Oscar Circuit: Best Supporting Actor

And the Nominees Are:

Kenneth Branagh – My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill – Moneyball
Nick Nolte – Warrior
Christopher Plummer – Beginners
Max von Sydow – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

This category has often been dismissed as a way to award “distinguished” (read: old) actors with Oscars to honor their career as opposed to the individual performance in question.  While I do have some major gripes with this category, this particular accusation always struck me not only as ageist (what, senior actors can’t legitimately give award-worthy performances?!) but not as backed up by recent history as the reputation would suggest.  Christian Bale, Christoph Waltz, Heath Ledger, Javier Bardem, George Clooney and Benicio Del Toro were hardly old vet actors looking for a swan song trophy.  In fact, the last elderly “career-honor” winner we had was arguably Alan Arkin is 2006, and even then it was a close call between him and Eddie Murphy.  That’s why this year presents an interesting complication to the debate.  With the average age clocking in at 62, this year’s Best Supporting Actor slate is the oldest ever, and three of them could legitimately claim this award as a career capper.

Kenneth Branagh, nominated for his performance as the legendary screen actor Sir Laurence Olivier, leaves a cinephile like me conflicted.  On the one hand, you have the absolutely delicious novelty of a hambone British thesp who got his fame adapting Shakespeare to the screen playing an earlier generation’s hambone British thesp who got his fame adapting Shakespeare to the screen, and his campy work being easily the best performance in a rubbish, Oscar-hungry biopic (sorry, Williams fans, I love her to death, but she only impersonates Marilyn Monroe, and not that well).  On the other hand, he is an example of how Best Supporting Actor is the most lazily-voted acting category, because no members who take their ballot seriously could possibly argue that he gave one of the five best supporting male performances of the year.  But because this category is most prone to riding-the-lead’s-wave nominations, category frauds, and acting giants coasting in on name recognition, here he is.  Whatever got him to the nominee’s circle, there is nothing that I can see giving him the win.  He’s in the least-liked film of the nominees, and three of his competitors could play the “overdue” card more justifiably than him.  While Branagh has been nominated for four previous Academy Awards, this is his first in over twenty years for acting (his last performance nomination was his breakout role in Henry V).

Academy Award-nominee Jonah Hill…man, that’s gonna to take a while to get used to.  I actually thought that that obstacle alone would keep him from being nominated, but it looks like Academy members liked his chemistry with Brad Pitt enough to put him through.  Good for him, I say.  I mean, yeah, his performance as the nerdy, number-crunching assistant GM Peter Brand isn’t acting for the ages, but his rapport with Beane was one of the highlights of Moneyball.  But if the title of nominee was a longshot for the guy, the chances of being called winner will be slimmer still, especially since, at 28 years-old, he is by far the youngest nominee (the second-youngest has twenty-three years on him!).  This is of course Hill’s first nomination, and while some are joking probably only, no one would have predicted that Marisa Tomei would be cited twice more after winning for My Cousin Vinny.

Those who were following our Circuit Consideration series already know my thoughts on Nick Nolte as Paddy Conlon, the recovering alcoholic father of two estranged brothers competing in the same MAA tournament in Warrior.  So that I don’t come off as beating a dead horse, I’ll just express the hope that this nomination at least acts as a career resurgence for this usually amazing actor, and gives audiences the motivation to seek his lesser-known but more impressive work from the past (Seriously guys, Clean.  He’s tremendous in it.).  He may have had more of a shot at winning if Warrior were a nominee anywhere else, or if the film wasn’t a box office bomb.  Since he’s its sole representative competing against two Best Picture nominees and a critical darling, it looks like it’ll be an honor just to be nominated for him.  Despite being a reliable supporting player for over a decade now, this is actually Nolte’s first nomination for Best Supporting Actor (his previous two nominations were for Best Actor – Affliction and The Prince of Tides).

The (deserved) frontrunner is without a doubt Christopher Plummer, especially since his closest competition in the precursors was surprisingly left out.  As Hal Fields, the dying widower who comes out of the closet to his adult son, Plummer actually manages to top his work in The Insider (for which he wasn’t even nominated!  He would have to wait ten years later for his first citation: The Last Station), playing against type as an effervescent, receptive and sometimes self-deceiving man who uses the last years of life to their fullest.  It is a portrait that knocks down years of despicably condescending portrayals of elderly gay characters in the past, and provides the most warmth of the tender Beginners.  The only thing keeping Plummer from being a sure thing is the lack of recognition for the film anywhere else; performances in Best Picture nominees have historically stood an advantage.  But even then such a trend is hardly set in stone, and with such lukewarm excitement towards the other nominees relative to him, this category is easily the most “locked” of the four acting races…

…or is it?  In a conversation with Clay a few weeks ago, he did bring up a salient point; what exactly can Plummer claim – politically-speaking – that Max von Sydow can’t?  He’s one year older, they’re both screen legends, and the Swedish actor has the advantage of being in a Best Picture nominee (however unpopular).  While his points are well-taken, I am still skeptical that he can pull of an upset from his fellow octogenarian.  For one thing, von Sydow was at best a long shot prediction for a nomination; none of us at Awards Circuit thought he would make it.  Secondly, one could argue that the other four nominees either represent career turning points (Plummer, Hill) or career-defining roles (Branagh, Nolte).  One couldn’t reasonably make that distinction with von Sydow’s performance as the unnamed renter who accompanies Oskar on his treasure hunt in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.  Would any fan of the actor actually say that this represents him or his career in any way?  At least his only other nomination for Pelle the Conqueror “felt” like a von Sydow performance.  I wouldn’t even say it was the best male supporting performance in the film; Jeffrey Wright leaves more of an impression in the one whole scene he actually gets.  Ah well, if Plummer actually loses the Oscar, von Sydow is nevertheless his most likely usurper.

A record-breaking slate of nominees in an otherwise locked category, and I didn’t even delve into the surprise snub of the year (I’ll leave the outrage over that to bigger fans of the performance, but needless to say now Brooks fans know how Sarsgaard fans felt back in 2004 when their favorite performer wins-a-bunch-of-critics’-awards-and-seems-locked-despite-missing-SAG-but-that’s-no-big-deal-right?-and-then-pow!-they-get-the-eleventh-hour-shaft).  Give us your own analysis of the category here, and stay tuned for Clayton’s run down of Best Lead Actress!

Prediction: Christopher Plummer for Beginners

Albert Brooks for Drive
Viggo Mortensen for A Dangerous Method
Brad Pitt for The Tree of Life