One of the few categories that La La Land was not nominated for, the Best Supporting Actress is essentially a two woman races. Here’s why:
-Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)
In somewhat of a surprise, Octavia Spencer was nominated for Hidden Figures. Greta Gerwig could easily have been nominated in her place (Jackie and 20th Century Women). Spencer was the only acting nominee from Hidden Figures, and has previously won for 2012’s The Help.
Gotta be honest, Spencer was not the person I would have picked to win the nomination. Gerwig was a better all-around candidate in two separate films.
Though Spencer does a fine job in her role as Dorothy Vaughan, fighting against a racist supervisor and training herself in the workings of NASA’s new IBM computers, Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson appeared to be more deserving. Spencer has a few moments here-and-there, but she most likely secured the nomination for her bathroom scene. The moment she confronts her racist supervisor in the women’s room is the largest laugh out loud moment. When her supervisor is rebuffed. Spencer’s face of “Hm” and sassiness is what you’ve been waiting for someone to say. There’s nothing funnier than a racist saying that they have have nothing against you, when they have everything against you. It will be the shocker of the night if Spencer wins.
-Nicole Kidman (Lion)
This would be another shocker. Kidman’s role as the adoptive mother of Dev Patel hit a lot of the right notes, at least the notes that Academy voters want to see. For most of the film, Kidman plays an emotional wreck of a character. A person who wants children, but has made a decision to adopt at-risk kids from India rather than have her own. She is often left in distress because her inability to control either of her sons.
Toward the latter half of the film, Kidman’s character goes lower and lower into an emotional hole. In her final visit with Patel, it appears she’s near death. No explanation is given as to why Kidman’s character is tortured this violently for her sons being grown-ups (In that case mothers would be dropping all over the place). But that’s a fault of the script, not the actress. When Patel finds her sitting by a window, watching the water wash across the Australian shore, as her eyes are as red with tears as her hair, Kidman had secured her fourth nomination (She has previously won for 2003’s The Hours).
-Naomie Harris (Moonlight)
Harris would be the dark horse pick of this award. Much like Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, it would be a surprise to anyone, but the people who saw her performance. Her role as Chiron’s mother, Paula, a crack addict who can’t accept that her son is gay nor take care of him, would normally make this award a lock for her.
Every moment she’s strung out, or begging her son for money for the next fix is seared with the ability to demonstrate the verbal abuse that addicts can sometimes inflict on the ones they love. Harris is able to jump from loving, to hopeless, abusive, to craving, to remorseful in a split second. She hides each emotion like a poker player waiting for you to call their bluff. She locked-up the award the second she had her confrontation with Mahershala Ali’s Juan, her drug dealer. When Juan finds out that she is the mother of Chiron, a child he has taken under his wing, he proceeds to dress down Harris. But Harris’s retort toward Juan’s hypocrisy of a moral argument breaks-open the shades of grey between the roles of dealer and addict. Moonlight isn’t nominated for Best Picture without her performance.
-Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)
If there was a clear number two, it would be Williams as the ex-wife to Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler. A woman who has lost her children and her husband, who has found a new life, until old wounds are opened-up when Affleck arrives back in town to settle the affairs of his recently deceased brother.
Williams is at a disadvantage in this category, which I’ll speak more about when I get to Viola Davis. In most years, Williams would be a lock to win this (This is her fourth nomination). Instead, she has to hope that her small amount of screen time was enough to sway voters. She likely won the nomination because of the final meeting she has with Affleck. When they have the meeting that they should have had long ago in the explosion of the film.
The difficulty in this scene, is the need for Williams to break down emotionally without having much to go off of. Without much screen time or context, save for what we know through Affleck’s character, Williams is left in an attempt to not overact, in a situation that may demand it. Yet, her explosion of emotion is the cathartic release the film needs. Manchester by Sea is quiet. Williams gives the emotion one would expect in a movie about death.
-Viola Davis (Fences)
It would be a surprise if Viola Davis did not win. This is her third nomination (Previously nominated for Doubt and The Help). Her role as Rose Maxon, Denzel Washington’s wife, is what Oscar performances are made of. It’s difficult to steal the spotlight from Denzel, but Davis does it time and again. She does it when she confronts Denzel about how he treats their son, how he treats his brother, and when she receives the ultimate betrayal. Davis deserves this nomination….just not in this category.
She should not have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Rather, she should be in the Best Actress category. How did she end-up here? Well, the Oscars are part performance, and part strategy. Paramount decided that Davis had a better chance at winning the award, if they submitted her performance for Best Supporting Actress. Davis and Paramount aren’t at fault here. The loophole exists, and they took advantage of it. They saw what happened last year with blacks, and they took the easier road. The fault lies with the Oscars.
An actor/actress or film studio should not have to play the system to receive a nomination. That’s a sign of general distrust brought about by a system of nominating. Now, to be clear, this isn’t completely race driven. The same happened last year when Alicia Vikander and Rooney Mara were nominated, with Vikander winning, when their performances and screen time could have easily put them in the Best Actress category. The Oscars must find a better way to screen which performances denote which award. Because at the moment, Williams will be left in a position that puts her at a decided disadvantage. Davis probably takes over 60% of the screen time in Fences. I would be shocked if Williams’ time amounted to 20%. There are more opportunities for Davis to shine than Williams. It’s a system that’s unfair to Williams and to Davis (who deserves to be named Best Actress), and it has to be fixed soon.
But for now, Davis is the clear front runner. It would take a massive upset to take the Oscar from her.