It is a strange year indeed when the Supporting Actor category is catching a lot of the spillover from the Best Actor category. That is because of the sheer number of contenders, male I might add, in both lead and supporting. There are so many it’s near impossible at this stage to figure out who will get in and who won’t.
Before we start, let’s take a quick look at Oscar history. Let’s do what we often do with lead actor and look at how often, in the era of the expanded ballot (2009-current) do the supporting actors match with a Best Picture nominee?
2009 – 1/5
2010 – 4/5
2011 – 2/5
2012 – 4/5
2013 – 5/5
2014 – 3/5
2015 – 4/5
2016 – 4/5
2017 – 3/5
2018 – 4/5
Even in situations when a nominee did not come from Best Picture nominees, often their films came really close to being nominees, like Mark Ruffalo for Foxcatcher, or Richard E. Grant for Can You Ever Forgive Me. But in 2009 – which is, as far as I can tell, a bit of an outlier, you had four actors that didn’t come from picture nominees and in some cases, it seems, were not even close to picture nominees, like Christopher Plummer in The Last Station, Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones, and Woody Harrelson in The Messenger.
What do these exceptions have in common? They were all big stars. What extra oomph did they have? Support from critics and early awards traction. One way to figure it out is to follow the Golden Globes, more or less. They seem to be a pretty good launch pad for Supporting Actors. Like the Oscars, they are strong indicators of star power as well as a sign of how much they like a Best Picture contender. They tend to springboard off the buzz that’s already there – generated either by critics or by bloggers or by industry or by box office. So the Globes is really a good place to start, but it isn’t the whole picture.
This year, we have a lot of supporting actors who are partnered up with Best Actor contenders. So it’s:
Robert DeNiro, The Irishman
—–> Joe Pesci, Al Pacino
Leonardo Dicaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
—–> Brad Pitt
Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes
—–> Anthony Hopkins
Eddie Murphy, Dolemite
—–> Wesley Snipes
Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbit
—–> Taika Waititi
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
—-> Alan Alda, Marriage Story
—-> Ray Liotta, Marriage Story
Christian Bale, Ford V Ferrari
—–> Matt Damon
Robert Pattinson, The Lighthouse
—-> Willem Dafoe
Shia LaBouef, The Peanut Butter Falcon
—–> Zack Gottsagen
And then we have the outlier solo lead actor, who also happens to be the frontrunner, along with Brad Pitt, according to pundits:
Tom Hanks, Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
And then an outstanding ensemble cast:
Sterling K. Brown, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., for Waves
As far as recent winners go, how many have starred in Best Picture nominees*? Or winners+ in the last 20 years?
2000 – Benicio Del Toro, Traffic*
2001 – Jim Broadbent, Iris
2002 – Chris Cooper, Adaptation
2003 – Tim Robbins, Mystic River*
2004 – Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby+
2005 – George Clooney, Syriana
2006 – Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine*
2007 – Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men+
2008 – Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
2009 – Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds*
2010 – Christian Bale, The Fighter*
2011 – Christopher Plummer, Beginners
2012 – Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained*
2013 – Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club*
2014 – JK Simmons, Whiplash*
2015 – Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies*
2016 – Mahershala Ali, Moonlight+
2017 – Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards*
2018 – Mahershala Ali, Green Book+
So look at that – since the ballot expanded, no Best Supporting Actor has ever won unless they weren’t featured in a Best Picture nominee. Bearing that in mind would have helped people perhaps predict Mark Rylance over Sylvester Stallone back in 2013.
That means your Lead Actor winners (all except Jeff Bridges in 2009) and all of your Supporting Actor winners come from Best Picture nominees and/or winners.
So, if Tom Hanks is the frontrunner but Beautiful Day does not get a Best Picture nomination, the win instead might be tipped elsewhere, to perhaps Pitt or someone else.
For nominees, this factor is less important, I’d say. Still, it’s always better to think Best Picture at the top and then the branch by branch support on down the line.
Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is really a co-lead, just like Anthony Hopkins in The Two Popes, Matt Damon in Ford V Ferrari, and Al Pacino in The Irishman. But Alan Alda and Ray Liotta in Marriage Story are genuinely supporting turns, as is Wesley Snipes who is brilliant in Dolemite.
There are a few other possible considerations that haven’t been mentioned. The Peanut Butter Falcon, which has made a lot of money for a movie no one has heard about, with Zack Gottsagen an actor with Down Syndrome playing a character who escapes from a managed care facility to chase his dream of becoming a wrestler. Only two actors with disabilities have ever been nominated for an Oscar and both won. The first, Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God and Harold John Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives. But both of those films were nominated for Best Picture — and The Best Years of Our Lives won.
Gottsagen would need a hell of a push and some recognition from the actors in the industry to make it through and he would be faced with some fierce competition.
So why, might you ask, is this win and the lead actor win so tied with Best Picture? Well, because actors rule the Academy. The actors are almost as important as the directors – actually nowadays, in the era of the expanded ballot, almost more so. An actor who keeps winning early awards will help ensure that voters at least watch the movie. And if they like the movie they’re going to like the actors in the movie and vice-versa.
So for my five, right now, I might go with:
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Tom Hanks, Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Wesley Snipes, Dolemite is My Name
Al Pacino, The Irishman
Joe Pesci, The Irishman
But really, it’s going to come down to which movies the voters liked best. And at this stage, that is very hard to predict. The Two Popes? Hopkins gets in. Dolemite? Snipes gets in. There are still quite a few movies and supporting performance left to see, like Timothee Chalamet in Little Women, and whomever might emerge from 1917.
We have lots of different options and it’s hard to say how it will all land. But for now, we know at least one thing: the winner is more likely than not going to be in a Best Picture nominee.