Because Oscar Said So: Best Supporting Actress Nominees

BOSS - supporting actress nominees

Because Oscar Said So (B.O.S.S. for short) is yet another first for this blog. In years past I haven’t spent much time going into detail about the major categories recognized at the Oscars ceremony, particularly the official selections as quite often I find myself at odds with the Academy’s choices. Longtime readers of the site know that I like to take matters into my own hands by putting together a mock awards ceremony, a post in which I break down overwhelm my poor readers with my ramblings on several different aspects of the year in film. If you’ve yet to come across The Digibread Awards, you can click here to find out what’s up with all of that.

I talked at some length (maybe rambled is the better term) about the Oscar nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role last time, so naturally the conversation  turns now to the Supporting Actress nominees. If you’re wondering why I’m focusing on the supporting roles instead of the leads, I refer you back to that post here.

The year 2015 marked some improvement in the availability of strong female characters, and thankfully these ran the gamut from mega-popular leads (Daisy Ridley, is she a lead or a supporter? Whatever she is, unfortunately one thing she is not is an Oscar contender anymore) to more subtle, less commercial-friendly bit parts (Alicia Vikander has been ridiculously busy this year but only one of her roles has garnered the Academy’s attention). Still, 2015 does have strength in numbers.

We already know Gal Gadot is about to become the year’s most fervently discussed heroine, stepping into the role of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in the upcoming mega-blockbuster Superman vs Batman: Dawn of Justice. (Have fun dealing with those press junkets!) Amy Adams will be right there with her, albeit probably not quite as prominently in the conversation, and likely will be still fielding questions as to whether she was the right fit for Lois Lane.

Alicia Vikander as Gerda Wegener in 'The Danish Girl'

Looking ahead at the 2016 slate, opportunities once again abound for female leads and supporting performances. The Natalie Portman-starring western Jane Got a Gun (a by-now infamously troubled production), finally set to premier at the end of January, features Portman as one of two or three women in the entire film; contrast that with indie drama About Ray and the hotly contested remake of the Ivan Reitman classic Ghost Busters, a production attempting to further distinguish itself by pushing the words together to form Ghostbusters — how crafty.

Like them or not, these are some of the year’s most notable productions. The headstrong rebel fighting for survival in a dystopian world remains alive and well this year, with the final installment in the Divergent series set for a mid-March release. Meanwhile, Melissa McCarthy continues to try to impress with her ability to carry an entire movie on her back in the form of The Boss. Kristen Bell, for some reason, found something to like about the story and she’ll offer support.

That’s of course just a small sample of what the year has on offer, but suffice it to say that’s already a pretty eclectic mix of things to look forward to. One could make the argument that last year still has the upper hand in terms of offering more prominent roles for female talent, and that’s a difficult argument to defend against. But 2016 won’t go down without a fight. Felicity Jones takes on perhaps a career-defining role in the upcoming Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, which is looking to be unleashed upon rabid audiences this coming  December. I think the only obvious question that should be asked is how will Jones compete against Daisy Ridley’s break-out performance as the orphan Rey, within whom the force apparently has awoken?

But enough about the lead performances. B.O.S.S. isn’t interested in those insanely high-profile characters (even though I know I am) — this is all about shining a light on the top-grade supporting performances we were treated to last year. With one major exception, I find myself once again nodding in agreement far more this time around than I have in years past. Maybe it’s just that I was able to see more award-contenders this year than I have before; or maybe I just got lucky. Whatever the case, the five actresses on display here are more than deserving of any and all accolades that have been coming their way.

Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet in 'Carol'

Picking a truly dominant performance from this batch is nigh on impossible. Kate Winslet perhaps comes the closest to being a lock, what with her typically effortless grace and charm lending her Joanna Hoffman, marketing executive under the thumb of one Steve Jobs, a power that rivaled that of Michael Fassbender’s eminently watchable and simultaneously loathsome Apple co-founder. Joanna Hoffman is imbued with the kind of humanity that leaves viewers with little choice other than to empathize with her as Jobs’ petulant behavior reaches critical mass. Time after time she’s the one left picking up the pieces of a slowly crumbling man who would rather deny his responsibility to family than sacrifice a single opportunity to show off his new shiny toys.

The biggest surprise nomination has to be Jennifer Jason Leigh’s contribution to The Hateful Eight, the brand new chapter in Quentin Tarantino’s apparently very finite filmography. As Daisy Domergue, two-thirds of Leigh’s presence is rendered silent, and that’s by design. For most of the runtime, any time she speaks she is rewarded with violence at the hands of Kurt Russell’s hostile John “The Hangman” Ruth, who, as it turns out, makes for a rather lousy bounty hunter. (Perhaps he shouldn’t have kept his captives alive after all.)

Swedish actress Alicia Vikander has exploded onto the scene this year with a trio of compelling performances — and, okay, a fourth that has been too easily forgotten (let’s just blame Burnt for being a disappointingly undercooked dish). Her work as an exceptionally intelligent machine in Alex Garland’s scintillating Ex Machina introduced her to a massive audience, blurring the line between human and robotic intelligence. She then moved into a slightly less demanding capacity playing a pseudo damsel-in-distress in Guy Ritchie’s throwback action-comedy The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Admittedly this role hewed much too close to stereotype, though Vikander still made it work).

Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman in 'Steve Jobs'

But it would ultimately be her emotionally hefty supporting part in The Danish Girl — the story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, one of the world’s first recipients of gender reassignment surgery, in which she played Gerda Wegener, wife of Einar/Lili — that would earn her serious attention from the Academy. Will her own emotional transformation — from quiet outrage to eventual acceptance — be enough to actually win her the coveted trophy though?

The most subtle of all the selections this year are almost certainly Rooney Mara’s interpretation of Therese Belivet, a young lesbian who falls for an older, more sophisticated and upper-class woman named Carol (Cate Blanchett, herself in the running for Best Leading Actress); and Rachel McAdams’ resilient and emotionally restrained Sacha Pfeiffer, a Boston Globe reporter who helped expose the decades-long cover up of the Catholic church’s involvement in child molestation at the hands of Boston area priests. Neither of these performances are the flashiest you’ll see this year but they’re certainly deserving of recognition, if for no other reason than they’re marks of exceptional maturity for both actresses.

All five of these nominees have epitomized why Hollywood should be populating the cinematic calendar with more female-driven productions. Each one of these unforgettable characters lend significant weight to their respective projects and I for one am delighted to see their hard work pay off. As easy as it is to criticize Hollywood sometimes, it is, slowly but surely, moving in the right direction.

Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer in 'Spotlight'

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Carol

Carol movie poster

Release: Friday, November 20, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Phyllis Nagy

Directed by: Todd Haynes

Carol is a conventional romance saved by less conventional characters and a fairly satisfying resolution. It may be happily ever after (sort of), but as far as the population at large in the 1950s was concerned, no such thing existed for those identifying as homosexual. Todd Haynes’ sixth feature is an intensely well-acted affair but I just can’t help feeling less and less enthusiastic about it as time presses on.

Technically speaking Carol is an astonishing cinematic achievement. There’s absolutely no way this film was made in 2015: its milieu, painstakingly realized to the point where Cate Blanchett, playing the titular woman who falls for a much younger girl, and to a lesser degree Rooney Mara, her lover, are classic Hollywood starlets rather than reincarnations thereof. It’s an experience in which oppression is palpable, the pursuit of happiness is more akin to the fulfillment of fantasy. The edifice of New York City is less physical as it is ideological: it’s worth everyone’s time to condemn homosexuality, apparently.

You could accuse Carol of lacking imagination with its ‘us-against-the-world’ mentality, but that’s not the major concern here — mostly because that was very much the case for these women, characters created from the mind of suspense novelist Patricia Highsmith in her seminal romance ‘The Price of Salt.’ No, that reality is very much powerful — it was almost quite literally Carol Aird and Therese Belivet against the world. Highsmith even wrote the book under a pseudonym because of the supposed radical content. Indeed she felt like it was her against the world.

Bravery in writing notwithstanding, Carol fails to mine great depths. It’s a testament to the power of its central leads that I was able to invest so much of my energy empathizing with them as the significance of their togetherness grew more profound — purportedly — with each passing vignette. Carol spends more time suggesting the ‘will they-won’t they’ tension that has come to define contemporary romances and romantic comedies. Of course, this film aspires to more than just showing how good two bodies can look together.

It’s not so much the burgeoning romance isn’t believable — Blanchett and Mara are too good at their craft for that to be the case — it’s just not that interesting. Working at a department store during the holiday season, Therese is a woman on the brink of adulthood. She’s someone who’s largely unsatisfied with her current romantic life. One day she spots an elegant-looking blonde woman across the store, and the two end up locking eyes for a prolonged couple of seconds. It’s love at first sight. (I know, I know.) Carol asks the nervous-looking girl behind the counter what kind of gift she should buy for her daughter; Therese suggests a train set since that was her favorite toy as a child. The transaction is made and life seems to go on as normal immediately afterward, except for the fact Carol leaves behind her posh leather gloves on the counter . . . as one does in these sorts of movies.

It’s not long before Carol is inviting her new friend out to lunch and then to come visit her at home, where she is now living alone as she’s in the middle of a difficult divorce from her controlling husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). The personification of intolerance thanks to Chandler’s ability to once again become That Guy We Don’t Like, Harge is confident he’ll be awarded full custody of their child when he learns that Carol’s history with a childhood friend named Abby (Sarah Paulson), isn’t the sum totality of her interest in women.

Phyllis Nagy‘s adaptation of the 1952 novel is nothing if not enjoyably predictable. Her narrative bent takes a backseat to exquisite production values though. From the costume design to the warmth of Edward Lachman’s cinematography, the film is one of the more visually arresting pieces I’ve seen in some time. It should go without saying the romance is confidently handled; the fact it involves two women — and an age gap — is immaterial. But other than the people (read: actresses) involved, there’s nothing truly remarkable about this story. The net effect is that, while the film is anything but shallow, I couldn’t help but feel like I was standing on the outside looking in. I felt too distanced.
Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 6.19.34 PM

Recommendation: Carol offers viewers two fine performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, the former of which has always been reliable and the latter becoming ever more watchable as she continues to shift genres and role types. It’s a movie you go to see for the performances, no doubt about it.

Rated: R

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Just when it can’t get any worse, you run out of cigarettes.”

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