Hope springs eternal in these early days of Oscarwatching, before the hammer comes down and the category seating arrangements become fixed. The fluidity of current acclaim means that many of us are casting a wide net, thinking anyone could get in for anything. No one really knows until a film is seen and reviewed, of course, whether it will be a film that will garner awards or not. It is always better to go with what you know than what you don’t know.
Here are five rules for Oscarwatching in the supporting categories.
Generally speaking, four out of the five ultimate nominees are named early on and kind of stick. Once the first prominent names are penciled in, it’s hard to shake up the list. The same four or sometimes five make their way through the race, lined up again and again with each awards announcement, give or take one or two.
Nominees are usually either tied to a Best Picture contender (whether it ultimately gets that nomination or not), or a companion performance that’s peaking in lead.
Buzz and/or critical acclaim can push a nominee in sometimes (Helen Hunt in the Sessions) and other times not (Kristen Stewart in The Clouds of Sils Maria).
Surprises still sometimes happen, especially with films seen late. But most of the names have already been bandied about by Oscar pundits before year end. As with all things in the acting categories, being well-known and popular always makes a difference.
More diversity is allowed to shine through in the supporting categories, for nominees and wins, than in lead.
This is one of those unusual Oscar seasons where there is, suddenly, an abundance of Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress contenders. In what has become a regular occurrence, some performances being touted for lead are often really supporting and occasionally vice versa. Alicia Vikander had a leading role in The Danish Girl, even if she was not the titular character. Jennifer Connelly was probably co-lead in A Beautiful Mind. Whenever that happens, the actresses nominated in actual supporting roles really don’t have a chance up against the leads put in supporting. The explanation is clear: it comes down to a matter of screen time. Nathaniel over at the Film Experience calls this “category fraud.” Studios stretch these boundaries to up the chances of a win, obviously. We always have to be on the lookout for that lead performance put in supporting because that means, in many cases, an automatic win.
This year, there appear to be abundant standout supporting performances that have already broken through, and probably many more will rise to prominence when the films that feature them are finally seen. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, for instance. 20th Century Women. There are others. Indeed, there are always going to be more supporting actor contenders than supporting actress contenders — that’s just the way things are. Still, even with what we’ve seen thus far, there is much to celebrate this year for women on screen.
While the film Other People isn’t getting the kind of reviews that would place it in the Best Picture category, there is no denying the praise for Molly Shannon, who plays the the main character’s mother, Joanne. She’s battling cancer. And sure, you’ll say — well, there’s the cancer factor so that’s an obvious Oscar grab, but the truth is a good performance is a good performance, no matter the subject matter, and no matter whether or not Shannon is known for comedy. The truth is that her performance, at the moment, has garnered significant attention now that it’s been released. Review after review singles out her authentic and moving portrayal as the standout in Other People. Still, we know that it’s a tough road for comedy actors, especially TV comediennes, to get any kind of consideration at all where the Oscars are concerned. But no one should be ignoring this performance right now.
Naomie Harris plays a single mother in Moonlight who is addicted to crack and can’t seem to hold it together to raise her son. It’s a heart-wrenching, brilliant performance that takes her through various stages of her own decline, addiction and growth. I suspect there will be some discomfort among those rightly sensitive to such things that critics and voters are praising yet another drug-addicted character. On the other hand, Harris shows wild range this year with this performance and another in Collateral Beauty. She’s Bond’s latest Moneypenny on top of all that. Thus, it seems to me that she ought to be granted the spectrum any other actress would be and not be required to carry the burden of righting all the wrongs of society.
And then there is the wonderful Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea, who must play both a young mother before a tragedy and an older mother after a tragedy. Williams nails the always difficult Bostonian accent and has one of the hardest scenes in the film to carry off. One of her best scenes isn’t even one anyone would normally talk about — it’s just her laying in a bed with a cold. But watch the specific details she brings to that scene — the way she breathes, the way she holds her head. It’s brilliant.
Yes, that’ three mothers in a row for the supporting actress category so far. Sarah Gadon in Indignation is another name to watch for, and there will likely be many performances in Certain Women worthy of attention. The same perhaps can be said of Maggie’s Plan. It will get harder and harder to push these through as we head into the thick of the season because, as I said, five or six names get set in stone from the outset and often that is that.
These are the notable supporting performances by women thus far:
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Molly Shannon, Other People
Lupita Nyong’o, Queen of Katwe
Amy Adams, Nocturnal Animals
Felicity Jones, A Monster Calls
Sarah Gadon, Indignation
Laura Dern, Certain Women
And here are some films that have not yet been seen but are presumed to feature potential nominees:
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Kristen Stewart, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Sienna Miller, Live by Night (if it is released this year)
Annette Bening, Rules Don’t Apply
Rebecca Ferguson, The Girl on the Train
The truth is that even if the critics get firmly behind one name, that won’t necessarily guarantee it gets in for Oscar. More influential, of course, are the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. More to come as the season rolls out.