Acting. Pretty people pretending to be ugly. Talented people pretending to be talentless. The reward for their feats of make-believe are getting all dressed up in wildly expensive clothes in the hopes of obtaining a gold statuette for doing the best make-believe. The winner will stand on stage and make a political statement that half the country despises while the other half applauds. It’s the Oscars, baby. So here’s our rundown of this year’s acting nominees – the good, the bad, and wholly unnecessary.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
NOMINEES: Viola Davis (Fences), Naomie Harris (Moonlight), Nicole Kidman (Lion), Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures), Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)
This year the Best Supporting Actress category offers an interesting array of nominees although one has clearly emerged as the frontrunner. Perhaps the most surprising nomination is Nicole Kidman for her role in Lion, as the adoptive mother of Indian child Saroo. It’s a magical combination of Harvey Weinstein’s behind the scenes magic and name recognition, which is in no means to say that Kidman gives a bad performance in the film; but she doesn’t stand on the same ground as her peers in this particular category.
Despite have relatively little screen time, Michelle Williams delivers a powerhouse performance in her brief turn in Manchester by the Sea. At one time she was the frontrunner for the Oscar gold, but her chances have faded as the field of competition become stronger around her. Octavia Spencer delivered a crowd-pleasing performance in Hidden Figures, one that gets most of the film’s lines that incite applause. The other nominee is Naomie Harris as the crack-addled mother of Chrion in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. In a movie that is full of little moments of great importance and a lead character that is often silent, Naomie Harris gets the big, scenery chewing moments that are haunting and unsettling in their raw emotional power. On any given year, either of these three women would stand a chance to take home a statuette, but this just isn’t their year.
Sometimes studios can play the game and get their potential nominees slotted into categories that are ridiculously advantageous. This is the case with the prohibitive favorite for Best Supporting Actress, Viola Davis in Fences. Davis delivers some of the finest work of her illustrious career in Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play, but to call her a supporting player is really underselling Davis’ presence in the film. But hey, she’s all but a lock to take home the Oscar despite the fact that this is truly a leading performance. The fact that Davis has so much more screen time than her fellow nominees gives her a strong advantage because she’s able to make more and more of an impression on viewers. However, there’s no need to gripe about the categorization if it results in a long overdue Oscar for Viola Davis.
Who will win: Viola Davis (Fences)
Who should win: Viola Davis (Fences)
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
NOMINEES: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), Dev Patel (Lion), Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)
On the night of the Golden Globes, a rage filled me as Aaron Taylor-Johnson walked away with the award for Best Supporting Actor for his turn in Nocturnal Animals. Taylor-Johnson delivered a solid performance in Nocturnal Animals but his victory must’ve been seen as an upset because it was the first noticeable loss for Mahershala Ali and his breathtaking turn in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. There’s a toughness and tenderness to Ali’s drug dealer Juan, and he becomes an unlikely father figure for the young Chiron. Ali cuts the tension in times and rouses the audience with a subtlety to his emotional moments in what is undoubtedly the best supporting performance of 2016. Frankly, if Mahershala Ali still isn’t an Oscar winner by Sunday night, the entire awards process is broken beyond repair.
Oddly, the Golden Globe winning performance by Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t the one nominated for an Oscar; that distinction goes to Michael Shannon as the fictitious lawman in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. Any given year there are multiple Michael Shannon performance worthy of awards consideration and it’s quite unusual that this particular one was nominated. This year doesn’t seem to be Shannon’s year, but an actor his caliber shouldn’t have to wait much longer for his moment on the stage.
Dev Patel is the dark horse of this year’s nominees for his role as the fully grown Saroo in Lion. While I wasn’t too nuts about the film as a whole, Patel gives a solid performance although much of the performance is simply staring at a laptop. But Patel hits the film’s emotional crescendo and the tears it brings forth might be enough for the actor to pull off a stunning upset.
Of the two remaining nominees, the chances look slim for either Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea or Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water. Hedges delivers a fantastic performance as young Patrick, and the rising star is capable at cutting the heartbreaking drama with a well-timed laugh as well as bringing forth the film’s meditation on grief to the forefront. As for Jeff Bridges, I’m surprised that he got nominated once again for inflecting a heavy Southern accent that is barely understandable. Bridges is a treasure, no doubt, but Ben Foster is much more deserving of a nomination for his work as the delinquent brother in Hell or High Water. Having a name and reputation can make all the difference in the awards hustle.
Who will win: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Who should win: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
NOMINEES: Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Ruth Negga (Loving), Natalie Portman (Jackie), Emma Stone (La La Land), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)
Whereas most of the other acting categories seem to be preordained by overwhelming favorites, the Best Actress category is the one that feels the most up for grabs. The Best Actress category is a deep roster, with one exception, of amazing performances that left some deserving actresses (*COUGH* Anette Bening in 20th Century Women *COUGH*) on the outside.
First off all, as for that underserving nomination we have to look no further than Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins. At this point I believe it’s apparent that Meryl Streep could star in a snuff film where she bludgeons small children and puppies, drinking their blood while inflecting some half-assed British accent and still earn an Oscar nomination. She’s one of the greatest actresses of her generation and yet her reputation leads to awards considerations for undeserving performances in bad movies. If Streep takes home her fourth Oscar for her role in Florence Foster Jenkins, I’m gonna flip each and every table in my house.
Completely deserving of the Oscar are the two historical performances nominated, Ruth Negga in Loving and Natalie Portman in Jackie. Negga brings a performance that isn’t showy and overwrought, highlighting a quiet tenderness and dread as she fights to have her marriage legally recognized. It’s simply the kind of performance that should garner more awards consideration but lacks in the over-the-top sensibilities that bring home statuettes. On the other hand, Portman delivers the showiness that wins over Academy voters in Jackie. She has that elitist northeastern vocal inflection and her portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy in the throes of grief always has the actress on the verge of tears.
With La La Land emerging as the awards season darling, it seems that Emma Stone is the frontrunner to win on Sunday. She does get the film’s most emotional scenes as well as her amazing ability to exude charm. She’s certainly not my choice because I feel La La Land is much more about the experience of the song and dance accompanied by the strong camerawork, and is not a film driven by its actors. But, again, that’s just me.
My choice for Best Actress and someone who can possibly pull off the shocking win is Isabelle Huppert for her role in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. The twisted sensibilities of Verhoeven’s film only work because of the stunning performance by Huppert. Where the film tangles with extremely tricky subject matter, it emerges on the other side because of the conviction Huppert brings to the character. What I think separates Isabelle Huppert from the pack is that her performance is inseparable from the finished film. There’s no other actress on the planet that could navigate the problematic material of Elle and turn it into a strong, stunning piece of work that challenges viewers as well as entertain.
Who will win: Emma Stone (La La Land)
Who should win: Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
NOMINEES: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea), Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Ryan Gosling (La La Land), Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic), Denzel Washington (Fences)
This was a stellar year for male lead performances but not all of the best performances got Oscar nominations this year, and some nominees got nominated for the wrong movie. Adam Driver in Paterson and Joel Edgerton in Loving were overlooked for their subtle, nuanced performances. Meanwhile, both Ryan Gosling and Andrew Garfield seemed to earn nominations for their weaker performances this year. Nominated for La La Land, Gosling actually gave the far superior performance in The Nice Guys, one that features a physicality that eclipses his dance moves in Damien Chazelle’s musical. Garfield, on the other hand, was nominated for his turn in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, the actor donning a ridiculous Southern accent in Mel’s incongruent war film. But Andrew Garfield’s performance in Martin Scorsese’s Silence eclipses his work in Hacksaw Ridge, and the former is the much more fascinating portrait of faith under duress and driven by a more haunting performance. As is common with awards shows, the better work isn’t always the recognized work.
The odd nomination in this year’s batch is Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic. The patriarch of an oddball hippy family, Mortensen brings a strong performance but it does seem to be on the outside looking in compared to the other nominees, not to mention the great performances overlooked.
When it comes to top honors for actors, it looks to be a showdown between Denzel Washington in Fences and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea, with Affleck maintaining his frontrunner status. Washington delivers a powerhouse performance in Fences, which he also directed, a performance of fury aided by long impassioned speeches. It’s a movie by actors for actors and Washington might very well pull of the upset and leave Casey Affleck sitting in his seat on Sunday night. Affleck, meanwhile, has taken a hit to his reputation with old allegations resurfacing in the heat of the Oscar campaign. Though indefensible, those allegations aren’t on the screen in Manchester by the Sea and Affleck delivers one of the year’s most stunning performances as the shell of a man wrecked by grief and the pain of his past. Will Affleck’s personal issues overshadow his performance on Oscar night? We’ll have to wait and see.
Who will win: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
Who should win: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)