Monday, February 13, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Supporting Actor

Michael Shannon is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Nocturnal Animals.

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 leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Supporting Actor

The nominees are:

Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
Jeff Bridges for Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges for Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel for Lion
Michael Shannon for Nocturnal Animals

This is an unusual year in that none of the characters portrayed by these five men is a villain. Supporting Actor generally is the home of the villain at the Oscars. There was a run from 2007-2009 when Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight), and Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) won this award for playing over-the-top, larger-than-life villains who steal their respective films right out from under the heroes. Just two years ago, JK Simmons swept up every award in sight for his mercilessly villainous role in Whiplash.

The reasons for this over-representation of villainy seem clear enough. From the earliest films noirs through the Bond villains of the 1960s right on through to today, writers have crafted their antagonists as witty, urbane, fun, and out-sized, while actors dig right in every time, chewing up scenery and stealing the show. Villains have always been big, and the Academy loves to reward big. How wonderful, then, this year, the actors went another way.

Beyond not being villains, it would be hard to characterize any of these performances as any one thing. They are complex, three-dimensional portraits of mostly good people trying to do the best they can in worlds of limited options. The five nominated actors here do not so much steal the show as weave themselves into the fabric of the stories being told. They disappear in their roles and resurface in these characters to give us a better understanding of their points of view and their experiences.

Mahershala Ali for Moonlight – In a year of complex character studies, few characters are as complex or as studied as Ali’s Juan, a kind-hearted drug dealer who befriends and scared, lonely young boy. There is never any question of Juan’s status within his community – he is a kingpin and rules over all he surveys. He commands respect at every turn and gets it. He lives a hard life on hard streets in hard times, but he refuses to let his circumstances make him a hard man. Such is the power of a script that exists solely to force the audience to confront its prejudices and preconceived notions.

None of this would land as well, however, without Ali’s strong, confident performance at its heart. He infuses his character with a gentleness you would not expect. He displays a tenderness he not only refuses to bury but even seems eager to share. Ali is quiet and still, communicating in small gestures and nods, letting the world – and thereby, the audience – come to him. Juan only appears in the first of the film’s three acts, but Ali’s performance makes us feel both his absence and his impact throughout the rest of the story.

Dev Patel for Lion – I complain every year about category fraud, and I promise – or warn, as the case may be – I will rail about it tomorrow, when we discuss Best Supporting Actress. The fraud here is more subtle. Lion is the story of Saroo Brierly and his long journey to find the family he lost. The film’s opening 45-50 minutes concern Saroo’s early life, and in these passages, he is played wonderfully by Sunny Pawar. The second half of the film – more than, if we wish to count minutes – is the adult Saroo’s search for his family, when he is portrayed by Patel. But make no mistake: This is Patel’s film, and he carries it magnificently.

It is sometimes baffling to me the way these things go down. Patel faced the same scenario in 2008, when he was campaigned in Supporting Actor for Slumdog Millionaire despite being the demonstrable lead of the film. The difference is he was not nominated then, and he is now. However, he was deserving then, and he is deserving now. To focus too much on these awards distinctions, as I have done, perhaps distracts from Patel’s powerful work in Lion.

He must embody both sorrow and rage, grief for the family he lost and anger at the world that would allow this to happen. He is by turns the well-adjusted adopted son of Australian parents and the mournful, emotionally guarded orphan torn from his family. Patel is remarkable in all facets of this character, and were it not for the fact American films rarely cast actors of Indian heritage in leading roles, he would be a much bigger star even than he is. Let us hope such casting prejudices change and Patel soon takes his rightful place among the acting elite.

Jeff Bridges for Hell or High Water – An interesting bit of Academy Awards trivia: Katherine Hepburn holds the record for the longest span between an actor’s first and last nomination – 48 years from Morning Glory in 1933 to On Golden Pond in 1981. Bridges, now on his seventh nomination, earned his first in 1972 for The Last Picture Show, 45 years ago. If things keep going the way they have been, this will not be his last nomination, and we will not see that last nomination hopefully for a long, long time.

In the current decade, Bridges has settled into a comfortable groove, playing tough, grizzled men who cannot afford to show weakness but whose world weariness has taken a toll. He won his first, and to date only, Oscar for just such a role in Crazy Heart and was most recently nominated for perhaps the most grizzled hero of all, Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. In Hell or High Water, he offers a new take on this archetype as a southern lawman whose only purpose is justice in a world that no longer seems to know what that word means.

Lucas Hedges for Manchester by the Sea – Bridges had already secured three nominations by the time fellow nominee Hedges was born in 1997. It calls to mind, for me at least, the time in 1999 when Michael Caine, during his acceptance speech for The Cider House Rules, shouted out his co-nominees, including an 11-year-old Haley Joel Osment, there for The Sixth Sense. It is one of the things that makes the Oscars ceremony so beautiful, the different generations of artists all coming together to celebrate each other’s work.

Hedges is wonderful in Manchester by the Sea as Patrick, a teenager whose father dies unexpectedly and is left in the care of his uncle (Casey Affleck). Hedges brings to the part the right mixture of general teenage angst and self-centeredness and more specific, restrained grief over the loss of his father. His breakdown scene while putting meat in the freezer – reminding him of his father’s body being kept on ice until the ground thaws enough to bury him – is one of the great moments in cinema this year. Though his feature credits to this point represent a limited list, including small parts in Wes Anderson’s two most recent films, Hedges’ future seems limitless.

Michael Shannon for Nocturnal Animals – I have spent a fair amount of space on this site over the years talking about the greatness of Michael Shannon. He is among my favorite performers working today, and he will win an Oscar sooner or later. He should have been nominated last year for 99 Homes, and it is hard not to think this nomination, though deserving in its own right, is a make-good for his just missing the nod last time.

No matter. Make-good or not, Shannon commands the screen with his intimidating frame and overwhelming presence, taking over as the skewed moral center of Nocturnal Animals. He plays Bobby, a lawman helping Jake Gyllenhaal’s character seek revenge against the men who wronged him. In an otherwise uneven film, all of the performances are great, but Shannon stands tall above them all. Audiences are instinctively drawn to this mysterious live wire of a character, and Shannon masterfully pulls us deeper into his web like one of Bobby’s ill-fated criminal targets.

The final analysis

This category presents an interesting conundrum this year. The signs point to Ali. He was the critics’ favorite choice for supporting actor, and he won the Screen Actors Guild award. On top of that, Moonlight is a clearly beloved film, and the character of Juan and Ali’s performance in the film’s early passages are unforgettable.

However, apart from the Screen Actors Guild, the two biggest Academy Award precursors are the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs. Ali was beaten to the Golden Globe by Nocturnal Animals star Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who is not nominated here, and to the BAFTA at yesterday’s ceremony by Patel. Now, Patel is British, and it is possible the British Academy was looking to reward one of its own, but it certainly gives us pause in predicting this category.

Perhaps the BAFTAs are an indication Patel has the momentum and the inside track to the Oscar, though he has picked up almost no other awards this season. Perhaps the frayed nature of the precursors with three different actors winning at the three different shows suggests anything can happen, such as a Shannon or Bridges win. But maybe – and I think this is most likely – the winds really are blowing the direction they are pointing, and these other victories are simply misdirection on the road to Ali’s well-deserved coronation.

Will win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
Should win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
Should have been here: Ben Foster for Hell or High Water

Tomorrow: Best Supporting Actress

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