A Tale of Two Supporting Actresses: Lupita and JenniferJanuary 11, 2014 • By Sasha Stone
The two strongest contenders for Best Supporting Actress are Lupita Nyong’o, the frontrunner, and her challenger, Jennifer Lawrence, who steals American Hustle right out from under everyone else in the film. Both actresses are beautiful, young and charming. But more than that, they are dynamic performers. Lawrence is fast turning around the perception that women can’t dominate the box office by owning 2013′s, something that hasn’t happened in 40 years. Back when women dominated the box office, the 1970s and earlier, ticket buyers had to be male AND female. Since box office now is always skewed towards males, we’re only now seeing the power of someone like Lawrence who can bring in both men and women, boys and girls.
It isn’t just about Lawrence’s looks. In her short career thus far she has managed to stand out in every performance, even in subpar films. This is especially true in the two Hunger Games films. She is endlessly watchable. What I love most about her work in American Hustle is that she takes a role that might have just been a pathetic “little woman” left home while hubby goes out and plays with Amy Adams. But Lawrence flips it completely around, taking control of the situation and of the film. Notice how she, not Adams, drives much of the plot. When Amy Adams says at the end that the whole thing could be blown because of “his wife,” she’s right. Had she not won the Oscar last year, Lawrence would win it, easily, this year.
Lupita Nyong’o steps into the Oscar scene with grace and ease, something most actresses her age, fresh out of Yale Drama School, could not accomplish. She emerges as the polar opposite of the character she plays, showing at once that she is a diverse performer of the Streep kind, someone who can disappear in the role completely. The most haunting moments in 12 Years a Slave, and in its own the way, the film’s heart and center belongs to Nyong’o.
One of the things McQueen does so masterfully and subtly in 12 Years a Slave is to expose the hardly spoken about sex trade that slavery was. Taking bits he learned from film Shame, McQueen dives into the slaveowner Epps (Michael Fassbender) repeated molestation of young girls that he grooms when they are children. Patsy, plays by Nyong’o, is his queen. But there are others waiting down the line, girls too young to know what their “owner” has in store for them. The untold story of women and slavery disappears into the background because the focus is generally on men. But McQueen tells the story of women in this film as Solomon Northup moves through a world he wasn’t born into. He is touched by several key characters – women who are separated from their children and can’t stop wailing because of it. And Patsy, whom he seeks to protect but is ultimately powerless against, and must leave behind.
Even thought Northup escapes, we are left haunted by Patsy’s gaze, her cries as he rides off to freedom. She is left there for Epps to do with what he pleases – which will likely entail killing her eventually. It is easier to ignore Nyong’o's brilliant work, as the both the New York Film Critics and the National Society of Film critics have done — especially when another character, Lawrence, such a breath of fresh air in American Hustle — but to me, those critics are asleep at the wheel. If we can’t look to them to recognize such exceptional work, who can we look to?
“They just liked her better.” Well, sure. To me it’s a tough call between Lawrence and Nyong’o, no doubt about it. The edge goes to Nyong’o, however, because what she’s required to do is so much more difficult than what Lawrence does. To me, film awards should always factor in level of difficulty – they do not – witness Christopher Waltz’ Oscar win last year. Voters turn on their heart light when picking their favorites. We know this, after all of these years of Oscar-watching them.
Lawrence is a more instinctual performer. She was born to be a star. Whatever got her there, she has the ability to find the truth in her characters, probably because she is not unlike many of the characters she plays. She makes them her own, however she does it. In American Hustle she comes the closest to taking on an accent and transforming herself.
Nyong’o is a classically trained actress, having attended Yale School of Drama. I suspect she will change the world as Lawrence has. I do believe if she’s given enough opportunities she could redefine what it means to be a black actress in Hollywood. Though playing a character people think they’ve seen before – but even as a supporting character in a film we see so many sides of patsey. If you did not see them you weren’t paying attention. We see her childlike side when she’s making dolls, quietly humming to her own deeply buried song. We see her visiting Alfre Woodard who teaches her that you can seduce and charm your way into being a more valued slave. What else does Patsey have on the horizon? We see her quietly endure the unimaginable at the hands of Epps. And finally, the scarred and nearly abandoned mistress, left to work the fields because she’s too scarred up to rape.
In their own ways, Nyong’o and Lawrence have delivered unforgettable characters this year. They are polar opposite in every way imaginable. It will be hard choice between them. When you add the other potential supporting characters into the mix, Oprah Winfrey – magnificent in The Butler, despite the misogynist gaze upon her, a sure sign she has become the most successful black female, maybe the most successful female at all, in showbiz. In The Butler, she’s given the chance to be sexy – sure, it’s framed by a culture that favors very young white women (let’s face it) but sexy it is nonetheless. I loved it that Daniels told a deeper side to her character. She wasn’t just the doting wife, waiting for her husband to have his own catharsis about life. She had her own inner world, sexual desire even, not to mention battling addiction.
And then there is the marvelous June Squibb in Nebrasaka, another scene-stealer who has the film’s best lines. Squibb is acerbic, impolite, honest and ultimately, underneath it all, a softie. There aren’t enough films period about characters over the age of 40, but particularly women. The genius in Squibb’s character is that the film isn’t really on her side. It isn’t telling her story. It is telling Woody’s. And yet, in her bitterness and nagging, the truth about her life emerges as much as it does his. These weren’t people who chose personal happiness over getting on with life. They simply got on with life. Now we see them sift through the wreckage.
Julia Roberts doesn’t often get to play the hard characters. She is known for being the charming good girl. But here, she’s given a chance to show that side of her. She does this by utterly removing the giggly childlike actress we’ve come to know and love. She has allowed her face to age. She wears almost no makeup. Though still a beautiful woman, her character in August: Osage County is fighting off becoming her mother. It takes a family crisis to make this clear to her: if she stays she will become her mother. Sooner or later someone has to break the chain. August: Osage County is a movie about that moment.
But August: Osage County is a story about women. These women run the household – the men are kind of there in the more traditionally female roles – as supporters or instigators of action. August: Osage County is the one movie this year that really lets the actresses run the thing – and run it they do. I really could give a holy crap what the critics thought of it, honestly. Hopefully actors can really tell the difference. So far, going by the SAG noms, they have. Roberts is at her most raw in the film, as deserving as the other contenders.
Those supporting turns that haven’t broken through will still be remembered. Lea Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Colour, Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street, Sally Hawkins, who still might sneak through for Blue Jasmine, Octavia Spencer in Fruitvale Station, both of the other actresses in 12 Years a Slave – Sarah Paulson and Adepero Oduye.
But I suspect that the win is down to Nyong’o versus Lawrence. I do believe, without her win last year, Lawrence would take it. You have to factor in something I’ve noticed from watching this year go down. Critics, bloggers and human beings in general flock around stars. They like to watch big stars at awards shows and in films. That naturally gives Lawrence the edge. Both performances will long be remembered. Only one of them transformed my own thinking upon leaving the theater, even if it didn’t tickle my fancy. If it were me, that’s where my vote would go.
I think Lupita Nyong’o will win the Oscar. But I do believe Jennifer Lawrence will win the Golden Globe. We will find out on Monday.