BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR, 2008
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
The Winner: Heath Ledger
Whereas I stated earlier that Best Supporting Actress was the weakest category of 2008 (which I want to revise now: Best Actress is weaker; more on that later), this is without a doubt the strongest category of the year. I usually really enjoy seeing this category, since it's often home to some great scene-stealers who just knock it out of the park. This year was no difference. I know a lot of Ledger's win came from his unfortunate early death at the beginning of the calendar year, turning him into the James Dean of our generation. But let's not discredit him: his performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight was definitely one of the best performances put to film in the last decade, and certainly the best in any superhero film ever. Ledger is equal turns terrifying and anarchic, a deranged man who never fully reveals himself and relishes in chaos and disorder. He's the perfect villain: he doesn't have a master plan or backstory-illustrated motivation, just a raw sense of destruction and a gleeful joy in pushing the psychological and moral buttons of Batman and the rest of Gotham City. Its a role that doesn't immediately require any depth or development, but Ledger takes it and turns it into an complex, multifaceted character that will stand as one of the greatest. What I'm trying to say here is that he totally, completely, undeniably deserved to win the Oscar.
In any other non-Ledger year, the other four nominees would have been frontrunners. Even my least favorite performance of this year, Shannon, is still interesting; he doesn't have much to do other than torment the already-troubled couple played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, which really cheapens his role a bit. But he draws out a lot of the drama, which makes him pretty much the definition of supporting actor, and its a good performance in a mediocre film. Hoffman, an Oscar favorite now, had a pretty good showing in Doubt, even though he was mostly outshined by Meryl Streep in every one of their scenes together. Its a notable performance, but he plays his personal ambiguity (did he molest the boy?) a tad too obviously. A little subtlety goes a long way, you know? Brolin, finally earning an Oscar nomination, is a perfect example of this, as much of his performance as Dan White in Milk is the internal struggle White has as he is forced to accept both Harvey Milk's and his own sexuality. And his explosive reaction is perfectly played as a desperate man who can't come to terms with himself. Brolin has been reliably great in just about everything he does, and I hope that one day he will win an Oscar. And then there's Downey Jr., who is probably one of our most divisive working actors today, and his performance in the comedy Tropic Thunder. Generally speaking, the supporting actor category is usually where great comedic performances are recognized, but Tropic Thunder is something much different. Downey Jr.'s role as Kirk Lazarus is a complicated one: he plays a (white) actor who is playing the troop's black squad leader in a Vietnam War movie. This had the potential to be incredibly offensive, but Downey Jr. miraculously walks the thin line between high comedy and racial caricature and delivers a commendable achievement. He completely deserved this nomination, and had it not been in the same year as The Dark Knight, I would even say he should have won.
Here's how my ballot would have looked:
1. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
2. Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
3. Josh Brolin, Milk
4. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
5. Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road