Oscar Circuit: Best Supporting Actress

Melissa Leo in "The Fighter", 2010's Best Supporting Actress...

The 2011 Nominees For Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role are…


The Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress carries a much storied and fascinating history and in an almost distinctive way stands apart from its other acting categories.  This category often generates a surprise or two on nomination morning and has dropped jaws more than once on Oscar night.

The infamous 1997 scowl that Lauren Bacall embodied for losing the 1996 Supporting Actress award to Juliette Binoche and The English Patient is one notable example for the playfulness the Academy occasionally levies on this category’s nominees and the surprises that can befall even the most locked in frontrunner.

This is also the category that made 10-year old Tatum O’Neal (Paper Moon) an Oscar winner and 11-year old Anna Paquin one as well for The Piano.  Controversy still reigns, although lessened somewhat through her increasingly impressive body of work, in Marisa Tomei’s controversial 1993 win for 1992’s My Cousin Vinny over four storied and respected industry veterans – Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave, and Miranda Richardson.  Laughably, people wondered if Jack Palance read the wrong name or just went rogue.

However, in recent years, with the evolution of “Oscar Season” and December becoming precursor Critics’ Awards month, followed by influential awards given out by the BFCA, HFPA, SAG, and BAFTA, the surprises have arrived less and less.  Last year’s winner Melissa Leo steamrolled through the season picking up numerous awards and ran the televised awards table, leaving her Oscar win anything but a surprise.  Ditto for Mo’Nique, Penelope Cruz, and Jennifer Hudson before that.  The closest “surprise” of any type in recent years came when Tilda Swinton picked up the Oscar for Michael Clayton, although calling Swinton’s victory a “surprise” is a bit of a stretch, as many felt that the Academy would opt for Swinton over the much-predicted critical darling of the season, Amy Ryan for Gone Baby Gone.

This year, we seem to have another locked race.  A race, which on nomination morning, led to one distinctive snub, one nominee some feel was cited for the wrong film, and the rare flat out comedic performance breaking through.  Then again, this Award also finds, for the fourth consecutive year, two nominees landing in this category from the same film.  Since 2000, this is the seventh occurrence of this happening and it is indeed a curious fact to ponder for sure.


While some feel that the nomination for Bejo comes from simply riding the comet of success and acclaim that The Artist has fairly or unfairly received this season, the arrival of Bérénice Bejo is the arrival of an actress who has turned many heads and seems set up to cash in on a wealth of opportunities both internationally and domestically.  Bejo is not a new actress, but certainly a new discovery, and savvy movie fans may remember her from her first role in 2001’s A Knight’s Tale, as Jocelyn’s best friend (Shannyn Sossaman).  Alongside her Artist co-star and fellow nominee, Jean Dujardin, Bejo starred in the first collaboration between Dujardin and her husband, Artist director Michel Hazanavicius, in the witty and comical James Bond-style parody, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest Of Spies.  Bejo, like Dujardin, possesses intuitive comedic sensibilities but her performance as Peppy Miller in The Artist certainly calls on her to bring forth those talents in a deeper and more challenging way.  Renowned Oscar analyst and reporter Scott Feinberg mentioned that Bejo could become this generation’s Audrey Hepburn, and while that is high and lofty praise, the potential exists for Bejo to become a huge star, whether she pulls out a shocker on Oscar night or not.

Nomination history:
• This is the first Oscar nomination for Bérénice Bejo.


Some have called Jessica Chastain’s nomination for The Help as a nomination for the safest of her 6 performances on screen in 2011 and many feel that the prolific actress delivered better work in at least two of those films, Take Shelter and Best Picture nominee, The Tree Of Life.  Clearly, the Academy, in largely skewing older with its nominations this year, failed to even consider Take Shelter and The Tree Of Life was not championed by the acting community, so it is hardly a surprise that The Help, a film which took home three Screen Actors Guild awards and could potentially net two acting prizes come Oscar night, becomes the film forever linked to Chastain’s first and richly deserved Academy Award nomination.

Portraying Celia Foote, a white woman on the outside of Jackson, Mississippi, who secretly hires Octavia Spencer’s Minny to help her keep up appearances, Chastain is, in my estimation, the second most impressive performance (behind Viola Davis) in the Best Picture-nominated The Help.  Chastain dissolves into the role of a shunned Southern belle and provides a jolting sense of empathy and compassion for a woman who is not only hiding her own personal tragedies from those who know her, but also her husband.  The connection she forges with Minny is honest and pure and pays off with a tremendously moving sense of gratitude and friendship that Minny simply cannot ever see coming.

Jessica Chastain is a force, an actress who showed this year that she can effortlessly transition from role to role and emotion to emotion in any setting, challenge, or landscape presented to her.  Oscar win or not, and she is perhaps the longest of long shots because of the nomination for Octavia Spencer from the same film, and is someone who Oscar win or not, is going to be in front of our eyes for a very long time.  

Nomination history:
• This is the first nomination for Jessica Chastain.


For those who love comedy, the two Oscar nominations feted for Bridesmaids and especially for Melissa McCarthy’s memorable turn as Megan in the film, seemed to signify the breaking through of a glass ceiling of sorts with the Academy and comedic films and roles in general.  And truth be told, a performance as organically spirited as McCarthy’s, a tried-and-true comedic gem of a performance, does fly in the face of the bias that comedies have experienced with the Little Golden Man.  Detractors have dismissed McCarthy’s nomination as being suspect, no big deal, and cite countless other examples of performances and films in “better” comedies that “should have been” nominated in the past.

The phenomenon and success of Bridesmaids is refreshing on several levels, even important in others, but the Oscar nominations for McCarthy and the screenplay citation for by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo seemed unlikely until the precursor season began heralding McCarthy’s work.  And McCarthy steals the film from a talented group of actresses as she owns and compliments every scene she is in.  Whether stealing puppy party favors, detailing how she broke a lot of “s—” in a freakish cruise ship fall and telepathically communicated with dolphins, coming on to an air marshal on a Vegas plane ride from Hell, and exhibiting some literal tough love on a depressed Kristen Wiig, Megan never panders or sells out the comedy for drama, which is the type of comedic performance Oscar likes.  Oscar asks their comedies to be funny and entertaining, but to also provide true emotion, almost as if to show voters they are not laughing in vain.  Megan never has “that scene” and even when she talks with Kristen Wiig on the couch after Wiig has literally lost everything, we don’t have a breakdown or tears, she resorts to hilarious Fight Cub-style tendencies that she wanted the fellow bridesmaids to engage in for a Bachelorette function.  McCarthy goes for absolute broke and in turn, creates a character that people still talk about as being the funniest and most memorable element from a film people by and large absolutely love.  Expect huge cheers after her Oscar clip plays in 10 days.  It’s truly deserved.  

Nomination history:
• This is the first nomination for Melissa McCarthy.


While some have scoffed at Glenn Close’s Best Actress nomination in Albert Nobbs, those who took an early look at the film failed to find much surprise that Janet McTeer would secure her second Oscar nomination for her moving and supportive turn as Hubert Page, a fellow cross-dressing laborer who paints houses for a living.   Her boldness and patterned fearlessness to reveal her true identity to Glenn Close’s Albert is an intriguing twist on Albert’s devotion to living as a man in oppressive 19th century Ireland.  Critics may have taken issues with the film, but few, if any, writers and reviewers had anything but strong praise for McTeer’s work.  Through Hubert, Albert rekindles a bravery that Hubert can liberally sprinkle in and around with confidence.  Her character transforms and inspires, and voters connected and resonated with her work in a film that is curiously written, envisioned, and off-putting to many people.  Some have felt that McTeer’s nomination led to the big and notable snub in this category, but truth be told, McTeer may have been more of a lock for this nomination than many have us realized.

Nomination history:
• This is Janet McTeer’s second Oscar nomination; previously landing a Best Actress nomination in 2000 for 1999’s Tumbleweeds.


The nomination and high profile victories this season for Octavia Spencer have been a rewarding payoff to a fascinating and interesting pathway to stardom.  Spencer began as a do-anything assistant on movie sets, assisting with casting, props, coordinating, etc.  Her first role came as Roark’s nurse in the 1996 film A Time To Kill and theatrically, she landed small roles in a wide range of films, until exposure on television’s “Ugly Betty” and a turn in the Will Smith film, “Seven Pounds”, placed her on the radar of bigger name producers and directors.  However, her friendship with author Kathryn Lockett and fledgling filmmaker Tate Taylor would be the connection that will likely land her forever in the legacy of Oscar.  Spencer was cast as Minny, the fast-talking and self-described “Muscle” of The Help, standing strong despite private sorrow, and forming a sisterly and motherly bond with Viola Davis’ Aibileen and the aforementioned Jessica Chastain’s Celia.  Spencer won audiences hearts instantly by balancing a mix of levity, strength, and bravery and serves as the individual who breaks open the floodgates of maids and hired help who willingly and bravely share their experiences with Emma Stone’s Skeeter.  In many ways, Viola Davis’ performance does not attain the power and magnitude she achieves without the compliment of Minny on her shoulder and by her side.  I may have cited Jessica Chastain as the second best performance in The Help, but Spencer is right there and I certainly have no qualms whatsoever about the dedicated and hard-working Octavia Spencer becoming a member of Oscar royalty.

Nomination history:
• This nomination is the first for Octavia Spencer.


My pick today: Octavia Spencer, The Help

My Alternate: Spencer is not losing this Oscar, but Bérénice Bejo and Melissa McCarthy are likely the next highest vote-getters.

Snubs or Worthy of Consideration: Shailene Woodley in “The Descendants”, Jessica Chastain in “Take Shelter” or “The Tree Of Life”, Carey Mulligan in both “Shame” and “Drive”, and Vanessa Redgrave still has a small chorus of vocal supporters for her work in “Coriolanus”.  Do not get me started on Shailene Woodley not scoring a nomination here.  Then again, I can see how she missed with McCarthy’s breakthrough and McTeer’s winning work.