It’s been awhile (about two years to be precise), but I’m happy to report that Oscar Talk is once again live on NYC Film Critics.  Joining me, as always, is friend and fellow movie lover Nick Spagnoli, new reporting from the ‘burbs of Washington D.C.  Over the next two weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the races in the major categories, offering opinions about who will win, who should win and who got snubbed.  Kicking off the triumphant return of Oscar Talk is Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress.  Enjoy!

The Nominees
Best Supporting Actor
Josh Brolin: Milk
Robert Downey Jr.: Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Doubt
Heath Ledger: The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon: Revolutionary Road

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams: Doubt
Penelope Cruz: Vicky Christina Barcelona
Viola Davis: Doubt
Taraji P. Henson: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei: The Wrestler

The Discussion


From: Ethan
To: Nick

In the past, the races for supporting actor/actress have tended to be more intersting than the awards for the big start turns, namely because the winners for the latter categories are usually fairly obvious.  This year though, the situation is reversed as both the Best Actor and Best Actress categories are very competitive with several different outcomes likely while Best Supporting Actress and, particularly, Best Supporting Actor seem etched in stone.

Let’s start with Supporting Actor, or, as I’ll call it, the Heath Ledger Memorial Award.  Plenty of folks out there are unhappy that The Dark Knight was passed over for Director and Picture honors (I know you’re one of them so I’m sure we’ll get into that when we start talking about about those awards), but imagine the outcry had the 21st century’s answer to James Dean not been nominated for his final completed screen performance.  I’m not exactly about to argue the opposite either; there’s no question in my mind that Ledger deserves the nod.  But does he deserve to win?  That’s a much harder question.  Ledger did do an extraordinary job reinventing the screen image of the Joker, a character many people still associate with Jack Nicholson or Cesar Romero.

Instead, Ledger incorporated elements that writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller introduced into the character’s comic-book personality into his own peculiar approach and came up with a Joker that fanboys would recognize from the comics but a mass audience had never seen before.  And, in the end, he’s the element that makes the movie what it is.  There are other things about The Dark Knight that are good-to-great (and a lot that’s not so great), but Ledger is its heart, soul and narrative engine.  Were he still alive, I probably wouldn’t question his victory at all.  But since he has passed, I have to wonder whether winning a statue will really accomplish anything apart from Hollywood trying to put a somewhat happy face on a genuine tragedy.  It’s a plotline that certainly could come right out of a movie: a talented young actor dies before his time and wins an award for his final performance.  Everyone gives him a standing ovation, his picture is put onscreen one more time and then the awards continue and the audience goes home.

Onscreen, that would be a three-hankie moment, but in reality it strikes me as too neat, too pat an ending.  If I’m really being honest here, I’d rather see a living actor go home with this award while Ledger (and everyone else who passed away this year) receives a simple moment of silence.  It feels like a more honest way of acknowledging death than handing out a trophy.

So if Ledger isn’t, deep down, my first choice to win, which actor would I pick?  That’s easy, Robert Downey Jr.  I’ll explain why in my next e-mail, but I want to give you a chance to respond to the Ledger situation first.  Also, are you as convinced as I am that Penelope Cruz has the Supporting Actress trophy locked up?  See what I mean about the outcomes being very obvious this year?


From: Nick
To: Ethan

Yes. I agree that there is a lack of suspense to many of the major categories this year.  And Supporting Actor is one of two that are complete locks (along with Animated Feature, which belonged to Wall-E as soon as it was released last summer).

Giving the statue to Ledger could be seen as nothing more then a memorial award, as you suggest.  Certainly, there are times when the Academy decides to honor an actor more for their body of work then for the particular performance that they’re nominated for.  And of course, there are many examples when the popularity of an actor gets him or her votes that they otherwise might not deserve.  I don’t think there’s any doubt that Ledger will receive votes just out of sympathy and respect.  But, as you ask, does he deserve to win based on his performance alone?  To me, unquestionably, the answer is yes.  Since you said that you wouldn’t question it if he were alive, then don’t you really agree?  Just because he isn’t here to accept it, that doesn’t mean the performance is any less deserving.

As you mentioned, he is the heart of the film.  His presence is felt in every frame, whether he’s on screen or not.  Part of that is the nature of the role (and credit should go to Christopher and Jonathan Nolan for a terrific script), but Ledger turns in a performance that sets the tone for the entire film and reinvents the comic book villain for the big screen.  It would have been so easy to take this larger then life character and go over the top (see Jack Nicholson in 1989’s Batman).  But he straddles that very fine line in a way that few others could.  It’s an iconic performance, and I have no problem seeing it honored.

Though I give the slight edge to Ledger with my personal vote, I would also be thrilled to see Robert Downey, Jr. win for Tropic Thunder.  Like Ledger in Dark Knight, Downey is the best thing in his movie, a movie that also has a whole lot going for it.  He also had to walk a fine line in a role that could have been offensive, or one-note, or worst of all, simply not funny.  But he’s hilarious, and believable, in every scene he’s in.  It would be nice to see a terrific comedic performance honored, but not this year.

As for Supporting Actress, though I agree that Cruz is the favorite, I don’t think she’s a slam dunk, and, while I think it’s a strong performance in a film that I thoroughly enjoyed, I don’t think she’d be getting my vote.  I see Taraji P. Henson as a potential spoiler here.  It’s a solid performance in a role that the Academy tends to favor (playing a wide range of ages in an epic movie).  She’s also relatively unknown, at least in the feature film world, and this is a category that has often gone to new faces in the past (Jennifer Hudson just two years ago).

Though Viola Davis was very good in Doubt, I don’t think a single, 12-minute scene is worth the Oscar (sorry, Dame Judi Dench…I’m looking at you too).

I’m a big fan of Amy Adams, and she too is quite good in Doubt, but this isn’t the role that’s going to give her an Oscar.  She’s playing a variation on the wide-eyed innocent that she does so well. It’s not much of a stretch for her.

That leaves the actress that I’m leaning toward with my vote, Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler.  I feel like I’m running a little long, so I’ll give my reasons in the next go-round.  Do you think Cruz deserves to win?  Or is there someone else that you’d go with?


From: Ethan
To: Nick

Logically, you’re right that I’m basically contradicting myself when I say that I wouldn’t question Ledger’s win were he still alive, but take issue with it because he’s passed on.  I guess it comes down to my confused feelings about what exactly an Oscar is *meant* to honor.  In theory, it is supposed to honor a specific performance or film but, as you point out, all too often it becomes about awarding an actor for an entire body of work or awarding a film because it made $10 million more than another nominee.  And when you’re in that rare situation where a performer has died, particularly in such a high-profile way as Ledger, I can’t help but wonder how many Academy members were persuaded to vote for him out of a desire to honor the actor instead of the performance and maybe that’s what I’m objecting to.  It’s their way of making themselves feel better about a tragic situation.  Considering how little love The Dark Knight received in the other major categories, part of me thinks that if Ledger were still alive, he might not have won anyway.  The nomination would have been his victory, with the statue going to someone like Josh Brolin or, in a total upset, Michael Shannon.

Speaking of those two performances, I’m pleased that both actors made the final cut even if they aren’t my first picks to win.  Brolin gives Milk‘s second-best performance behind Sean Penn and I really liked Shannon’s oddball take on a character that is little more than a plot device.  He’s the one element in Revolutionary Road that’s genuinely unpredictable.  As for Philip Seymour Hoffman…what the heck is he doing in this category?  Don’t get me wrong–I love the guy and he’s great in Doubt.  But he’s the male lead in that movie, not a supporting performer.  It’s the same issue I had with Kate Winslet submitting herself for consideration in the Supporting Actress category for The Reader.  Thankfully the Academy didn’t fall for that gimmick the way the Golden Globes did, but I am surprised they let Hoffman slip through.  It’s not just a question of screentime–his actions are the engine that drive the film’s narrative.

You hit the nail on the head with your Downey Jr. comments.  He pulls off an almost impossible feat in Tropic Thunder, fearlessly taking on the spectre of blackface and delivering a performance that’s hilarious and genuinely emotional without being an offensive stunt.  You just have to compare his Method-style turn with Ben Stiller’s broader and far less funny Simple Jack routine to see how awful that role would have been had Downey not approach his comic role as seriously as he did.

In the supporting actress race, I’m 90% certain that Penelope Cruz has this one locked up.  First for the always-present legacy reasons: she’s been around for awhile now and this is the Academy’s way of making up for not giving her the trophy for her work in Volver.  (That was the year Helen Mirren dominated every single awards show as you may recall.)  And, of these five nominees, I do think she’s the most deserving.  Like Javier Bardem in Vicky Christina Barcelona, she delivers an entirely fresh take on what is, on the page, a standard-issue Woody Allen archetype.  She’s also the whirlwind of energy that gives that sometimes languid film a good kick in the pants.  And lastly, she’s just freaking gorgeous.  I know looks aren’t supposed to enter into this thing, but let’s face it–the Academy loves honoring beautiful people.

If there is a spoiler in this race, my money is actually on Viola Davis rather than Taraji P. Henson.  Henson delivers what is probably the strongest performance in Benjamin Button, but that’s a film that really isn’t regarded as much of an actors’ showcase.  Notice that more ink was spilled on the technology that allowed Brad Pitt to play an 80-year-old man rather than Pitt’s performance as that man.  Frankly, I’m skeptical that Benjamin Button will win a single Oscar out of the 13 nominations it received, but that’s a conversation for another exchange.  As you said, Adams’ role isn’t much of a stretch and I think The Wrestler is still primarily seen as Mickey Rourke’s movie.  Plus, Tomei has already won once before.  That’s why Davis strikes me as the one longshot nominee who could pull out a win.  After all, she’s a respected character actress who has been around for a long while without a nomination or a statue and while she may only be in one scene, it’s one of the best scenes in the film and there’s precedent for one-scene wonders winning before (hello Beatrice Straight).  Would it be a deserving win?  Absolutely.  Although again, it would feel to me like the Academy was honoring the actress rather than this specific performance.

From: Nick
To: Ethan

I hear what you’re saying.  And I’m sure that Ledger is getting more votes then he would have had he lived.  It would have been a more competitive category and he may not have won.  I bitch and moan about those other factors coming into play (popularity, making up for past slights) because I do think it should be about the role that has been nominated and nothing else.  But, in this case, if it helps the most deserving actor win, I’m perfectly fine with it.

I too was very pleased to see Michael Shannon nominated.  I was also shocked to see it since there seems to be no love at all for Revolutionary Road (more on that when we talk about the lead actor race).  Like Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he really injects some needed energy into the film and creates an honest, interesting character in two short but integral scenes.  Brolin continues his streak of terrific performances in Milk but I would have preferred to see someone like Bill Irwin from Rachel Getting Married or Ralph Fiennes for his trio of solid performances in The Duchess, The Reader and In Bruges.  Hoffman is another example of how the Oscar rules and nominations are somewhat random, and completely out of whack.  If Meryl Streep is up for lead actress for Doubt, why wouldn’t he be considered the lead actor?  But, I can’t get too worked up about this one, only because I think it’s a worthy performance that never would have made it into the crowded lead category this year.  Yes, I know I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth here, but with Oscar, it goes with the territory.

I agree that Penelope Cruz is deserving, even if she isn’t my first choice.  Much like Amy Adams, I don’t think this role is a big stretch for her. I actually think she turned in a better performance in her other film from last year, the underrated Elegy.

Though The Wrestler is clearly all about Mickey Rourke, Tomei does some terrific work with a role that could have easily been one-note.  It’s also a true supporting role that helps to give more dimension to Rourke’s character and in the end gives us a clear view into his psyche.  Plus, with a win for Tomei, the Academy can prove that they knew what they were doing when they her an Oscar for My Cousin Vinny in 1992.

Is there anyone that you would have knocked off this list to make room for someone else? Or do you think the Academy get the nominations in this category right this year?

From: Ethan
To: Nick

Yeah, there are a few actors I would have liked to have seen take Hoffman’s spot with Eddie Marsan from Happy-Go-Lucky at the top of the list.  Sally Hawkins is deservedly getting most of the attention for that film (although not from Academy members, an oversight we’ll discuss later, I’m sure) but I think Marsan delivers an equally strong performance as the eternally pissed-off driving instructor Scott, who is the polar opposite personality type from Hawkins’ bubbly Poppy.  Marsan has to be both wholly unlikable yet strangely sympathetic at the same time and he pulls it off beautifully.  I would also second your pick of Ralph Fiennes for In Bruges specifically; Fiennes is a great dramatic actor, but I never thought he had a comic streak in him.  He completely proved me wrong in that film, though the performance does owe a bit to Ben Kingsley’s similar live-wire thug in Sexy Beast.  Another one of my favorite comic turns of last year was James Franco in Pineapple Express.  I didn’t love the movie, but I absolutely adore his performance as the blissed-out pot dealer.  One of my new dream screen pairings would be for Franco and Anna Faris to reprise their stoner roles from Pineapple and Smiley Face respectively in a road-trip comedy.  Finally, we agree on Bill Irwin from Rachel Getting Married.  I love how sublte his performance in the film is, how he hangs back from all the melodrama swirling around his two daughters.  And that dishwasher scene is one of the best bits in the movie–he communicates so much through his behavior rather than his words.

Honestly, I’m drawing a blank when it comes to actresses I would have liked to have seen nominated in the Supporting category.  This seemed to be a year where several women found great leading roles, but supporting parts were hard to come by.  Overall, this is a pretty solid list–everyone more or less deserves to be here, including Tomei.  I probably didn’t make this clear in my earlier comments, but I do think she does a good job in an underwritten role.  I just don’t think she’ll win.  If there is one change I could make, I’d probably swap out Amy Adams for Rosemarie DeWitt, who played the title character in Rachel Getting Married.  I actually preferred DeWitt’s performance to the movie’s star Anne Hathaway, who received a Best Actress nod.  And if DeWitt were among the five finalists, she’d be the actress I’d like to see win, even over Cruz.  But of these five women, Cruz will and should win.


From: Nick
To: Ethan

That’s a great call on Eddie Marsan in Happy-Go-Lucky.  His performance in that film is the epitome of what a supporting role is all about.  The movie just doesn’t work without him.  Franco was easily the best thing about the otherwise disappointing Pineapple Express.  It’s a terrific performance but I don’t know if I could bump any of the other people we’ve been talking about to give him the nod.

DeWitt is the one woman that I was going to bring up as well.  She has a more difficult, less flashy role then Hathaway (who I do like in the film) and she grounds it beautifully.  I feel like I’m forgetting someone else, but I suppose if I can’t recall it, it probably wasn’t that worthy.

I have to agree that Cruz will be the winner, but I think it should go to Tomei.

The Verdict

Supporting Actor
Will Win: Heath Ledger
Should Win: Robert Downey Jr.

Will Win: Heath Ledger
Should Win: Heath Ledger

Supporting Actress
Will Win: Penelope Cruz
Should Win: Marisa Tomei

Will Win: Penelope Cruz
Should Win: Penelope Cruz