Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Supporting Actor

JK Simmons is the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Whiplash.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Supporting Actor

The nominees are:

Edward Norton for Birdman
Ethan Hawke for Boyhood
Mark Ruffalo for Foxcatcher
Robert Duvall for The Judge
JK Simmons for Whiplash

Every year before the Oscar nominations come out, I put together a wish list for work I hope to be cited, the work I would vote for if I had a ballot, and every year, about 70 to 80 percent of that is left on the sidelines. Suffice it to say, my personal tastes do not align much with the Academy’s. That held mostly true this year except for one category: Best Supporting Actor. Three of the nominated actors were on my wish list, and a fourth just barely missed my list, which means you will get no complaints from me in this category – well, maybe one complaint, but we will get to that later.

Even beyond my personal preferences, this is a fun group, featuring four previous nominees but no previous winners, although Duvall does have an Oscar for Best Actor. Somebody is walking away with his first trophy for Best Supporting Actor, and that alone is pretty cool. For you comic book fans, two of these guys have played the Hulk, and a third is featured prominently in several Spider-Man movies. Duvall is obviously an industry legend, whom you may recognize from a few of the greatest films of all time, and Hawke has spent his career standing toe to toe with some of the best actors of his generation, such that it might be time to start thinking of him in that arena as well.

The Academy likes its supporting actors flashy. The winners in this category tend to be outsized characters who step in for a few scenes and leave a huge impact. Being a memorable villain certainly does not hurt, and if your role is actually more of a co-lead than supporting, so much the better for your chances. As good as this list of nominees is, though, this might be the most locked-up category of the whole evening. All the precursors, all the industry love, everything has pointed to one man for the win: Simmons.

JK Simmons for Whiplash – What can you say about Simmons except, “Wow?” You have to feel good for a longtime character actor who gets this kind of showcase role and just knocks it out of the park. If you know Simmons, it is probably as J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, as the Farmers Insurance guy, or as “You know, I recognize him, but I don’t know his name.” Hopefully a well-deserved Oscar for playing a borderline psychopath music instructor will change all that.

Simmons has never really been known for playing the nice guy anyway – the closest I can think of is as the gruff dad in Juno – but as the band teacher Fletcher, Simmons shapes a whole new kind of bad guy. He is not underhanded. He does not want to be your friend. His goals are not even all-together evil. His intentions are as plain as the fresh-from-the-pack black T-shirts he wears. He wants to push his students to the breaking point, then break the ones who can be broken.

Fletcher accomplishes this by spewing an unending stream of hate and vitriol at his students. He spits, he growls, he throws instruments, and he is dedicated to exactly one thing: perfection. Simmons gives himself over entirely to the role, disappearing into the mind of a madman with a method. Even when Fletcher is at his most maniacal, Simmons imbues him with a sense of poise and togetherness that suggests there are further untapped wells of hate and violence in him, which might be the scariest thought of all.

Edward Norton for Birdman – One of the complaints lodged against the performances in Birdman is that many of the actors appeared simply to be playing themselves. While that assertion is of course ludicrous, one could see where critics get the idea from when watching Norton portray a self-involved, self-satisfied actor who claims to be above commerce and solely interested in finding truth and creating art. That is what makes the performance so perversely good. Norton is playing off the public perception of himself as an actor, and his critics are playing right into his hand.

Birdman is a satire that hits every target in the entertainment industry, the actors included, and Norton’s portrayal of the serious Actor-with-a-capital-A Mike cuts the legs out from under all of his self-important peers. His wild mood swings, his insane demands, his supposed dedication to finding truth – these are all jabs at the very people who nominated Norton’s work. So, good on the Academy for appreciating the joke, and good on Norton for having the guts to stare right back at these people and tell them what he thinks of them.

Mark Ruffalo for Foxcatcher – In real life, Ruffalo already seems like everybody’s favorite older brother. In Foxcatcher, he takes on that role and adds layers of pathos and empathy, acting as the one person trying to hold everything together while it all falls apart. Ruffalo plays David Schultz as the responsible one, the family man, the guy trying to honor his commitments while doing right by his brother. Schultz carries this weight because no one around him is capable of it, and Ruffalo’s every action lets the audience in on his burden.

Ruffalo has a natural weariness about him, perfect for exploring the inner life of a wrestler who is getting a little old for the life of an Olympic athlete. He has competed for years, and he is tired, but he loves what he does, and he loves his brother. This is his undoing. As a man of honor and principle, he cannot walk away when he should. As icy as director Bennett Miller makes Foxcatcher overall, Ruffalo brings warmth and heart to the proceedings, and by the end, it seems as if he is the only person with blood still running through his veins.

Ethan Hawke for Boyhood – As with his parenting counterpart in the film, Patricia Arquette, Hawke’s dedication to Boyhood is an astounding feat in its own right. A lot can change in the life of an actor over the course of 12 years. Hell, a lot can change for anyone over the course of 12 years. Still, Hawke showed up every year to join director Richard Linklater, Arquette, and his two young co-stars to create a stunning paean to the passage of time and the importance of slowing down to appreciate the little things in life.

The most remarkable aspect of these characters is how seamless the performances are. Though he grows and ages and matures, Hawke seems like the same dad at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. For a dozen years, Hawke spent one month a year living with this character and 11 months working on anything else, but he never loses the feeling for who is character is. Though the intervening time may have changed him, the core is still there, and that is thanks to Hawke.

Robert Duvall for The Judge – I have been pretty hard on this nomination all season because it has always felt like a ballot filler. There were five spots to fill, and voters already penciled in the four outstanding performances above. They needed one more, so why not go with the beloved, longtime actor who turned in solid work in a mediocre movie? Here are a few reasons: Michael Fassbender in Frank, Chris O’Dowd in Calvary, Josh Brolin in Inherent Vice, Riz Ahmed in Nightcrawler, and Andy Serkis in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. That is just off the top of my head.

From the beginning of the season, Duvall was pegged as a contender, and that train could not be stopped, though it arguably never should have left the station. Duvall has some good scenes as an elderly judge on trial for murdering a man he felt slipped through the cracks in the justice system. He is particularly good in the final courtroom scene, but the whole film is just impossibly corny. The sentiment pours in like fog, and whatever good work Duvall does is just lost in it.

The final analysis

On Sunday night, Simmons will leave the Dolby Theater with his first Oscar. There is not much analysis in that, but sometimes, these things are just written in the stars. Early in the season, Simmons ceded some of the critics’ kudos to Norton, but there was never any real momentum in that direction, just outliers. Simmons is the consummate professional, an actors’ actor, and the kind of guy whose peers want to see win awards. He deserves this, and he will win it. Sometimes, it really is that simple.

Will win: JK Simmons for Whiplash
Should win: JK Simmons for Whiplash
Wish he had been here: Michael Fassbender for Frank

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