Thursday, February 18, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Supporting Actor

Sylvester Stallone could win his first Oscar for playing Rocky Balboa in Creed, nearly 40 years after he created the character.

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 Actor

The nominees are:

Christian Bale for The Big Short
Tom Hardy for The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo for Spotlight
Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone for Creed

So often when we talk about great supporting performances, we talk about big, flashy characters who come in and steal every scene in which they appear. We think of out-sized villains or larger-than-life personas that make an immediate impression with some big show of power, strength, or often as not, oratory talent. There is nothing like that in the Best Supporting Actor category this year.

Sure, these nominated performances feature showy moments, and each of these actors certainly leaves his mark on these films, but this year, the nominees leave their mark with subtle character work and attention to detail. In so doing, they create portraits of relatable people with flaws and virtues similar to our own.

There is little to connect these five characters – a math genius with no people skills, a cowardly fur trapper, an idealistic journalist, a Soviet spy, and a broken-down boxer – but the one thread that carries through is the idea that each man, no matter his actions, believes what he is doing is right. These may not be noble people, and a couple may even be misguided or on the wrong side of history, but they pursue their causes faithfully because there is nothing else for them to do.

Sylvester Stallone for Creed – Sometimes, it really is as simple as the Academy wanting to see someone win. It may not be everybody’s favorite performance, but it would be hard to find people who would not at least enjoy watching Stallone accept an Oscar. Something about it just feels right – and for this role in particular. Rocky Balboa is his creation, one of America’s favorite fictional heroes, a cultural icon, and a figure many of us grew up idolizing. Rocky represents the best of us, and the character still resonates so deeply today because Stallone has spent nearly 40 years cultivating this legacy.

If Stallone wins – and he is the frontrunner right now – it will no doubt be for those 40 years of work and not just his singular performance in director Ryan Coogler’s Creed. This may or may not be fair – after all, none of the other actors had four decades to build a character – but it would not be undeserved. A close viewing of the Rocky series reveals an actor completely at one with his character.

Rocky is who he is not because of his role in these grand American sports epics but because of the little moments Stallone inserts that make up the fabric of the character. Stallone’s looks, his line deliveries, and his posture tell us everything we need to know about Rocky. Spoiler for one of the most popular films of all time that is also 40 years old, but Rocky loses the big fight in Rocky, and we love him anyway. The Rocky movies have never been about winning championships. They are about finding something special within yourself, the will to struggle, to fight, and to survive. That remains true of Coogler’s Creed, and it remains true of Rocky because Stallone makes sure of it.

Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies – You may recall last month I named Rylance’s work in Steven Spielberg’s Cold War thriller my second favorite performance of the year. The quality of the work has only grown in my estimation since then. It is otherworldly how much Rylance communicates without doing much of anything. He never raises his voice, never furrows his brow, and generally never seems concerned about the reality staring him in the face.

Rudolf Abel is a man condemned, both literally by the U.S. court system and figuratively by his chosen profession. He has had a long time to come to terms with his fate, and Rylance plays this character fighting for his life as someone at peace with the decisions he has made that have brought him here. Though what he has done may be illegal in the eyes of the law, spying on the U.S. for the Soviet Union, he has no sense of guilt because he knows in this war, people do what they must to survive. Rylance turns this criminal into someone the audience roots for just by showing us the power of accepting one’s self.

Tom Hardy for The Revenant – What a year for Hardy – four wildly different turns in three utterly unique films, The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Legend. He has always been a chameleon, disappearing into roles like few other actors of his generation. He is a big, intimidating presence, but he is just as likely to play debonair as destructor, and he seems most at home giving himself over to the demands of the part.

His character in The Revenant, John Fitzgerald, could easily be a stock villain – a selfish, mean bastard who is inherently evil – but Hardy has never taken the easy route. He digs into Fitzgerald to find the man beyond the action of the story. He plays him with sympathy and understanding, recognizing that each man is the hero of his own story. While the audience follows Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) in his quest for vengeance, Fitzgerald similarly wants only to survive. His actions are cowardly, but cowardice is never in short supply in this world. Thanks to Hardy’s performance, though, the audience sees the roots of Fitzgerald’s choices, and if we do not like it, at least we can understand it.

Christian Bale for The Big Short – A three-time nominee, Bale is the only previous winner in this category, having earned an Oscar in 2010 for The Fighter, and is well known for his physical and emotional commitment to his roles. While on the surface, his transformation into Michael Burry for The Big Short may seem to pale in comparison to some of his other similarly lauded work, Bale absolutely takes on the skin of a man who knows he is right but does not have the aptitude for sharing that information with others.

Burry is quite clearly on the autism spectrum – like so many math geniuses in pop culture these days – but Bale employs none of the quirky, platitudinous mannerisms or line readings we have come to expect from these kinds of characters. Burry is just a man who can see the future in the numbers, and his job is to earn money for his clients with that knowledge. Because he understands numbers but not nuance, his life is constantly frustrating, and Bale taps into that frustration expertly.

Mark Ruffalo for Spotlight – Ruffalo was here just last year for his wonderful turn in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. He is back for his standout performance as fiery journalist Mike Rezendes, the kind of man whose passion for his job sometimes clouds his judgment but whose goals are always noble. He is so appalled by the depth of the abuse and corruption he uncovers that it rattles him in ways he never could have imagined.

This is the only performance in the category this year to feature what one might call an “Oscar scene” – that big, showy moment we talked about above – and Ruffalo nails it. The goal of the Spotlight team is to dig deeper than anyone else is willing to go, to investigate more than anyone else has thought to, and to find what others missed.

As the scope of the Catholic Church’s cover-up becomes clear, Rezendes insists they publish their findings sooner rather than later, while the rest of the team says there is still more to find. Ruffalo never hits a false note during Rezendes’ impassioned speech about taking down the system that has allowed this to happen. The scene is the culmination of all the careful groundwork Ruffalo has laid to establish who this man is, what he cares about, and what he wants.

The final analysis

The most likely winners are Stallone and Rylance. Stallone has the nostalgia factor in his favor and the kind of story voters may want to give a happy ending. He also won the Golden Globe. However, Rylance mostly dominated the critics’ awards – at least among those who were nominated – and just picked up the BAFTA last Sunday. The Golden Globe may mean little for Stallone’s chances since the Hollywood Foreign Press loves celebrities and Stallone is a huge international star. However, Rylance’s win with BAFTA was not so surprising since he is a wildly popular stage actor in England.

Interestingly, each of the other three nominees is here representing one of the three Best Picture frontrunners. Should Stallone or Rylance falter, whichever of the other actors wins would be a major signal for which film might take the top award. If Hardy wins, we could be looking at a sweep for The Revenant. If it goes to Bale, then it means The Big Short’s seemingly waning strength has rebounded. A Ruffalo win would be a powerful statement for Spotlight. In the end, though, I expect Stallone to win and get a standing ovation to boot.

Will win: Sylvester Stallone for Creed
Should win: Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies
Should have been here: Michael Shannon for 99 Homes

Tomorrow: Best Actress

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