Oscar Blitz 2023 – Supporting Actress

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and anyone who’s offended that I didn’t mention whatever gender terminology they align with, welcome one and all to the 2023 Oscar Blitz! The films have played, the grievances have been aired, and it’s time to finally get down to business and break down this year’s field for the Academy Awards!

For those unfamiliar with the process, here’s how it works. Every weekday from now until March 8th, I will be analyzing all of the nominees in each of the respective Oscar categories, because unlike a good number of Academy voters and campaigners, I actually take the time to watch all of the contenders. I’ll weigh the pros and cons of each candidate before ranking them based on my personal preference. In essence, this is my imaginary Oscar ballot, offering my take on who or what should be given cinema’s highest honor. Once that’s done, I will open it up to all of you reading here on the blog and watching the videos on my YouTube channel with a public poll. Don’t hesitate to make your voice heard, especially in the comments section.

The next five weeks are going to be a marathon, but it’s a labor of love. This is my March Madness a month early, so let’s get to it!

We begin this year’s program with one of the “major” categories, Best Supporting Actress. In something of a departure from most years, there were a good number of really strong performances in really strong roles for female performers, to the point that for once it’s the men who appeared to struggle to fill their respective fields with showcase films that don’t warrant consideration elsewhere.

More importantly, Supporting Actress is the sole acting contest this year where there wasn’t a surprise 11th hour independent nominee. The other three all shocked the film world when nominations were announced, as each had one hopeful who hadn’t been up for hardware in any other top tier ceremony apart from the Independent Spirit Awards. That doesn’t mean there aren’t indie actresses here as well, just that for them, the prestige was already assured and recognized well in advance. This year also marks a unique bit of history, in that this is the first time since 1972 where both Supporting categories have two nominees from the same film.

It remains to be seen just how competitive this category will be, as Awards Season results are only starting to trickle in as we start this journey, but no matter who wins, I can’t imagine there will be any argument that it wasn’t well-earned. This is an incredibly strong contest, where the difference between first and fifth for me is a matter of degrees and decimal points, as opposed to other years where there’s at least one obvious outlier or entrant who’s there to serve some kind of larger agenda. I can’t think of a better way to start this Blitz!

This year’s nominees for Best Supporting Actress are…

Angela Bassett – Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

This is Bassett’s second nomination after her turn in What’s Love Got to Do with It nearly 30 years ago, and the first acting nomination ever for a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Part of that is the fact that the MCU can really turn up the quality when it wants to (the first Black Panther film netting multiple victories and a Best Picture nomination four years ago), but an even more significant factor is that Wakanda Forever is that rare entry in the franchise that really features a supporting player outside the main hero and villain (and occasionally the love interest) as a fully fleshed-out character.

Queen Ramonda was visible in the last movie, and even had a decent line or two (“SHOW THEM WHO YOU ARE!”), but in the tragic aftermath of Chadwick Boseman’s death, the best choice Ryan Coogler could have made with this sequel was to put Ramonda front and center as the reluctant but steadfast head of state. And Bassett makes the most of every moment she has in the spotlight.

She’s stern, assertive, and commands attention with a grace and dignity that belies her inner strength in the midst of incredible grief. When she pleads, “Have I not given everything?” you feel it viscerally, because she’s been forced to hold the line in a position she was never meant to have, both by tradition and circumstance. She’s lost her husband and her son in the span of just a few years, and as she tries to carry on, she’s beset on all sides by world powers bent on exploiting her country’s natural resources and the new existential threat in the form of Namor.

There’s basically no downside to her performance. Any perceived flaws fall entirely on the contrivances of the plot, as Ramonda’s screen time is ended in pretty much textbook screenwriting fashion. It’s an unfortunate, abrupt, and all too predictable turn of events, but that shouldn’t dilute just how powerful her presence is in what could have been a complete throwaway appearance.

Hong Chau – The Whale

It was a very good year for Hong Chau in 2022, as she turned in two fantastic performances. The first was in the delightfully dark The Menu, and the other is here. It’s a testament to her skill to see just how high she’s climbed in such a short space of time since her breakthrough in Downsizing five years ago.

As Charlie’s only friend, Liz is the true tragic figure of The Whale for me, as she’s the one who really does the suffering throughout the story. She’s disowned by her family for siding with her gay brother over their ultraconservative church. She has to cope with that brother’s death due to his own self-loathing. And now, in the meat of the story, she has to sit idly by and watch Charlie, the last link she has to any of that familial love, slowly kill himself. To make matters worse, her ethics as a nurse and her sense of empathy as a person compels her to keep trying in vain to save Charlie’s life, either by resuscitating him when his heart rate spikes or by begging him to get the medical care he needs to survive.

She’s the only source of companionship and comfort that Charlie has, and yet it’s destroying her to keep it up. There’s a palpable sense of guilt and exasperation where it feels like she’s blaming herself for Charlie’s gradual suicide, as if she feels she’s enabling him by her mere presence. With every drag of a cigarette and withering interrogation, you can’t help but marvel at how she’s able to stop herself from completely breaking down.

A lot was made of Brendan Fraser’s performance in the lead role, but for my money, Chau upstaged him at just about every turn. Liz is the true emotional center of the film and the closest any of us have to a cipher to help us process the extreme melancholy that Darren Aronofsky continually bombards us with. Fraser is covered head to toe in prosthetics to aid his role, but Chau is by comparison completely exposed. She just has to lay it all bare and deliver everything she’s got without any pretension or accoutrements. It’s the most heartbreaking part of the entire movie, and that is saying something.

Kerry Condon – The Banshees of Inisherin

When you’re standing alongside powerhouses like Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Barry Keoghan, you would be completely forgiven for turning in a run-of-the-mill performance that merely propels the narrative and makes your co-stars look good. Kerry Condon has absolutely no interest in settling for such utility or adequacy, ensuring that Siobhán Súilleabháin has just as much agency and importance as the rest of this insanely talented ensemble.

Sharing a one-room house with her brother, Condon spends a decent amount of time as the net between Farrell and Gleeson in their sudden feud, with practically no escape within their tiny community. She hears it at home from Farrell and Keoghan, at the pub from Gleeson, and all over town from the other gossipy denizens of Inisherin. And yet, somehow, she maintains not only her sanity, but her sense of purpose and dignity. She has her own priorities, desires, and path completely independent of all the histrionics going on between the men, and she maintains all of that while also acting as a sounding board for the village’s biggest collective scandal.

No better is her self-worth illustrated than when she politely turns down Keoghan’s romantic advances. She lets him down gently enough, sparing his feelings while never once patronizing him, but also asserting her needs and being completely honest that she doesn’t see Dominic in the way he wants her to. She’s blunt, but incredibly fair in how she goes about the whole process.

The same holds true for when she makes a move for herself and takes a job on the mainland, escaping the provincial life that would have otherwise doomed her to a vicarious existence through her brother’s issues. So many stories feature characters like Siobhán who yearn for something more, but she’s the one who actually does something about it, standing as a solution for all the problems surrounding the leads. Farrell is a nice person, and so is she, but pointedly she proves that you can still be that good example while sticking up for yourself and broadening your horizons. Conversely, Gleeson wants a legacy, and so does she, but she’s willing to take a much less extreme approach, one that allows her to leave her mark without limiting her possibilities. In a story where everyone is so hopelessly stuck in their ways, Condon plays the one person who actually takes some initiative to make her life better rather than just talking about it.

Jamie Lee Curtis – Everything Everywhere All at Once

Ready to have your mind blown? Jamie Lee Curtis has been doing movies for 45 years, and this is her first Oscar nomination. I mean, how? The fact that A Fish Called Wanda didn’t get her one is stunning enough on its own, but never? Not once? This is why people question the Academy’s credibility.

Anyway, as the absurdly named, even more absurdly designed, and still more absurdly characterized Deirdre Beaubeirdre, Curtis lets her freak flag fly as an ideal secondary antagonist in the Daniels’ actual multiverse of madness. She takes what could have been a simple role as a pencil-pushing bureaucrat and turns her into an amazing instrument of nonsense and menace, reminding everyone in the audience that she’s one of the most versatile actresses of the last five decades, mastering everything from comedy to action to drama to horror over the course of her storied career, and a fair amount of it right in this very performance.

From the moment Curtis adjusts her posture to illustrate that an alternate version of Deirdre has not only inhabited her body but is prepared to lay the smack down, you are hopelessly hooked, knowing that whatever insanity might be asked of her, she’s more than willing and able to sell it. And even more incredible, somehow, some way, Curtis adds truly resonant emotional depth to it. You can actually empathize with the drudgery of her work as well as the jaw-dropping sense of loneliness as her hot dog digit self deals with a marriage on the (non-googly eyed) rocks.

It honestly shouldn’t be possible, but that’s the magic of Everything Everywhere All at Once. In any other movie, in anyone else’s hands, this is a completely by-the-numbers role to set up the real villain in Jobu Tupaki, maybe getting the odd one-liner in for a degree of memorability. Instead, Curtis throws herself completely into this capo-level henchman part – figuratively and literally – as a crucial bridge between what we would all expect as normal and what we experience in the surreal. It’s funny, powerful, and borderline profound, and honest to God I can’t imagine anyone else doing the character anywhere near the justice that Curtis does here.

Stephanie Hsu – Everything Everywhere All at Once

One of the best things about film in general is when a heretofore unknown becomes a household name due to the strength of a breakout performance. And it’s even more special when it gets proper recognition from the awards circuit and the Academy. Such is the case for Stephanie Hsu, who had a small profile before Everything Everywhere, but now should be considered a bona fide superstar.

I mean, what else can I say about her performance that hasn’t been said already by people far more qualified and eloquent than myself? When she needs to be a villain, she’s instantly one of the best in movie history. When she needs to be grounded and sympathetic, she’ll easily become the most relatable character on the screen. When she needs you to feel things, she will make you feel more than you could have expected in a way that comes off as completely natural and effortless. When she needs to be over-the-top, she rivals some of the best extreme performances you could possibly think of, to say nothing of how well she holds her own alongside veterans like Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis.

It’s almost beyond belief how terrific Hsu is here, and considering that her film career to this point was basically just a few bit parts (including Shang-Chi because she’s friends with Nora Lum), absolutely no one knew what to expect. The enormous amount of range she’s asked to display from one scene to the next would overwhelm even the most seasoned of players, and she pulls it all off with an ease and aplomb that makes it feel like second nature.

Most impressive of all is the fact that she’s not just playing one character. Really, she’s playing dozens. Each of the five main cast members of Everything Everywhere All at Once essentially plays multiple roles, but none are more demanding than what Hsu has to pull off. In many ways she’s not really a supporting player but a second lead, as she and Michelle Yeoh serve as meta opposites in tandem with their fictional counterparts. Yeoh has to experience and react to whatever the multiverse throws at her, while Hsu has to initiate and convey the importance of the moment. Yeoh jumps into all these different versions of Evelyn, while Hsu has every bonkers version of Joy overtake her, and she has to embody each individual personality in a way that not only allows us to understand the stakes and widen our eyes in amazement, but also still make sense within the context of the human being at the center of it all. This isn’t the same kind of multifaceted role as, say, James McAvoy in Split (itself a terrific turn), because every version of Joy or Jobu Tupaki we see is still a part of the whole, a different interpretation of the same core being, and it takes an incredible amount of discipline and skill to make sure we see that throughout the picture. There are breakout roles, and then there are performances on a completely different level. Stephanie Hsu lives rent-free on that different level.

My Rankings:
1) Stephanie Hsu
2) Jamie Lee Curtis
3) Kerry Condon
4) Angela Bassett
5) Hong Chau

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Up Next, if you’re having trouble hearing me, it’s because Baz Luhrmann won’t stop pumping in a bunch of non-diegetic music. It’s Sound!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which performance was your favorite? Are you looking forward to the rest of the Blitz? Are the stars of EEAAO at an automatic advantage because they’re basically playing multiple roles? Let me know!

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