Talking Oscars: The Supporting Races

Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor and Meryl Streep star in August: Osage County
Photo: Claire Folger © 2013 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.
2013 has been a decent year for movies so far, but it’s been an even greater year for performances. This year could, or should we say will, see a similar logjam that squeezes someone out of recognition. Just look at August: Osage County, which could easily score four acting nominations or none at all. Meryl Streep seems firm to be campaigned in the lead category, but the ambiguous placement of Julia Roberts could cancel out Streep if they split the lead vote or bump out Margo Martindale from the supporting race. Martindale seems like she’d be a shoo-in if The Weinstein Company campaigned Roberts in the lead category in which she belongs. Julianne Nicholson seems like a dark horse for August given the competition from the ensemble, but votes for “best in show” seem diverse among the supporting (or “supporting”) players and she could siphon enough votes in a hypothetical situation that made room for anyone who had enough support. A few extra names in the Best Supporting Actress category, for example, would demonstrate the quality of work on display in 2013, as opposed to a ballot that omitted the co-stars of August: Osage County.

There are so many names circulating around the acting categories this year. Here’s a look at the crowded field that could make the four acting races some of the most competitive campaigns in years, beginning with the supporting races:

Best Supporting Actress:

We might as well continue with Best Supporting Actress and the ladies of August: Osage County. It seems increasingly likely that Roberts will in fact go supporting. If she does, she might have an edge like Christoph Waltz did last year by competing in the supporting category when his work in Django Unchained was by all regards a lead role. (Roberts has slightly less screentime in August than Waltz does in Django.) The Weinstein Company has yet to post its category placement for all the films on its slate, but the appearance of Julia Roberts at the Hollywood Film Awards to accept her prize for Best Supporting Actress indicates that Harvey is likely to push Roberts in the spot that was announced for Meryl months ago. The Hollywood Film Awards are generally a dubious affair of glitz and glamour that make the Golden Globes look like New York literary awards, but their early placement in the season serves as a handy bellwether for who is willing to do what. The awards are the first stop on the campaign trail, and there’s no better way to start than by announcing the race you’re running in. One should also note the use of language in the trades, which frequently cite "supporting actress Julia Roberts". It might be a question of semantics, but the talk of industry insiders if often something to keep an eye on.

Equal reason to switch Roberts for Martindale comes from the newly listed running time on press materials for August: Osage County, which notes the film as being trimmed to 119 minutes from the cut of 131 minutes that screened at TIFF. It makes sense that the distributor is nipping away Roberts’s screentime to erase confusion as to whether she or Streep is the lead. (Cutting Roberts’s performance could just as easily help Martindale, though.) Oddly enough, however, the much fussed about ending for the film that is original to the adaptation—and ends August on Roberts’s Barbara rather than on Streep’s Violet—seems to remain intact during recent screenings. See, for example, the comments section of the review from Word on the Streep, which notes that the film recently screened with the “Barbara ending” (although rumors still circulate on various online sources that the film will be cut to the “Violet ending”). Even August: Osage County co-star Misty Upham prefers the “Violet ending”!
Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave
If Roberts and/or Martindale find room in the Best Supporting Actress race, they’ll probably face off with fellow Weinstein Co. rep Oprah Winfrey. Oprah seemed like the frontrunner when Lee Daniels’ The Butler opened in August; however, she recently fell to second place in a roundup of experts’ predictions on Gold Derby. Moving into Oprah’s turf is newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who has been moving audiences since 12 Years a Slave hit the festival circuit. Slave, like August boasts some formidable contenders, as co-stars Sarah Paulson, Adepero Oduye, and Alfre Woodard are also being tossed around as dark horses. Oduye’s Eliza certainly has the most powerful role in the book by Solomon Northup, while Paulson’s a rising star thanks to American Horror Story. (I haven’t had a chance to see the film yet but will this week.) None of the three actresses seems to be garnering the same attention as Nyong’o, though, nor does their supporting seem comparable to the varying verdicts of August: Osage County. If any film seems likely to score two nominations in the category, August might stand the better chance.

Also shaking things up since the last round of predictions is Scarlett Johansson’s performance in Her, which caused quite a stir at the New York Film Festival earlier this month. (As did the film itself.) Johansson, who is also great in Don Jon, is being praised for her voice performance as the virtual love interest of Joaquin Phoenix. Scarlett’s sultry voice is being dubbed a potential game-changer for Oscar history, as voice-over performances have struggled to realize buzz into Oscar nominations. (Recall the support for Eddie in Shrek or Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo.) Her producer Megan Ellison tweeted in response to Deadline’s musings by noting that Johansson is indeed eligible and will be the subject of a campaign.

Mixed opinions regarding ScarJo’s campaign are sure to happen, and some performers of August and Slave could cancel each other out, thus freeing up space for one of the dark horses trotting through the field of contenders. The Weinstein Company could easily have three films in the category, since Octavia Spencer seems increasingly likely to be the best shot that Fruitvale Station has at a nomination. (Lead actor Michael B. Jordan faces stiff competition, as will be discussed shortly.) Spencer’s heartbreaking turn caught some attention on the campaign recently when it was noted that The Weinstein Company accidently mailed out screeners requesting that voters consider Spencer and co-star Melonie Diaz in the lead category. TWC was quick to correct the error, although it never seemed likely that one could confuse Spencer’s role as a lead. (It’s no Julia Roberts situation.)

I’m personally rooting for Blue Jasmine’s Sally Hawkins. Her remarkable turn alongside Cate Blanchett’s showstopping lead is a worthy, sympathetic Stella to Blanchett’s deliciously unbalanced Blanche. Attention for Blanchett’s performance is bound to have voters watching the film, and Hawkins could benefit from one of those scenarios in which a worthy candidate profits from the support of a frontrunner à la Maggie Gyllenhaal’s nomination for Crazy Heart. Anything could happen since Best Supporting Actress is the most open race of them all.

Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actor

Best Supporting Actor is the category that has seen the least excitement during the past few weeks, aside from confirming what seemed to be safe bets during the festival circuit. It’s old news by now that Michael Fassbender won’t campaign for 12 Years a Slave (due to a busy schedule), but like Mo’Nique did in 2009, he could easily win the Oscar on merit from the raves he’s drawing for his performance. Also riding solid on the buzz he established at Toronto is Dallas Buyers Club co-star Jared Leto, who might even be outshining lead actor Matthew McConaughey in the eyes of some reviewers. Dallas is Leto’s first onscreen role in four years since Mr. Nobody, so an Oscar nomination would make for one hell of a comeback.

McConaughey could join his DBC co-star on the supporting ballot if one looks to the support that has been building since the actor’s own recent comeback. McConaughey probably just fell one spot or two away from the ballot last year for his award-winning performance in Magic Mike, but he has at least two roles to give his fans some insurance should he miss out on the lead ballot. McConaughey’s Mud was the first screener sent out to voters in the season, which often proves beneficial. See recent cases where early mail-outs for indie darlings like Frozen River or Animal Kingdom brought well-deserved nominations for Melissa Leo and Jacki Weaver, respectively, as did an early start for an aggressive campaign for A Better Life’s Demián Bichir. Mud has its fans, but a reminder might not be enough. (It’s good, but is it that good?) The screener might simply give McConaughey a boost for Dallas, or for his supporting role in The Wolf of Wall Street, which looks like a hoot from a trailer.
James Gandolfini as Albert and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Eva  in Enough Said
On the other hand, buzz has been rising steadily for James Gandolfini since Enough Said premiered at TIFF and earned the late actor some enthusiastic reviews. The sentiment of losing Gandolfini only seems to be adding to the feeling that he would have been a contender for the prize in this surprisingly sweet turn from Tony Soprano. It’s the kind of Oscar story that gives an actor an added push.

Less likely to get a push from a ‘story’ however, is Tom Hanks’s performance as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks. Banks, which will be discussed further in the Best Actress category, is the second major contender to debut since the last round of predictions, as the film closed the London Film Festival last week. Hanks has earned generally positive notices for his performance as Walt Disney, but the film’s overall portrayal of Walt Disney has many writers saying that Walt Disney studios plays fast and loose with the facts and offers a sanitized caricature of its own namesake. (Admittedly, nobody should be surprised that Disney gives a family-friendly portrait of Mr. Disney for its big Christmas release.) On the other hand, Indiewire calls Hanks one of the only “sure things” of the race alongside Michael Fassbender. That doesn’t seem to be the consensus, though, as a review on the very same site says that the performance might be “too slight” to make the cut. Maybe Hanks will just have to make room for his Captain Phillips co-star Barkhad Abdi. If Abdi steals a generous nomination, he can taunt, “I’m the Captain now.”


Best Supporting Actress
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County*
Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station

Almost put: Margo Martindale, August: Osage County

Alt: Naomie Harris, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom; Scarlett Johansson, Her;* Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle*; Melissa Leo, Prisoners; Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis; Julianne Nicholson, August: Osage County; Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave*

Best Supporting Actor
Josh Brolin, Labor Day
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle*
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Almost put: Matthew McConaughey, Mud (or The Wolf of Wall Street*)

Alt: Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips*; Daniel Brühl, Rush; George Clooney, Gravity; Bruce Dern, Nebraska Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners; Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks*; Woody Harrelson, Out of the Furnace.

*New or Moved

Up next: Best Actress and Best Actor

What are your predictions for the supporting races?