Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Supporting Actress

Viola Davis is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Fences.

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 Actress

The nominees are:

Viola Davis for Fences
Naomie Harris for Moonlight
Nicole Kidman for Lion
Octavia Spencer for Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams for Manchester by the Sea

I promised yesterday I would rail against the obvious category fraud taking place here, so here it goes: Anyone who thinks Rose Maxson (Davis) is a supporting character in Fences is objectively, demonstrably wrong. Not only that, but to consider Rose a “supporting” character is to miss the entire point of her character and in many ways the point of August Wilson’s play, one of its many points, anyway. She is the heart, soul, and center of the story. The version of Fences in which Rose is a “supporting” character is not a version I wish to see.

So how does this narrative form, that Rose is a supporting character and Davis’ a supporting performance? It starts with the studio and its awards campaigners, who believe Davis’ best chance for winning an Oscar is in the Supporting Actress category. In truth, yes, the day it was announced Davis would be campaigned in Supporting Actress, the competition ended. Everyone else was playing for second place. But I cannot believe the critics fell in line with this absurd ruse, that the actors, who honored Davis at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, could not break her out of this box. It boggles the mind.

Now, I will stand up and cheer loudly and vigorously when Davis’ name is called out and she collects the Oscar statue she so richly deserves. Imagine, though, what it would have meant for the world to see the Academy, for just the second time in its 89-year history, to award a black actress Best Actress. It would have been one of the greatest moments in the history of the Academy Awards. Her victory, which is all but assured, will be sweet, but think how much sweeter it could have and should have been.

Viola Davis for Fences – In naming Davis’ work here the best performance by an actress in 2016, I called her a national treasure. This is no exaggeration. When given the kind of material she deserves, the kind that requires depth and honesty and truth and beauty and all of that, Davis delivers every time a performance of depth and honesty and truth and beauty and all of that. Rose Maxson is the role of a lifetime, and Davis, who won the Tony Award for this role when it played on Broadway – in lead actress for those keeping score at home – does not let it pass her by.

Davis is a three-time Oscar nominee, the first time in Supporting Actress for an actual supporting role in Doubt in 2008 and the second time for Best Actress for The Help in 2011. She was the prohibitive frontrunner for The Help but lost to Meryl Streep, who is of course Meryl Streep, so what can you do but tip your cap. There will be no such shock this year. Davis will win. She will receive a standing ovation. And it may just be the best moment of the night.

Naomie Harris for Moonlight – It may seem I am disrespecting the other performances nominated here by suggesting everyone else is playing for second. It is not meant as disrespect but as a show of my overwhelming respect for Davis. The other work cited here is all phenomenal, and Harris in particular delivers a performance of great range and complexity as a drug-addicted mother whose own son seems unknowable to her.

Harris famously had reservations about playing the crack-addicted mother Paula in Moonlight, fearing the trap of playing into obvious stereotypes and caricatures. She was convinced by writer-director Barry Jenkins’ investment in the character and by Paula’s complete emotional arc throughout the film.

The glory of Moonlight is that none of the characters is just one thing, and Harris takes this mission statement as an invitation to explore the rich nature of Paula’s past, present, and future. She strikes a deep vein of emotional truth, eliciting empathy even in Paula’s darkest moments. Were Davis properly cited in the lead category, Harris would be a good bet for the win here and a deserving winner without doubt. As it is, the nomination is likely the reward.

Nicole Kidman for Lion – Kidman may have one of the most difficult careers to pin down of any Hollywood leading lady. The perception of Kidman is that she is an A-list celebrity and movie star of the highest order. She already has won a Best Actress Oscar, for The Hours in 2002, and she has appeared in blockbuster-type films like Batman Forever and The Golden Compass, the relative success and quality of those films not being the point here. To dig deep into her list of credits, however, is to dig into the career of one of the most fearless, experimental, and versatile actresses of our time.

In Lion, she plays Sue Brierly, the adoptive mother of the Indian orphan at the center of the story. Her joy is palpable in offering a second chance at life to a lost child, as is her anguish when she feels that child growing up and slipping away from her. The role of adoptive mother is a thankless one in some ways because no matter your connection, the child has an instinct to know his real mother. This is particularly true in Sue’s case, since her son’s real mother is out there looking for him and never meant to lose him. Kidman plays this inner conflict to perfection, and through her, the audience understands the emotional stakes of the film.

Octavia Spencer for Hidden Figures – In some way or another, each of the women nominated in this category plays a character suffering through the pain of circumstance. There is a wife whose husband gets another woman pregnant, a single mother living in the slums, an adoptive mother losing her grip on her family, and a young mother who suffers a terrible tragedy. Finally, there is Dorothy Vaughan, played by Spencer, whose circumstances may be the most unfair of all. A brilliant mathematician, it is her unfortunate luck to be born a black woman into a segregated world.

What makes Hidden Figures and the women whose story the film tells so inspiring is that they do not allow their obstacles to define them. They define themselves by the ways in which they overcome those obstacles. Vaughan is the supervisor of the black women’s computer unit at NASA, but she is neither treated like a supervisor nor paid like one. Rather than be defeated or retreat into anger, she goes about making herself and her team indispensable, demanding to be noticed for her work simply by doing her work. Spencer, an Oscar winner in this category for The Help, is a joy to watch, playing Vaughan’s moment of triumph as a well-earned relief. Finally, she says, and we all agree.

Michelle Williams for Manchester by the Sea – Williams’ screen time as Randi in Manchester by the Sea is brief, limited to just a couple scenes, but her impact is tremendous. In a film built largely around emotionally devastating moments, Randi’s short, awkward, painful reunion with her ex-husband (Casey Affleck) may take the cake for most heartrending.

Randi is a woman whose new life is built on the ashes of unimaginable tragedy, and Williams shows us how she is always a word, a glance, a moment from everything crumbling into dust again. Watching her try to hold it together in the face of this knowledge is a marvel, and Williams is expert in conveying her fragile foundation. Affleck’s character demonstrates what happens when we bury grief too deeply, allowing it to become a part of who we are. Williams’ Randi is the other side of that coin, what happens when the grief is always right there, just under the surface.

The final analysis

Two words: Viola Davis. Four, if you prefer: Viola Davis, Oscar winner.

Will win: Viola Davis for Fences
Should win: Viola Davis for Fences
Should have been here: Judy Davis for The Dressmaker

Tomorrow: Best Foreign Language Film

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