Hmmm, well the recent winners of Academy awards for Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor offer startling contrasts. In Best Picture winner Moonlight, Mahershala Ali’s Juan is situated in only the first act of a three-act tale, yet he makes a vivid impression that lingers throughout the remainder of the film; moreover, Ali rises, impeccably, to the challenge of a scene that requires him to act more internally than externally. In other words, Juan is almost at a loss when asked difficult, troubling, questions, but he knows he must answer truthfully, so he suffers silently while delaying the inevitable, choosing his words carefully. Masterful. Ali packs a wallop, silent film style, with minimal dialogue.
In contrast, Viola Davis offers a much more robust portrayal as Rose, the put upon wife of Denzel Washington’s Troy in Fences. Cliches be damned, Rose’s trajectory provides Davis the opportunity to navigate, full-throttle, one hell of an emotional roller coaster. Rose, god love her, wears her heart on her sleeve, and Davis, among our most majestic–and gutsiest–actresses, brings her speeches to brilliant life in scene after vivid scene. It’s a startlingly raw performance rife with Davis’s own sweat and tears. Ali’s and Davis’s portrayals are considered award worthy by Academy standards though they could hardly be more unalike.
Of course, I’m not here to second guess the Academy’s choices. Mainly, I just feel the need to reaffirm that, like so many other things associated with the Academy (and with life itself), there is almost no rhyme or reason when it comes to the supporting categories. Of course, after launching in the late 1920, the Oscars had been ambling along for just under a decade before the Academy expanded its acting awards from two to four. The move was designed to improve the Academy’s numbers by luring members of the newly formed Screen Actors Guild into the fold. Let’s back-up just a bit. Seems by the mid 1930s, many actors no longer believed the Academy served their interests regarding representation within the Hollywood hierarchy (Wiley and Bona 55). Keep in mind that the Academy was formed not with the intent of awards but with the purpose of mediating labor disputes between talent and studio brass. (The awards were an afterthought, albeit self-congratulatory, but I digress.) The idea was that such governance in the form of an “academy,” so to speak, would preclude the need for unions, but the perception, not without some merit, was that the Academy failed to serve all members’ interests, thus the creation of the SAG (Wiley and Bona 47). To counter, the Academy offered to spread the wealth and create space to honor the achievements of so-called character players, thereby increasing its memberships since, after all, one had to be a member in order to vote for the awards (Wiley and Bona 70).
The Academy’s welcoming move also provided a convenient way to relegate character actors/actresses in such a way that would not necessarily pull focus from established brand name stars when it came time for awards consideration. Keep in mind, for example, that in 1935, the year prior to the creation of the supporting categories, three actors from Mutiny on the Bounty, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone, duked it out for Best Actor. Laughton and Gable, as Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian, respectively, were clearly co-leads in the famous tale, but Tone, in the lesser of the three roles, attracted attention based on one particularly showy speech toward the end of the picture (Wiley and Bona 60). Creating categories for secondary players would resolve such, er, uhm, inconsistencies. Oh, and keep in mind, as well, that the first few recipients of these newly created awards did not actually win traditional Oscar statuettes but plaques that featured a 3-D representation of the celebrated trophy. (Not to be confused, to clarify, with the “special” pint-sized versions of the trophy the Academy bestowed upon such juvenile stars as Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, or Judy Garland [See photo].) So, a year after Mutiny on the Bounty, and spurred by other factors, the Academy awarded its first ever supporting acting awards to Walter Brennan (Come and Get It) and Gale Sondergaard (Anthony Adverse). Btw, Gable, Laughton, and Tone lost to Victor McLaglen in The Informer.
Eventually, the Academy saw fit to award supporting players actual Oscars, beginning with the 43/44 edition (that is, the 1944 ceremony honoring 1943’s films). Those history making recipients were Charles Coburn (TheMore the Merrier) and Katina Paxinou (For Whom the Bells Toll); however, confusion was still very much in play, per Barry Fitzgerald who, yes, earned nominations for BOTH Best Actor AND Best Supporting Actor for 1944’s Going My Way. Though unexpected, the rules allowed for Fitzgerald’s double whammy. Fitzgerald won the latter while top-billed co-star Bing Crosby took top honors, and the hit film took Best Picture as well. The Academy responded by establishing a policy that left designations for leading and supporting to studio executives, responsible for submitting potential candidate rosters to the Academy in anticipation of first round voting.
That seemed to work, better than nothing, for awhile though egos had to be placated when studios wanted to hedge their bets during campaign season, meaning that some stars, reportedly, did not appreciate their star status being called into question for expediency’s sake. For example, look no further than Anne Baxter, the titular Eve in 1950’s smash All About Eve. She didn’t take too well to the suggestion of competing for Best Supporting Actress alongside Thelma Ritter and Celeste Holm from the same film (Miller n.p.). Sure, Eve manipulates much of the action, undeniably, but Baxter lacks the star power of Bette Davis, at her brilliant best as Margo Channing, the Broadway legend around whom most of the story–and ALL other characters–revolve. Clearly, Baxter fulfills the role of a second lead: the antagonist to Davis’s protagonist. Nonetheless, Baxter got what she wanted: a Best Actress nomination, and in so doing she may have very well split votes and cost both herself and her co-star the trophy. Judy Holliday, reprising her stage role in Born Yesterday, won Best Actress, and even Anne Baxter later expressed regret at her choice (Miller n.p.); however, that wasn’t the only hitch in the process. Famously, the story goes that a typo cost Roddy McDowall consideration for his stand-out supporting performance in 1963’s lavish Cleopatra. Apparently, a memo from Fox, the studio that released the picture, to the Academy misidentified McDowall as a leading player, and that was that. The Academy wouldn’t budge, and Fox claimed its hands were tied in the matter (Wiley and Bona 358). So, the Academy changed rules yet again to give the ultimate say to the voters themselves, regardless of studio promotional campaigns (358). Even with powers voters enjoy, studio heads and actors still attempt to exert control and sway outcome.
In the years since Cleopatra, controversies over such designations are commonplace because such designations are arbitrary, subject to whim. For example, juvenile performances that are for all practical purposes “leading” are often–not always– categorized as “supporting” out of concern that younger, relatively untested players (such as Timothy Hutton in 1980’s Ordinary People) cannot successfully compete against established veterans in starring roles. The strategy worked, btw, in Hutton’s case. The same studio that released Hutton’s Ordinary People, Paramount, marketed Susan Sarandon as a Best Supporting Actress candidate for 1981’s Atlantic City even though she was clearly the film’s leading lady and more than held her own against legendary Burt Lancaster in the same film (Wiley and Bona 606). Maybe Paramount execs felt that Sarandon, hardly an unknown at the time, needed a showier role in order to be a truly competitive Best Actress candidate. Maybe, on the other hand, studio brass felt that Paramount could not effectively support three Best Actress hopefuls among its stable, the others being Diane Keaton in Reds, who ultimately earned a slot on the final roster, and Faye Dunaway (Mommie Dearest), who did not–in spite of a genuinely buzzworthy performance that had actually made a showing in the award season derby. At any rate, even Sarandon expressed surprise that she was ultimately nominated for Best Actress (606), a move that showed Academy voters still have minds of their own in such matters, despite studio machinations. Btw, no less than already legendary Katharine Hepburn made Oscar history that year, garnering an unprecedented 4th performance Oscar, per her leading performance in the hugely popular On Golden Pond. It would take Sarandon a decade for a second Oscar race (1991’s Thelma & Louise), and few more unsuccessful bids for her crowning achievement with 1995’s Dead Man Walking.
Other times, star players, even when playing subordinating roles–with limited screen time–scoff at the very notion of being promoted as a supporting candidate, feeling such a move is akin to begging for an easy win (per Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, among others) (Wiley and Bona 830). Still again, studios often see the Oscars as nothing more than a numbers game, such that performers who clearly function as an onscreen team, John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, OR Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, to name only two, have to be split for awards consideration in order to increase a film’s awards potential. For example, if Ledger and Gyllenhaal are both nominated for Best Actor, and the film as a whole is up for 8 awards, that means, at best, the film will only take home 7 awards, as one actor’s win assuredly equals the other’s defeat, provided, of course, that they don’t actually cancel out one another (and let’s not forget that ties almost never happen). In such a case, shaky distinctions are made that place Ledger and Travolta as leading while forcing Gyllenhaal and Jackson as supporting in order to improve the odds.
Then, of course, there’s the whole “supporting” thing. What does it mean to be a supporting actor? Keep in mind that the Tony award equivalent is “featured” rather than supporting and is based on barely more than, 99.9% of the time, whether a player is billed above or below the title. Simple. But when the word “support” is used, we expect to see one actor in service of another, and that isn’t always so apparent. That noted, I remain fairly convinced that Ed Harris lost at least one, possibly two, of his four Oscar races for playing roles that were not as “supporting” as they might seem at first glance. For example, he mostly acted in a vacuum in 1998’s The Truman Show. Sure, his performance, as the mastermind behind the whole Truman escapade, showed plenty of skill, but, really, how did his performance actually support that of lead actor Jim Carrey as Truman? Did the two actors ever occupy the same space, playing off one another? In a word, no. Carrey’s Truman goes about his life in a picturesque coastal community (real-life development Seaside, Florida), and Harris’s Cristof surveys his creation from the safety of a secluded control tower. Simply, the two actors never had to meet in order to film their scenes, thereby calling into question the nature of “support.”
On the other hand, consider controversial Vanessa Redgrave in 1977’s Julia. Yes, Redgrave is clearly billed above the title, and, more, the movie is named after her character; however, Redgrave’s “Julia” functions as barely more than a memory of playwright Lillian Hellman, played by Jane Fonda, the obvious protagonist who carries most of the picture. The relationship forged by the characters when they were still children (framed in flashbacks with teen actresses) is what drives most of the story, but, tellingly, the audience only ever sees Julia, that is, Redgrave, through Lillian/Fonda’s eyes, and their few shared sequences are like puzzle pieces as Lillian revisits her past in fleeting glimpses, trying to make sense of the wealthy enigmatic friend who leaves America in order to study in Europe and joins the Nazi resistance. The audience waits for the moment when the two friends are reunited, at last, and it’s a doozy, with each actress spurring the other to greatness in a scene fraught with love, tears, and, oh yes, plenty of tension. Redgrave’s is the very example of an outstanding supporting performance, no doubt. Her award was almost a foregone conclusion; likewise, 2015’s Best Supporting Actor winner Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) portrayed the character whose actions set the story in motion, but, make no mistake, Tom Hanks’s real-life James B. Donovan dominates the picture though he and Rylance strike a compelling dynamic.
Back to the present. What I so admire about Mahershala Ali’s Oscar winning performance in Moonlight is that he makes the most of his limited screen time, and his character is supporting in the most literal sense as in the sequence in which he teaches young Chiron (protagonist) how to swim in the ocean. Perfect.
Davis’ performance more squarely follows the pattern of the “supportive spouse” that appeared with great frequency earlier this century, beginning with Dallas native Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock, 2000), Jim Broadbent (Iris, 2001), and Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind, 2001) up through Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, 2015). No doubt, cases could be made that any or all of the above might just as easily be recognized as secondary leads. Again, these are roles that provide actors and actresses sizable opportunities (and a lot of screen time) but fall short of being their respective projects’ true protagonists.
Wow. I certainly did not mean to write so much about this topic. I intended a few short paragraphs as a build-up to a piece on two extraordinary supporting performances–one female, one male–that the Academy somehow overlooked. Of course, context and timing are everything as we know that history is 20/20. So, I’ll stop for now, and save THAT post for the near future. In the meantime, what about you, dear reader? Dare you try to guess the two performances that I aim to spotlight next? My only hint is that they are included in the same film. Give it your best shot.
Thanks for your consideration….
Ceasar, Stephen. “Winning an Oscar is priceless, but selling it gets you exactly $10.” Los Angeles Times, 25 February 2016. Accessed 25 March 2017.
Miller, Frank. “All About Eve (1950).” Articles. TCM. Accessed 25 March 2017.
Wiley, Mason, and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, 10th Anniversary Edition, edited by Gail MacColl. Ballantine Books, 1996.