The year began with a film that was pushed into this year from the previous year, The Clouds of Sils Maria, still one of the best two-handers to feature women. Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart wandering through the world of aging, fame, the art of acting and relationships between women. It goes without saying that they don’t really make them like this very often. When they do, they tend to get buried, as this film has been. Buried because there isn’t much of an audience for this kind of film anymore except if it figures somehow into the film awards circuit. Otherwise, it’s VOD forever.
Kristen Stewart became the first American actress ever to win the Cesar. Her fans definitely noticed. We in the pundit world also took notice; would this mean Stewart could actually maintain enough momentum to earn a nod by year’s end? It seemed highly unlikely then. As the year progressed and more performances presented themselves, Stewart — as expected — might have faded into the background as other more immediate names came to mind. Is that really true yet? It’s hard to say, but it’s something to think about.
One thing to remember about the supporting categories — they are anchors affixed to films the Academy likes best. They are either anchored to a Best Picture contender or a film that was close to being a Best Picture contender. Or they are anchored b a strong leading performance that will be nominated regardless — think: Denzel Washington in Training Day and Ethan Hawke’s performance anchored to it.
They are less inclined to cherry pick exceptional performances from films that don’t have buzz, or “best picture heat,” and they are more likely to pick performances that figure in somehow to those movies they already love so much. Sometimes a performer can overcome that, if they’re well known enough or the performance is exceptional enough (Robert Duvall in The Judge last year is a good example of this). But usually, the people who get the nominations are the people who work the game and the people who work the game are working it because the movie is already in the game. In other words, they don’t often just go out and campaign on their own — usually they’re attached to a movie that is being talked about already. Make sense?
That means a performer like Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs or Jessica Chastain in The Martian or Joan Allen in Room will have a better chance than names who are dangling randomly without a film that’s headed into the race somehow, like Clouds of Sils Maria. This is an unfortunate aspect to the race but an inevitable one. That’s the first thing to remember. And the biggest reason why Kristen Stewart might miss.
The second thing to remember is that Hollywood has collectively decided that most actresses are to be supporting characters. Even those fashioned as leads are often supporting because their entire reason for existing at all is to “help” the main male character somehow. Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, or last year’s Felicity Jones. Sure, you say, the movies were about them — but were they really? They were more about the women in relation to the more important male character. Without these women the men were nothing, or something along those lines. But it’s always appreciated when the story at least tries to tell it from the woman’s POV. Usually you can tell when a female character is badly written if her storyline is just one channel — the punishing mother, the supportive girlfriend, the reluctant finance. If she’s nodding her head with reaction shots as the only thing she gets to do in the whole movie? Yeah, badly written. Sometimes these kinds of parts can squeeze in but not often.
Whatever has happened to actresses over the past 30 years has brought us to this moment. Whether it was the decline of star power overall for both men and women, or the endless focus on what 13 year old boys might like, or the Julia Roberts model of vibrant young woman which must be consumed quickly or else it perishes on the shelf pretty quickly — women in Hollywood are not made to last. We know that they are, of course, in reality. Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Blythe Danner, Charlotte Rampling, Lily Tomlin, Cicely Tyson, Helen Mirren. But for some reason, despite that these women are all still at the top of their game, the game that we play, here in Oscar land, is mostly aimed at the young ones.
At the top of the list right now are Rooney Mara in Carol and Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl. Both are anchored to lead performances, both are in Best Picture contenders and both are beautiful young actresses whose stars are on the rise. Mara stars opposite Cate Blanchett (in another great performance) but she ends up being the more noticeable of the two because she’s rarely been seen in any role like this one. You could say it was “next level” for Mara if you wanted to be obnoxious about it (Dragon Tattoo was “next level”). It does solidify her as a versatile, promising, thoughtful actress. She plays a woman on the verge of finally expressing who she really is — a lesbian living at a time when lesbian women hid in marriages (like Blanchett’s character). She is drawn out by Carol and ultimately comes of age by wanting to live out in the open. Vikander is getting all of the rave reviews out of the Danish Girl and this is all the more surprising considering she’s playing opposite Eddie Redmayne, who won last year for The Theory of Everything. Will Vikander “go lead” is the real question and if she does that frees up a space in the Best Supporting Actress category.
Right behind them, and another example of a really well-written character is Elizabeth Banks in Love & Mercy. While her role is there in support of the main character we find out a lot about her. We find out who she was before, what she’s doing with her life, whether or not she’s good at what’s she’s doing with her life. She is a whole person who matters whether or not she is an appendage to the male character and she’s complicated. After Love & Mercy I feel like I could watch Elizabeth Banks read the phone book and I don’t remember ever feeling that way about her before this role. This is such a good part for her that it hearkens back to the days when women were treated like actual people in Hollywood.
Another really well-written part is Kate Winslet‘s Joanna Hoffman in Steve Jobs, which is arguably lead. This is what a really good supporting part looks like. While we don’t find out that much about who she is, we know she’s a force of nature in her own right, one who doesn’t necessarily exist just to prop up the male lead. Another great one is Jane Fonda in Youth. She has a really small part but packs it full of so much energy, spit and vinegar that it remains one of the most memorable cinematic portraits of the year.
The Actor and Supporting Actor categories are an embarrassment of riches. There has never been a better time to be a white dude in Hollywood than right now — in front of or behind the camera. They rule Hollywood and they call the shots. That makes it all the more remarkable when directors are excited about investing in women. Doesn’t happen often but it happened this year a few times.
A slightly less significant example would be Dakota Johnson in Black Mass. She does what she can with the part but ultimately it’s just a “now, honey” part, no matter how good she in it. Better written is the Julianne Nicholson character, the wife of Joel Edgerton. She’s slightly better written but neither part is big enough to compete for a Best Supporting Actress nomination, certainly not when compared to Stewart or Banks, where their characters really are whole and thought through. These are all great actresses but some get better material and that makes the difference.
There are still many film to come so we can’t really close out the discussion on any category yet, least of all Best Supporting Actress. We do, however, have a vague guideline of where it might be headed. Suffice it to say, it is far more spare than either of the male acting categories.
Here are the films and the supporting contenders anchored to them:
Carol – Rooney Mara is actually a co-lead for this and you will likely not find a more well-rounded character in this category than hers.
Spotlight – Rachel McAdams is probable but the role might not be emotionally explosive enough to get her in there.
Steve Jobs – Kate Winslet – probable, Katherine Waterston is good but it’s not big enough to eclipse Winslet
Room – Joan Allen seems a sure bet for a nomination because of the popularity of Room and the likelihood of Brie Larson’s nomination.
The Danish Girl – Alicia Vikander
Love & Mercy – Elizabeth Banks
The Martian – Jessica Chastain is great in this but the likability of the film overall greatly improves her chances. Kristen Wiig is also in contention here but hers is, despite how funny and great she is usually, has her standing around and nodding a lot.
Youth – Jane Fonda
Suffragette – maybe Helena Bonham Carter (but the role is probably not big enough, ditto Streep),
Trumbo – maybe Helen Mirren
Black Mass – Julianne Nicholson
Bridge of Spies – maybe Amy Ryan
Joy – maybe Virginia Madsen
The Hateful Eight – maybe Jennifer Jason Leigh; star comeback story, lots of press
Concussion – maybe Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Outside the Best Picture circle:
Clouds of Sils Maria – Kristen Stewart (anchored to Juliette Binoche)
Diary of a Teenage Girl – Kristin Wiig (anchored to Bel Polowy)
Freeheld – Ellen Page (anchored to Julianne Moore)
Mr. Holmes – Laura Linney (anchored to Ian McKellen)
If I had to predict the 10 most likely, I’d probably have to narrow it down to something like this:
- Rooney Mara, Carol
- Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
- Elizabeth Banks, Love & Mercy
- Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
- Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hateful Eight
- Jane Fonda, Youth
- Joan Allen, Room
- Jessica Chastain, The Martian
- Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
- Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria
Obviously, this is crushing to have to narrow it down to ten like that. If Alicia Vikander or Rooney Mara “go lead” that opens up a space. It’s really hard to tell how it will go. I keep re-ordering it and then switching names out. Things will become more clear in the coming weeks. But one thing is abundantly clear — the more Best Picture heat the film has, the better the chance of an acting nomination.