Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Supporting Actress

Alicia Vikander is the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars for her performance in The Danish Girl.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Supporting Actress

The nominees are:

Jennifer Jason Leigh for The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara for Carol
Rachel McAdams for Spotlight
Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet for Steve Jobs

We can quibble all day over the meaning of “supporting actress” – or more specifically, as this award is officially known, Best Actress in a Supporting Role. I have written a few times throughout this season that while category fraud is common, this year, it has felt rampant, resulting in nominations in this category for two actresses who are unequivocally co-leads in their films.

Anyone who has seen either Carol or The Danish Girl could be forgiven for wondering whom exactly Mara and Vikander are supporting. The same question could be posed, however, for Leigh in The Hateful Eight. The movie is essentially about her, and there is a scarcely a scene in which she does not appear. Each of these actresses has delivered a tremendous performance, but every one of them should have been considered for Best Actress.

Oh, well, no turning back now. It is a campaign strategy that sometimes works and sometimes does not. Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock), Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), and Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) all have supporting Oscars for leading roles. However, the first actress we will discuss today can tell you about what happens when the season has its own plans, campaigns be damned.

Kate Winslet for Steve Jobs – Winslet, a seven-time nominee now, earned her only Oscar win for Best Actress in The Reader, this despite master awards campaigner Harvey Weinstein pushing Winslet as a supporting actress. He and many others thought she might have a better chance at the win in the supporting category. There was also some consideration of her clearly leading performance in that year’s Revolutionary Road costing her votes. Ultimately, the Academy nominated her in the proper place for The Reader, and she won because the work was deserving.

This time around, there is no question of category placement. As Joanna Hoffman, Winslet is among the people swirling around the vortex that is Steve Jobs at the center of this film. She is his right-hand woman, his confidant, and his moral center. When he loses his way, she is there to tell him so, and while she cannot always correct his course, she is never afraid to tell him he is wrong.

Most of the other characters in the film are there to be bowled over by Jobs – either awed by his brilliance or cowed by his power. Hoffman is there to stand up to him, and Winslet gives the character a unique blend of inner strength, personal ethics, and business savvy that makes Hoffman memorable and effective. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay does not always give her the best material, but Winslet takes all that muddled dialogue and creates a real person to whom we can relate and for whom we have sympathy.

Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl – I said back in April last year when I reviewed Ex Machina that 2015 would be a coming-out party for Vikander. Ten months later, I feel safe in saying I was correct. Apart from stunning work in Ex Machina and her nominated performance in The Danish Girl, she also delivered standout turns in Testament of Youth and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Next year, we should see her in Justin Chadwick’s Tulip Fever, Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans, and Paul Greengrass’ Jason Bourne. It seems she is just getting started.

Holding nothing against Eddie Redmayne’s commendable work, The Danish Girl belongs to Vikander. As Gerda Wegener, the wife of someone going through a major life transition, hers is the experience through which the audience understands the story. We understand her confusion, frustration, and hurt over losing the person she thought of as her husband. As Lili’s transition takes over their lives, Gerda’s life and work is put on hold. In showing this pain and struggle, Vikander shoulders as much of the success of the film as Redmayne but has received much less of the credit. An Oscar win would go some way toward righting that perception.

Rooney Mara for Carol – Make no mistake, Carol is about Therese (Mara) as much as if not more than it is about Carol (Cate Blanchett). There is definitely more politicking involved here than with Vikander’s category misplacement as the film’s awards team likely believed Blanchett and Mara would split votes in the lead category. So, Blanchett – the veteran, a seven-time nominee, and two-time winner – was pushed for lead while the young ingénue, herself a previous nominee for David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was shoved aside in supporting. In any event, the work is highly deserving of any recognition.

Over the course of a love affair, Mara takes Therese from a shy, innocent girl to a confident, world-weary woman. Therese is never more or less than quiet and reserved, but Mara makes us feel the inner turmoil she wrestles with as she experiences thoughts and feelings she never knew were inside her. Early on, the film seems to be about Carol’s influence over Therese, but as the story progresses, we come to realize it is really about what Therese wants out of her life and what she feels about Carol. Mara sells Therese’s dilemma beautifully with stoicism, grace, and tenderness.

Jennifer Jason Leigh for The Hateful Eight – Not one of those three adjectives could be used to describe Leigh’s unhinged performance as Daisy Domergue, but the work sure is something to behold. Leigh plays Domergue like a woman possessed, but behind the bitterness, sarcasm, and yeah, hate, there lies intelligence, cunning, and strength that let the audience know why so many people are concerned with taking this woman to hang. She takes insult after insult, beating after beating, and she still stands up to spit blood and bile back at her captors.

It is an entirely different look for Leigh, who to this day probably remains best known for her early role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. She has spent her career carving a niche in the independent and art film world, and she has excelled in such films as eXistenZ, Margot at the Wedding, and Synecdoche, NY. Here, she lets loose with the rage and demonic force of someone who cannot help but fight, no matter how dire her circumstances. The Hateful Eight is a film about villains, and she may be the biggest villain of all, which just makes her the most fun to watch.

Rachel McAdams for Spotlight – A bit of a surprise nominee, though not wholly out of thin air, McAdams’ nomination seems like evidence of Spotlight’s overall strength with Academy. She plays journalist Sacha Pfeiffer, who is smart, determined, and empathic in the pursuit of the most difficult story of her career. In keeping with the general theme of Spotlight, her work is not flashy but effective. She knows that no matter what she is going through, the story is not about her. It is about the victims and survivors whose suffering she is trying to bring to light.

McAdams shines most in the one-on-one interviews she conducts with survivors, particularly the first, which takes them from a coffee shop to a walk in the park, past one of the many Catholic Churches that litter Boston’s streets. McAdams is expert at showing how Pfeiffer gets the source to trust her and open up about things he has told almost no one in his life. Her heroism comes from the fact that she is not using this man for her own gains. She genuinely wants to help him and all others in his situation the best way she knows how – with the power of the truth.

The final analysis

At the beginning of the awards season, when it looked as though Vikander and Mara would end up in the supporting category, most pundits had this down to those two with a slight edge to Mara for appearing in the more popular Carol. It was not an unreasonable assumption, and most of that has come to pass, except Vikander has really started to run away with things. It is not exactly cut and dry, though, as Winslet won both the Golden Globe and the BAFTA for her performance, while most of the early season critics’ awards went to Leigh and Vikander but for Ex Machina.

The trouble with predicting Winslet, who would be a good bet based on those two major awards, is that she was not nominated against Vikander’s The Danish Girl performance, which was considered a leading performance by both organizations. The only major place they were nominated against each other was the Screen Actors Guild Awards, which Vikander won. I expect that ultimately to be more predictive of the Oscars and for Vikander to win on the strength of her performance, the fact it is a leading role, and her overall body of work this year.

Will win: Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl
Should win: Jennifer Jason Leigh for The Hateful Eight
Should have been here: Günes Sensoy for Mustang

Tomorrow: Best Supporting Actor

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