Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Oscars Preview - Part Three!

Today, we continue our Oscars preview with a discussion of the races for supporting performances. These awards go to the best acting performances in roles other than lead characters.  Check back tomorrow for the lead performance category.

Best Supporting Actor

The Nominees:
Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper in American Hustle
Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club


Should Win: Michael Fassbender
It would be easy to play this role as a straight up villain – heck, he is even kind of written that way.  What I respect about Fassbender’s turn as the vicious slave owner Edwin Epps is that he ads an element of confused frustration and existential anger to the role that a lesser actor wouldn’t think to realize.  Fassbender plays Epps not as a hateful man driven by a faulty ideology, but as a prideful man violently attempting to project the reality of his flaws on his slaves.  It is not so much that this character becomes sympathetic, but that he becomes believable, which is perhaps its most sobering aspect.

Will Win: Jared Leto
Leto will win for a few reasons – one, he is very good in this role, two, the Academy loves actor transformations, and three, he plays a character many Academy voters wish to give a louder voice.  What is odd about all this is that while Leto does provide believable emotion to the role, I never got the sense that his portrayal of the transgender martyr Rayon was anything more than a broad stereotype meant to draw out sympathy.  When you take a step back, the writers of this film didn’t give the character enough nuance for any actor to really add much depth.  So, while Leto dutifully and boldly provides an all-in performance, it is kind of a one-note act from beginning to end, and unlike Fassbender, he doesn’t really add much to the role that wasn’t already in the script.

Weakest Nominee: Barkhad Abdi
The Academy loves to reward performances that are surprisingly good:  “Man, for a 5-year old, she was incredible,” or in this case, “You had to admit, for a non-actor, he was really good!”  And I do admit this – he was really good for a non-actor.  I’m just not so sure awards, or even nominations, should be given due to relative merit rather than true merit.  Actors work a long time to refine their craft, and I would say that hard work should be rewarded first.  What sucks is that Abdi is a resident of my home Twin Cities, which is pretty cool, so part of me wants to just be quiet and enjoy this nomination.  Also, Abdi is not a stereotypical-looking actor, so if he continues acting, will likely be relegated to fringe character types for the remainder of his life.  In other words, he will likely not have the opportunity to prove his true merit as an actor, no matter how hard he works to refine his skills in the years to come.

Best Non-Nominee: Jake Gyllenhaal in Prisoners
There are literally thousands of movies with this character – a skilled and professional policeman
investigating a mystery abduction, tasked with both keeping victims calm and digging for the truth.  It is a role Gyllenhaal could have easily phoned in, and no one would have said much else about it good or bad.  The script for this film is well crafted, so the film overall would likely not disappoint anyway.  What is great about Gyllenhaal’s performance, though, is that he adds tics and fidgets to his character that communicate his policing profession simultaneously propels and annoys him.  In other words, while he understands the importance of his position, he also wishes someone else could take on this burden for him.  This subtlety adds volumes to the film, and makes every interaction deeper and more interesting.  In other words, Gyllenhaal does what all great performances do – he elevates the material.


Should Win: Michael Fassbender
This is an astonishing performance in a film filled to the brim with them.  Fassbender is excellent in nearly everything he does, but when he works with McQueen, he manages to elevate already great material.  The work he does as Epps is entirely menacing, frightening, and a look into our dark past.

Will Win: Jared Leto
Like David said, Leto is very good, but this role doesn’t offer him much to do outside of being a heartbreaking portrait into the life of a traditionally marginalized person.  He serves as the main bridge between the lead character and the new culture in which he now must enter, and in that way, is the main reason the lead learns to soften and care about those surrounding him.

Weakest Nominee:  Barkhad Abdi
I agree.  I think he’s really very good, and he was plucked out of obscurity here in Minneapolis, but he doesn’t reach the level of the performers he shares this category with.  Still, considering he is a non-actor, it’s extraordinarily impressive.

Best Non-Nominee:
Because we agreed again on the above three categories, I would like to use this space to highlight two additional male supporting performances that I thought were particularly excellent.

James Franco in Spring Breakers
The film itself is exhausting, graphic, brutal, and disturbing, and Franco embodies the spirit of the film with his performance as Alien, a rapper/drug dealer who bails the four main characters out of jail and shows them a life of “spring break forever”.  Franco is balls-to-the-wall crazy in the role, making himself ugly, unlikeable, and yet charismatic and magnetic.  So many of his scenes inhabit an off-putting, deranged quality, and it’s simply amazing that Franco just went for it, plain and simple. This could be one that continues to be talked about for a long time.

Keith Stanfield in Short Term 12
Never before seen outside of his role in the short on which this film is based, Stanfield absolutely breaks your heart as a troubled teenager who lives in the titular group home, but is nearing a birthday that will remove him from this place.  With his tough exterior and caring heart, Marcus could have been a bland, cliché character in other hands, but he shows us early on in a one-on-one interaction with a supervisor, that this character is bigger than the cliché.  It’s a wrenching, human performance, and his character is the only one this year that made me cry real tears.  I’m looking forward to watching his career progress.

Best Supporting Actress

The Nominees:
Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts in August: Osage County
June Squibb in Nebraska


Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o
Give her all the awards!
With the character of Patsey, Nyong’o gives us a deeply tragic figure.  As a sexually abused slave seeking meaning in the affections of her master, this character is already heartbreaking, but by playing this character as equally naïve and jaded, Nyong’o captures how existential confusion can lead to dreadful fear and frustrated defeat.  Patsey is a woman who is child-like because she is forced to be so, and Nyong’o does not simply play this character as angry or childish, but as deeply conflicted and lost.  It is not that she simply wants to reap the rewards of pleasing her owner, but that she simultaneously hates him and hates herself for this impulse.  Compared to the other more broadly drawn characters in this category, Patsey is by far the most compelling and fully drawn.

Will Win: Lupita Nyong’o
The other possibility here is Jennifer Lawrence, mainly because she has become Hollywood’s darling and won the Golden Globe.  And while Lawrence gives a thoroughly enjoyable caricature of dim-wittedness in American Hustle, it is ultimately a glorified sketch comedy character.  Luckily, Nyong’o won the SAG and several other major awards for her performance, so I think she will also win here.

Weakest Nominee: Julia Roberts
The thing about this performance is that it simply isn’t that memorable or interesting.  While Roberts certainly isn’t bad, and hits high emotional notes in a believable way, the role really only allows her to explore three emotions – annoyance, anger, and stubborn pride.  In a year with so many great performances, three emotions ain’t enough to justify a nomination.

Best Non-Nominee: Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now
For my money, this is the best supporting performance of the year.  Perhaps the reason many overlooked it is because Woodley portrays a teenager as teenagers actually are. While watching her, I kept thinking that I have met hundreds of girls like Aimee in my life.  Most portrayals of high school characters that get awards recognition provide unusually charismatic, disturbed, or intelligent youth, but here, Woodley’s Aimee is meek, shy, and unsure of herself – like most of us once were.  A full range of emotions is on display here, but they are guarded and come out in subtle, hesitant glances rather than grand displays.  Her performance captures an aching desire for acceptance and a flawed façade of confidence common to American adolescence while still communicating a deeper desire for connection and love, and as her character is decidedly normal, her portrayal of Aimee’s loss of innocence and idealism is particularly resonant.


Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o
She is heartbreaking

in this role.  She is absolute perfection in every frame she inhabits.  Beautiful, brilliant work.  I don’t know what else to say but she should absolutely win everything she can for her work here.

Will Win: Jennifer Lawrence
Look, she’s the best thing in American Hustle.  Funny, brash, naïve, and Lawrence shows us again why she’s America’s sweetheart, but she isn’t as good as Nyong’o, and she herself has apparently all but said she wants Nyong’o to get this award.

Weakest Nominee: Julia Roberts
I think you’re a little too hard on her above, and I think she shows a few more than three emotions (depression, some semblance of caring).  But you’re probably right that this is the weakest of the five.  Squibb, also, is good, but shows less range in her performance than the others and even the rest of the actors in Nebraska.

Best Non-Nominee: 

I feel like a broken record.  We once again agree totally in the above three categories, so I’m going to talk about the many fantastic female supporting performances in Her.  First, Rooney Mara, who plays lead character Theodore’s estranged wife.  She’s only in a few scenes, but managers to communicate the depth of love and the private moments inherent in a long-term relationship like a marriage.  She also beautifully captures the now broken relationship that they have.  Second, Amy Adams, who plays
Theodore’s best friend.  Each of her scenes is understated, but she manages to inject a lot of depth into this role that could have easily been quite slight.  Adams does a lot of subtle, nuanced work here, and it’s admirable.  Finally, Scarlett Johanssan, who voices the operating system that Theodore falls in love with.  She’s simply fabulous here, her crackly, smoldering voice lending a personality to a body-less computer.  She captures all the nuances and differences between herself and Theodore well, and the incredibly emotional film finds heart in the computer, thanks to her excellent performance here. The film itself is fabulous, emotional, and has three lovely, small performances from some great actresses working today.

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