Oscars Watch 2017: The Less-Depressing Campaign: Best Supporting Actor and Actress

In recent years, if you’ve heard about the Supporting Categories, you’re most likely hearing about them in the context of Category Fraud.

So, a little history. Supporting Categories have extraordinarily flexible rules because of the difficulty of actually pinning down what it means to be a “Supporting Actor.” There are no screentime/page count limitations, so being in the category comes down to what the company running the campaign decides to submit the actor as. So, if an actor or actress is submitted as Supporting, then that’s where they go. The Academy could in theory contest it, they never have.

While a long-running part of the Awards (Sigourney Weaver was submitted for Supporting for Alien), it became a particular focus last year in the Supporting Actress category. Alicia Vikander and Rooney Mara competed in that category in 2015. Anyone who saw Carol or The Danish Girl knows how wrong that is. Both characters had the main emotional arcs and journeys of the film, both were arguably from their point-of-view, and both ultimately had more screentime than those submitted as leads from those films (Eddie Redmayne and Cate Blanchett). But they were submitted as Supporting, so it goes.

Why do that exactly? It’s mostly just strategy. Always remember that the Oscars aren’t necessarily about the artistry, but are a game like any other election. Moving a lead performance to supporting makes it a more attractive prospect, that actor had a lot more time to shine and may be a bigger name. Name recognition plus enough time for plenty of actorly moments makes them far more competitive.

So, let’s get into it. Due to the sheer number of possibilities, we’re gonna eschew the normal format and just go with what I think the category is gonna look like.

Best Supporting Actor:

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Kevin Costner, Hidden Figures
Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Liam Neeson, Silence

The theme here is older actors. Supporting Actor does tend to be where the actors not in their 30s-50s come out to play. Almost all these guys have been in Oscar conversations before (or have won Oscars before), which is actually more indicative of a weak field. These are all (the ones that I’ve seen) strong performances, but it’s a lot of name recognition over anyone who can necessarily dominate.

Mahershala Ali is the odd-man out here, being the freshest face here. A TV darling (House of Cards, The 4400, Luke Cage) who’s just now starting his break into film, Moonlight was a seriously impressive show for him. Juan was a layered and impressive performance with plenty to wow, and he may be able to ride the grassroots support. He may be just a little…too supporting for the Academy’s tastes.

Bridges was the undeniable darling of the underseen, but incredibly popular among those who did see it, Hell or High Water. Bridges is an actor who’s now gained a lot of his gravitas through age and his actor type now (gruff grandfatherly types), and Hell or High Water is a particularly good show of that for those who had seen it.

Costner is a recent addition to the race, but his apparently pivotal and sympathetic role in what’s looking like a crowd-pleasing Oscar darling Hidden Figures puts him far deeper in the conversation here than anyone was expecting. If the film is as popular as it appears, he could ride that wave into this race.

Grant is one of those actors who never got respect as a younger actor, even if people liked him. One of the more surprisingly complex characters of a not terribly complex film, Grant’s performance was a clear standout and the older demographics in the Academy could seek to reward him for sticking around and becoming an older actor with a little more weight.

Neeson is just a total feeling out that Silence will be as immense as it appears. The potential groundbreaker Scorsese passion project will likely spread a little more love around if it’s so good. It also feels like it’s been a while since Neeson has gone really respectable, so if he does, it’ll reward him for going away from the Dad action thrillers.

Best Supporting Actress:

Viola Davis, Fences
Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Janelle Monae, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

So, this is a much different category than Supporting Actor, a remarkable group of actresses who’ve not gotten near the recognition they deserve up until now.

Of course, those people don’t matter because this is Viola Davis’ category to lose.

The choice to put Davis in the category pretty much locked it up for her. Fences is getting raves out of its small screenings so far and Davis is only expanding on a role she’s already won a Tony for. She’s just beginning the campaign and things are looking solidly in her favor. Of course, it’s also a bit of category fraud as her character is definitely a lead given that that is the category she won the Tony for. But nothing we can do about that.

The only potential upset here is Michelle Williams. Williams is apparently in a true supporting role, showing up only a few times in the course of the whole film, but one of her scenes is apparently the film’s emotional lynchpin and the scene that puts Casey Affleck and her in such powerful contention. If that one scene is enough of a wow, and overall reception on Fences ends up somehow being lukewarm, Williams could be the alternative.

Janelle Monae has made a case for moving from the world of music into character acting, she’s a strong supporting presence and I think appearance into Oscar-potential pictures will be important for her this year. She seems to get a strong and enjoyable role in a crowd pleaser with Hidden Figures and I’m guessing the surprise will take her further than someone like Octavia Spencer, who we have a little less surprise with at this point.

Naomie Harris gets one of those “mother in poverty” roles that the Academy loves, and hell, that might end up being enough. But she also goes really hard and deep into the role and gives it a hell of a lot of nuance, it’s just a really impressive role. I have no doubts that she will get recognized here, because she sure as hell won’t be for Collateral Beauty. 

Finally, Greta Gerwig. This is just kind of a personal pick as I think she’s still desperately under-recognized from Frances Ha and Mistress America. But she apparently does great work in 20th Century Women and her popularity among the newer, younger demographics in the Academy should work out really for her.

NEXT WEEK: Best Screenplay, Original and Adapted