Written by Zoë Shacklock.
The Best Supporting Actress category tends to celebrate the love interests, mothers, or daughters of the male lead. Only one of this year’s nominees falls into this category - Alicia Vikander’s role as Gerda Wegener in The Danish Girl. The others are members of ensemble casts (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rachel McAdams), professional rather than romantic counterparts (Kate Winslet), or the romantic partner of the female lead (Rooney Mara). At first glance, it would seem that this category breathes fresh air into the standard spaces of the supporting actress.
Yet despite this, the category is an absolute mess, with three of the five nominees nominated in the wrong category, for the wrong film, or both.
Category Fraud Round One: Rooney Mara
Rooney Mara is absolutely superb in Carol. Her performance is quiet and restrained in the same way as the film itself, but is none the less mesmerising for it. Her guarded facial expressions and quiet gestures draw attention to her eyes, and the whole film pivots around the emotion and meaning we glean from Therese’s gaze, whether observing Carol, photographing her surroundings, or happily watching the world roll by from a car window. Yet despite the strength of her performance, Mara should not be nominated here - she fully deserves to be in the leading actress category. Therese’s emotional arc fits the narrative structure we associate with protagonists, not supporting acts. It may be called Carol, but it is Therese’s story. I suspect there were various backstage political machinations involved in the decision to submit her as a supporting actress, but it cheapens both the film and the category as a whole, disrespecting Mara’s work and stealing a slot that could be given to an actor in a true supporting role. It seems that like her character, Rooney Mara remains ‘flung out of space’, an outstanding performance consigned to a category in which she does not fit and will not be awarded.
Category Fraud Round Two: Alicia Vikander
Between Testament of Youth, Ex Machina and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Alicia Vikander has been having a very good year. Her star will only continue to rise this year, with roles in the new Bourne film and with Michael Fassbender in Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans. It is, therefore, an absolute shame that she has been nominated for one of the most embarrassing and offensive films to be competing at the Oscars in recent memory. Regardless of how good Vikander may be, I simply refuse to recognise The Danish Girl at all, and I can’t commend her performance here. She should have been nominated for Ex Machina, in which she masterfully executes a tricky role as an AI who constantly keeps both the characters and audience guessing about her level of independent thought. Yet both of these performances are arguably leading roles, and Vikander is another example of the category fraud that is plaguing Supporting Actress this year. The studio likely thought she had a better chance in the supporting category, but like Mara, nominating her in this category seems like a very crude grab at awards recognition.
The Team Player: Rachel McAdams
Spotlight is at heart an ensemble piece, and deservedly won the SAG award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast (although Straight Outta Compton was equally commendable). McAdams’ nomination here, and Mark Ruffalo’s nomination for Best Supporting Actor, seem to be largely a recognition of the strength of the cast as a whole: it feels as though the voters (and the studio) wanted to award Spotlight’s performances, so simply pulled out a couple of actors to stand in for the whole cast. However, it is important to recognise the skill involved in what seems on the surface to be a simple performance. McAdams does a lot of ‘reacting acting’ - listening, asking expositional questions, and responding appropriately to the fraught testimonies of the survivors of sexual abuse. It takes a lot of skill and empathy to perform this role: it supports the work of the other actors, it sets the emotional tone for our own responses, and it has to be largely invisible and unnoticeable to be truly effective. This kind of acting usually lacks the sizzle and spark needed to garner awards, so it is satisfying to see it recognised here. Yet ultimately, it’s unlikely that McAdams will win, because her performance simply does not stand out enough. It works as part of the ensemble, and the Oscars have always been far more invested in narratives of individual triumph than those of cooperation.
The Career Recognition: Jennifer Jason Leigh
This is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s first Oscar nomination, and is long overdue. But like Alicia Vikander, she has been nominated for the wrong film. I feel uncomfortable about how much of Leigh’s performance in The Hateful Eight involves being beaten bloody. Of course, if we didn’t recognise the work of women within patriarchal systems we’d never be able to nominate any women at all. But the Academy had another option - Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa. In the film Leigh’s character, Lisa, transforms the bland world of Michael Stone (David Thewlis), breathing life into his jaded worldview. It’s a role that could, in the wrong hands, be a one-note stereotype in the vein of the manic pixie dream girl. But Leigh tempers Lisa’s vitality with a sense of vulnerability and insecurity. This makes her emotional arc all the more affecting, and allows her to exist outside of the desires of the male protagonist. Crucially, because Anomalisa is a stop-motion animated film, Leigh achieves all of this through her voice alone. Yet the Academy does not recognise the value of voice acting, unable or unwilling to let go of the link between embodiment and authenticity. So while Leigh’s award for The Hateful Eight is undoubtedly worthy, particularly as a belated recognition of her whole career, I cannot help but be disappointed that her best work this year will remain unseen and undervalued.
The Reliable Choice: Kate Winslet
In Steve Jobs, Kate Winslet gives the high quality performance we have come to expect from her. Steve Jobs is a typical Aaron Sorkin film, full of dialogue delivered at rapid pace while walking through corridors. Winslet is the stabilising element amongst all of this movement. She delivers her lines with something of a musical lilt to her voice, smoothly guiding the ear of the audience through the dialogue. Where Fassbender’s Steve Jobs causes conflict and halts the narrative, Winslet’s Hoffman moves it along; where Fassbender is chaotic, Winslet is steadfast. Hoffman is the moral centre of the film, preventing it from the collapsing under the energy of Fassbender’s Steve Jobs. Her performance does what all good supporting performances need to do, anchoring the film for both her fellow performers and for the audience. After a total of seven nominations but only one win (for The Reader in 2009), I would argue that it is time to recognise her again.
The Snub: Kristen Stewart
It will come as no surprise that in a category plagued by both poor decisions and deliberate misdirection, I believe that the best supporting performance of the year has been snubbed entirely. Kristen Stewart’s performance in Clouds of Sils Maria very rightly won a César Award, and should have been nominated here. Stewart plays Valentine, the personal assistant of Juliette Binoche’s ageing actress. The film is a something of a hall of mirrors, in which ‘reality’ and ‘performance’ blur into and out of one another constantly, leaving us always questioning how we’re supposed to interpret the action. This works both within the narrative and at the broader extra-textual level, as the film self-reflexively plays with Stewart’s public image. All of these twists and turns make it a difficult role to perform, and Stewart does it beautifully. She resists sharpening the edges of her character; instead, she is self-assured and relaxed, bringing Valentine to life through a loose physicality that adeptly shifts between confidence and raw exposure. There’s an enigmatic core to Valentine that continues to affect me today, months after I saw the film for the first time. Like Winslet, her performance does everything a good supporting performance should do: it steadies and reinforces the work of the lead, it acts like a compass for our identification and comprehension, and it adds dimensions to the film that would be otherwise lacking. Yet Stewart manages to do this while walking the very fine line between self-awareness and estrangement, a feat that makes her performance the standout of the year.
So why was Stewart ignored? Clouds of Sils Maria is a small, international film, and does not have access to the campaigning funds or strategies of the big US studios. It does not help that it was released in April in the US, which, in the tightly controlled timeline of awards season, is practically ancient history. Finally, Stewart’s refusal to play the Hollywood game on the red carpet and in interviews likely, and very sadly, makes her an unattractive figure to many members of the Academy.
So on Sunday night, I’ll be watching the Best Supporting Actress category with interest, but not much enthusiasm. I believe that in the category as it stands, Kate Winslet should win and Alicia Vikander will win, but the award belongs to Kristen Stewart.
This article was published on February 25, 2016.
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