Welcome to the seventeenth entry in our Six Spot series. If only supporting in name, the Supporting Actress category has yielded some of the most astonishing performances in Academy history. At the 2016 ceremony, Alicia Vikander won her first Oscar for her role as Gerda Wegener in “The Danish Girl” directed by Tom Hooper. Wegener, a 1920s painter, bears witness as her spouse undergoes one of the first gender reassignment surgeries, having struggled with their identity. The teams campaigning for Vikander and fellow nominee Rooney Mara received criticism for their placement in this category as they both definitely provided more leading performances. Before we look at who they kept out of the category, let’s first look at who was nominated.
THE NOMINEES WERE:
- Jennifer Jason Leigh – “The Hateful Eight”
- Rooney Mara – “Carol”
- Rachel McAdams – “Spotlight”
- Alicia Vikander – “The Danish Girl” – WINNER
- Kate Winslet – “Steve Jobs”
This year’s supporting actress race was the war of the co-leads. Both Alicia Vikander and Rooney Mara were nominated in both lead and supporting categories, depending on the group. Their co-stars, Eddie Redmayne and Cate Blanchett, respectively, both received lead nominations. “The Danish Girl” focused its narrative as much on Gerda as it does on Lily’s (Redmayne) transition. The film uses her as the entry point for the audience, as we often see circumstances from her perspective. Vikander’s placement here recalls the long tradition of “supportive wives” winning in this category. Her win this year further reinforces that trope. In part, her win also serves as a reward for a staggering film year, which included seven performances.
Likewise, though the film is named “Carol,” audiences are in the headspace of Mara’s Therese Belivet for much of the film. If the film were a straight romance, both the male and female stars would be campaigned in lead. However, since the film highlights a romance between two women, the studio didn’t want to campaign both Blanchett and Mara in lead. “Thelma & Louise” stars Genna Davis and Susan Sarandon were the last members of the same gender to both earn nominations in a single lead category. Mara was demoted to supporting to make sure both her and Blanchett would be nominated and gain greater traction for possible wins.
If the Oscars were rewarding true supporting performances, Kate Winslet may have won Oscar #2 this year. Her performance in “Steve Jobs” contended at a bevy of precursors, including a Golden Globes win. There’s also a world where Jennifer Jason Leigh could have had a shot at a win. As Daisy Donergue in Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” Leigh’s character was on the receiving side of much abuse. The Oscars might not have gone for the gleefully bloody performance for a win. In fifth place was surprise nominee Rachel McAdams, starring in “Spotlight” as Sacha Pfeiffer, one of the reporters uncovering the Catholic Church’s abuses. McAdams snuck into the lineup thanks to the strong support of the Best Picture winner. Who did she knock out in the process?
THE SIX SPOT CONTENDERS ARE:
- Jane Fonda – “Youth”
- Precursors – Golden Globes Nominee
- Oscar nominations – Best Original Song
- Helen Mirren – “Trumbo”
- Precursors – Golden Globes Nominee, SAG Awards Nominee, Critics Choice Nominee
- Oscar nominations – Best Actor (Bryan Cranston)
- Cynthia Nixon – “James White”
- Precursors – Independent Spirit Award Nominee, Online Film Critics Society Nominee
- Oscar nominations – None
- Kristen Stewart – “Clouds of Sils Maria”
- Precursors – New York Film Critics Circle (WINNER), National Society of Film Critics (WINNER), Cesar Awards (WINNER), Los Angeles Film Critics Association Runner Up, Online Film Critics Society Nominee
- Oscar nominations – None
- Mya Taylor – “Tangerine”
- Precursors – Independent Spirit Award (WINNER)
- Oscar nominations – None
- Alicia Vikander – “Ex Machina”
- Precursors – Golden Globes Nominee, BAFTA Nominee, Los Angeles Film Critics Association (WINNER), Online Film Critics Society (WINNER)
- Oscar nominations – Best Original Screenplay, Visual Effects (WINNER)
- Julie Walters – “Brooklyn”
- Precursors – BAFTA Nominee
- Oscar nominations – Best Picture, Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Adapted Screenplay
INDEPENDENT SPIRIT UNDERDOGS
The Independent Spirit Awards went 0/5 this year for Best Supporting Actress. It’s a shame, as there were fascinating performances in their lineup that made waves. The winner of the Independent Spirit Award’s Supporting Actress prize was Mya Taylor for “Tangerine.” Sean Baker’s iPhone-shot film follows two transgender sex workers on a Christmas journey to find one’s boyfriend/pimp who’s been cheating on her. Taylor would have been the first transgender acting nominee for her role as Alexandra, an aspiring singer. Taylor had a compelling narrative and the talent to boot. Unfortunately, it seems the film was too small to be a major Oscar player.
Another small film that received some traction was “James White.” The drama tells the story of a party-boy who amends his ways to care for his sick mother. Cynthia Nixon, in particular, garnered rave reviews for playing the aforementioned maternal figure. Nixon was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award and Online Film Critics Society Award. Already an Emmy, Grammy and Tony winner, Nixon only needs an Oscar to complete her EGOT. Her name recognition and narrative were not enough to get this smaller indie noticed by Oscar.
TELEVISED PRECURSOR SUPRISES
There were an unusual number of actresses who received nominations at four televised precursors, only to not contend for Oscar. This was the factor of a spread out field. Also, both Vikander and Mara were occasionally nominated in lead, rather than supporting, like at the Golden Globes. Vikander still was nominated, albeit for a different performance – one we’ll discuss later. Additionally, Jane Fonda made it in for her single scene performance in “Youth” directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Many assumed her star name could give her a place, even for very little screen time. Still, the Oscars decided to include performances with more screen time this year.
Also nominated for a Golden Globe was Helen Mirren for “Trumbo.” Mirren tackled the role of Hedda Hopper, legendary gossip columnist who aided HUAC during the Red Scare. Mirren managed the triple crown of precursors. She was nominated for the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG Awards. In fact, she was the only SAG nominee in this category not to make it to the Oscars. The Academy still snubs actors with this impressive precursor pedigree (think Daniel Bruhl for “Rush”). Many of those snubs came from actors whose films weren’t major Oscar players. However, “Trumbo” was a major acting player, with Bryan Cranston nominated in lead.
What made Rachel McAdams an Oscar nominee was overall support for “Spotlight,” which won Best Picture. In terms of Best Picture nominees, only a few movies had Supporting Actress roles that could have contended. “Brooklyn” star Julie Walters received a BAFTA nomination for her role as Mrs. Keohe, a kindly boarder in ’50s New York. Walters’ role was small, but charming, a callback to her past nomination for “Billy Elliott” in 2000. Yet, the movie wasn’t as omnipresent in all categories to have significant coattails for Walters to ride.
Two actresses ran the gauntlet in terms of critic prizes. Coincidentally, Alicia Vikander won a majority of Supporting Actress critic prizes for a different performance than the role for which she won her Oscar. Her role in “Ex Machina” as Ava, an artificial intelligence robot who can pass the Turing test, was a critical and commercial hit. She won multiple critic prizes for her performance, including the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and Online Film Critics Society. Additionally, she was nominated for both a Golden Globe and BAFTA Award. Oscar rules stipulate that an actor cannot be nominated twice in the same category. Even if they had enough votes to make it in, voters clearly preferred to nominate her for “The Danish Girl.” There’s no way she could’ve made it in for both performances.
Her other challenger for critics prizes was Kristen Stewart for “Clouds of Sils Maria.” Stewart won a number of prestigious critics prizes, including the New York Film Critics Circle and National Society of Film Critics. She also became the first American actress to win the Cesar award. This impressive win record would normally make someone a Supporting Actress contender. However, the film’s April release date poses an issue, as the few who saw it might have had trouble remembering it for Oscars. Combined, this was enough to keep her from the Oscar lineup.