Monday, February 24, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Supporting Actress

Best Supporting Actress can be a hard category to gauge. While Best Supporting Actor is susceptible to category fraud (i.e., lead performances masquerading as "supporting" roles), Best Supporting Actress is even more so, with several major co-leads ending up here, including a big one this year. Yet it's also a category where new talent and scene-stealers get a chance to shine, such as Viola Davis in 2008 for Doubt or Amy Ryan in 2007 for Gone Baby Gone. It's also often the only acting category to feature more than one nominee from the same film, the most recent example being Jessica Chastain and winner Octavia Spencer for The Help in 2011. Most importantly, it was in this category that Tilda Swinton became an Oscar winner (2007, Michael Clayton), so it will always be celebratory for that.

Anyway, this year's lineup features five fine performances. You can check out the nominees below.


Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

Sally Hawkins has been doing terrific, if little-seen, work for years now. 2008's Happy-Go-Lucky was her big breakout (and likely almost landed her an Oscar nomination). Though her Blue Jasmine role, Ginger, isn't nearly as front-and-center as Happy-Go-Lucky, she tackles it with aplomb and ends up nearly stealing the show from her co-star, Cate Blanchett. Ginger is Jasmine's (Blanchett) less-wealthy sister, a woman who has her own personal issues in how she lets people treat her. But Hawkins gives Ginger an inner strength that the character lacks on paper: she's essentially Stella Kowalski, but she's no pushover, and she'll take the reins of her own life when she needs to. The film is all about Jasmine, of course, because Jasmine is the focus of of her own life. Hawkins, however, makes a case that Ginger is equally important, worthy of her own story. It's a quietly phenomenal performance that showcases her natural talent.

The rest of the nominees after the page break.

Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Jennifer Lawrence's character in American Hustle is named Rosalyn, has a child with her (ex-)husband Irving (Christian Bale), and is a noted nail polish enthusiast and destroyer of "science ovens." It's a brassy, zinger-slinging, obnoxious character who's meant to steal every scene she's in, and in that regard Lawrence blows the roof off with her hilarious, attention-grabbing performance. The problem here is that it's hard to gauge how much of this is a "performance," and how much of this is the Jennifer Lawrence we've gotten to know in red-carpet interviews and day-time talk shows. Indeed, they're nearly the same person, child and marriage aside, with Rosalyn being Lawrence playing '70s dress-up. It's not meant to be a knock on Lawrence herself, an incredibly talented actress. It's just that this role, entertaining as it is, doesn't feel like much of a performance, and as such doesn't really feel deserving of this recognition.

Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave

Lupita Nyong'o faced an unbelievable challenge in 12 Years a Slave. Her character, Patsy, is caught between the unwanted attention and sexual assaults of her master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), and the jealousy and physical abuse of his wife, Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson). There is no end to the terror and trauma that her character faces, and she never really gets a moment where she isn't comfortable or unafraid. It would have been easy for Patsy to simply be a symbol of the treatment slaves endured in the American South. Thankfully, Nyong'o doesn't let that happen, imbuing her with such painstaking humanity that it makes her ordeal all the more heartbreaking. It's an incredible, powerhouse performance, and she's a magnetic presence every moment she's onscreen. She's unforgettable, and hopefully she'll continue gracing our screens for years to come.

Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

"Eat the fish, bitch." It's this phrase that will immortalize Julia Roberts' performance in August: Osage County, in which she plays oldest daughter Barbara of a highly dysfunctional family. However, that doesn't really do justice to what Roberts accomplishes here. Barbara has grown up trying to overcome the insecurities her mother (Meryl Streep) instilled in her, and in the process has become her own version of caustic control-freak. Roberts plays this role with incredible force, easily giving the film's best performance, and her verbal sparring matches with Streep are the stuff of acting dreams. This is, it should be noted, a leading role, or at least a co-lead with Streep. But that doesn't take away from the fact that this is one of Roberts' best performances in a very long time. This is her first Oscar nomination since her coronation for Best Actress in 2000. Hopefully it won't take so long for her next one.

June Squibb, Nebraska

June Squibb has been working for several decades on stage and in film before Nebraska, but this was her breakout performance. Her character, Kate Grant, is a favorite comic archetype: the cranky, ribald old woman. As written, it doesn't have many character beats, mostly just a steady stream of off-color insults, most aimed at her husband Woody (Bruce Dern). There's also a moment where she flashes a grave. None of this is really Squibb's fault: she does the best she can with the material she's given, and she plays this role with admirable gusto. However, it's just not enough to salvage the role from being a caricature. It's shame that a film that gives plenty of heart and dimension to most of its characters couldn't spare any for Squibb's Kate.

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." This one is Lawrence vs. Nyong'o all the way, as they've both dominated the precursors. Given that Lawrence just won the Best Actress Oscar last year, it doesn't seem like they would reward her again this year (if she did, she would be the first actor since Tom Hanks to win acting Oscars in consecutive years). But even though she likely has very passionate fans in the Academy, I think Nyong'o's going to be the one walking to the podium. The way things are shaking out, it may be the only prize 12 Years a Slave wins that evening.

My ballot:

1. Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
2. Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
3. Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
4. Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
5. June Squibb, Nebraska

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