ll get a slightly better idea of both women’s chances after the Screen Actors Guild Awards this weekend, but it’s a distinct possibility. This would make them the first women to win for the same character, but also for doing so within the same movie. This has been attempted twice before, both times involving Kate Winslet. She was nominated for Best Actress in Titanic for her performance as Rose Dewitt Bukater for the bulk of the film, with the late Gloria Stuart nominated for Supporting Actress for her older, present-day version of the character telling the story. Sadly, neither won, the only categories other than Makeup that Titanic lost amongst its record-tying 14 nominations. A few years later, Winslet was up again, this time for Supporting Actress as one side of the title role in Iris, with Dame Judi Dench being nominated for Best Actress. Again, both nominations went winless. Buckley and Colman have a chance to make the third time the charm, with the added fun that if it happens, Buckley will have to get past Dench to do it.
Now, of course, this consideration probably didn’t enter into the equation when the Acting Branch made these nominations. It might have been at the back of their heads, especially with regards to DeBose, but I’m guessing it wasn’t the primary impetus. The various branches do sometimes nominate with an agenda, but when they do, it’s not normally this subtle or germane to cinema history. It’s normally more political or social in nature, and we’ll get to that shortly.
Thankfully, having learned the lessons of last week’s attempt at including video in the analysis, I filmed my initial breakdown for this category two days ago, and by the time this is posted, the 48-hour embargo should be lifted. And honestly, if you want to rest your eyes and just watch my opinions, you can do so right here:
However, I don’t want to just leave this at whatever I could come up with in a matter of minutes. I want to give you guys something for taking the time to read this silly little blog. As such, I’ll expand on my thoughts here, and describe what I think is the most important moment that each actress had in their respective films. It won’t necessarily be their best scene, but the one I think gives the most appropriate distillation of their overall performance and importance to the movie. This will hopefully supplement the video, as well as fill in the gaps where I couldn’t find the footage I most wanted to use. Let’s hope this works.
This year’s nominees for Best Supporting Actress are…
Jessie Buckley – The Lost Daughter
I mention in the video how rare Buckley’s depiction of motherhood is, and it’s a real issue when it comes to the Academy. More often than not, the most celebrated and awarded roles for women are as wives and mothers, especially in the Supporting Actress category. Whereas Supporting Actor tends to open the doors for a wide variety of character types and non-traditional performances, Supporting Actress tends to be quite narrow. Since 2010, only Alicia Vikander and Laura Dern have won this category for roles that don’t center around their own motherhood, and in Dern’s case, she’s essentially halfway there because she played a divorce lawyer in Marriage Story, intent on making Adam Driver relinquish custody of his child, so she’s still playing someone motivated and dedicated through the filter of motherhood. Now, some of these characters aren’t great mothers – Melissa Leo in The Fighter and Allison Janney in I, Tonya stick out the most – and almost all have some quirky quality to them, but they’re all trying to do their best relative to their maternal roles.
Buckley’s time as Leda is the exact opposite. She’s not a good mother, a bad mother, or an offbeat mother. She wants no part of motherhood. She does well when she has to, and as I said in the video, she certainly loves her kids as people. But what makes Buckley’s performance so compelling is that she clearly doesn’t want to be a mother at all, to the point that she eventually abandons her family, choosing her career and her personal affairs over the stability of her home life, only to eventually, and subtly, regret her choices when she’s old enough to be played by Olivia Colman. It is exceedingly rare to see a character so clearly and assertively reclaim her own agency by admitting that parenthood is fine and kids are great, but it’s just not for her. It’s emotionally devastating at times, but it’s refreshingly honest.
Most Important Scene: Early in the film, we flash back to Buckley as Leda giving her older daughter one of her old dolls as a way to bond and calm her down. She explains to the child how much this doll means to her, how precious it is, and how important the moment is as she passes it on. Later, when she sees how carelessly her kid plays with it, and the absolute lack of concern, they fight over it, leading Leda to throw her childhood companion out the window, destroying it entirely rather than see it misused. It illustrates not only her lack of emotional maturity, but it’s a crystal clear example of why she doesn’t feel right as a parent. This callous act is churlish and completely lacking in empathy, something most parents struggle to avoid, especially in movies. It’s an informative moment, because the younger Leda steadfastly learns nothing, the first of several scenes that tell us why she can’t – and won’t – be there for her offspring, but crucially doing so without turning her into a villain.
Ariana DeBose – West Side Story
I say in the video that DeBose’s nomination feels like something of a token, and I want to make sure I’m absolutely clear on this point. I’m not talking in any sort of racial or representative terms. I’m talking purely about the Academy (specifically the Acting Branch), making a surface-level political point when it has nothing to do with the actual performance. DeBose identifies as queer, and along with the openly bisexual Kristen Stewart (up for Best Actress), their combined nominations make this the first time that two LGBTQ+ actresses have been nominated in the same year. That’s what I mean. DeBose was not nominated due to any perceived skill or quality in her performance. She’s a box check, just like so many others before her, so that the membership can make some perfunctory statement about inclusion and progressiveness, even though it’s superfluous, because the majority of Hollywood actors make up the grand choir to which they preach. This is the same situation we had a few years ago when Sam Smith won for Original Song. “The Writing’s On the Wall” is one of the worst Bond themes ever written, but the Academy wanted that moment of having an openly gay man (at the time of the nomination; they now identify as genderqueer) win an Oscar for the first time.
So having two members of the sexual spectrum be nominated is a good back pat for the branch, and I’m sure the marketing campaign made sure to highlight this as well. And again, the possibility of having the first female dual winning role likely excites some in the caucus. But DeBose’s sexuality has nothing to do with Anita as a character, possibly excepting that in this version of West Side Story, all of the Sharks and their girlfriends are depicted as super-horny compared to their previous iteration. Anita herself isn’t playing any particular field or hinting at attractions for people other than Bernardo, so the actress’ real-life orientation is irrelevant. But we have to come up with some kind of justification for the hype, because the performance itself doesn’t warrant a nomination. If nothing else, it feels like there had to be one obligatory acting nomination from this movie to save face for the over-the-top gushing the friendly press has given the film since it bought ad time inside last year’s broadcast. DeBose sings and dances well (she competed on So You Think You Can Dance when she was 19), but there’s nothing noteworthy in her acting that merits consideration, especially considering that her Oscar-winning predecessor, Rita Moreno, is right there outclassing the lot of them without breaking a sweat.
Most Important Scene: It’s probably her last one, when she goes to Doc’s and attempts to contact Tony, only to be aggressively accosted by the rest of the Jets, leading her to scream at them and lie about Maria being dead, which prompts Tony to distraughtly stumble out into the night unto his own demise. I pick this scene because a) it’s basically the only dramatic moment DeBose has throughout the movie, b) it illustrates my point about how effortlessly Moreno outshines her, and c) it’s the culmination of Spielberg’s virtue signaling changes to the story, as he has the Jets go completely overboard in their violence, capped off by Moreno explicitly calling them rapists, something Doc did not do in the original.
Judi Dench – Belfast
I describe Dench in the video as being the pragmatic side of her marriage to Pop (Ciarán Hinds), but it’s a bit more than that. She’s also quite wistful, as you see in the accompanying clip from the film, and that carries over throughout most of her scenes, even when she’s cheerful. There’s a lingering regret that she didn’t go to Leicester with Pop when he left for work, but she’s so deeply connected to her hometown that she can never go, not even when violence drives the rest of her family out, rendering her completely alone.
But that’s kind of the point. At the end of the film, Branagh gives a three-way dedication: “For the ones who stayed. For the ones who left. And for all the ones who were lost.” All three are represented in Buddy’s experience when it’s all said and done. Granny is the one who stayed, choosing to face whatever comes and bear it by herself, grieving the lost and the leaving in a manner that’s both tragic and admirable. It’s a small part of Dench’s role, the darker side of her general good humor throughout, but it’s one of the most crucial aspects of her performance.
Most Important Scene: In one of many absolutely delightful back-and-forth moments with Hinds and young Jude Hill as Buddy, the lad asks for advice on a school report he’s doing about the Moon Landing. He wants to do well so that he’ll get high marks and get his desk moved up next to his crush, Catherine. The joyous wit that the three share as guardians, advice-givers, active listeners, and all-around loving family members is the perfect microcosm of the film’s tone, and Dench plays it absolutely perfectly.
Kirsten Dunst – The Power of the Dog
This is the most multi-faceted performance of the field, and the only reason Dunst doesn’t get my vote is because those I put ahead of her command so much attention with their roles (one as a secondary lead, the other deftly stealing focus from the intended star). But that’s not to discount in the slightest how transformative her part is. She has to carry so much of the emotional burden of this film, partly due to the established (and indicted) gender norms of the era, but also because her character is so put upon. It would be easy to dismiss some of her more mawkish or melodramatic moments, but the time and care is taken to demonstrate just how much the people around her affect her emotional state.
And yet, there’s a power to Rose, an indefatigable resolve to not lose herself entirely. She draws a red line at any harm coming to her son, practically begging for more torment from Phil Burbank if it means that Peter is left alone. She could put Atlas to shame with how accustomed she is to the weight of the world. And even though she turns to the bottle for solace, there’s a clear calculus in her head where it’s a price she’s willing to pay to ensure that Phil’s abuses are only for her, rather than her flesh and blood.
Most Important Scene: The piano scene. The way Dunst and Cumberbatch play off one another through movement and eye contact without saying a word is pure cinematic gold. It is the first instance of Phil establishing his dominance, needling at her insecurities with the skill of an acupuncturist, all while Dunst gives her all to bend, but not break. It sets the primary dynamic for the rest of their respective arcs, and shows just the slightest hint of a cheeky meta rivalry between the actors themselves, with Dunst’s initial tenacity serving as a sly reminder that she knows what she’s doing. She fucked with Spider-Man for three movies, too, after all.
Aunjanue Ellis – King Richard
God this was such a surprisingly strong performance. This movie was almost tailor-made to finally get Will Smith an Oscar, and while there’s still a decent chance of that, the fact that Ellis used this rare platform to elevate herself is astounding. She’s been on the periphery of some noteworthy films (most notably Ray), but she made a moment for herself here, and did so without degrading anyone else’s time in the spotlight. She genuinely steals some scenes from Smith, not by overpowering him, but as I said in the video, by asserting herself as an equal partner, which is extremely impressive, especially in a film that doesn’t read like it was set up for that.
Her dedication as a mother of five is nothing short of spectacular. I know I harped on the Academy’s default to motherly roles getting nods, but here it’s truly earned. Brandy Price is mother to all, whereas Richard is biologically only father to two in this household. The casualness with which she dispenses with the police’s manufactured “concerns” about pushing the girls too hard speaks of a weariness that only someone who’s faced down as much bullshit as she has can muster. It’s that realness, that raw honesty, that makes this performance shine.
Most Important Scene: There’s one moment where she truly does overtake Smith’s ability, and that’s when she confronts him in the kitchen and demands his respect and inclusion in all decisions. She asserts that this is a partnership, not a dictatorship, and that she refuses to let him lose sight of the fact that Venus and Serena are still young women who need their father’s love and support as well as their training. It’s this moment that finally gets Richard to relent and let Venus compete again after a two-year hiatus. I’m dubious of the idea that things actually went down like that, but Ellis’ ability to carry that entire scene certainly makes me wish it had.
1) Jessie Buckley
2) Aunjanue Ellis
3) Kirsten Dunst
4) Judi Dench
5) Ariana DeBose
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, it’s not a rerun, just a category with the exact same set of nominees as one we’ve already covered. It’s Production Design!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Do you agree with these choices? Am I too hard on Ariana DeBose? Do you want to see two winners in the same role? Let me know!