Well, here we are: Oscar season is in full-swing, and to the surprise of no one, La La Land grabbed the lion’s share of nominations, tying for the most nominations with the likes of All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997), both of which went on to win Best Picture honors. Even knowing past history, I’m still not convinced that La La Land can sail to an easy victory, and my guess is that Moonlight, with 8 nominations (including an all important bid for director Barry Jenkins) and Hidden Figures will attract voters who aren’t as easily swayed by La La Land’s razzle-dazzle. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even though Theodore Melfi, the director and co-writer of Hidden Figures, was snubbed for his directorial efforts, the fact that Hidden Figures just claimed “Best Ensemble” honors from the Screen Actors Guild shows strong support for the film, overall–and, please note, La La Land wasn’t even nominated for Best Ensemble by SAG voters. Fancy that.
Elsewhere, setting a new Academy record is Viola Davis, a Best Supporting Actress nominee for Fences (up for 4 awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor, Denzel Washington). Davis has made history by being the first African-American actress to earn a total of three Oscar nods. She was first in the running for her supporting role as a hurt, confused, and protective mother trying to push through an unforgivable tresspass in 2008’s Doubt, starring Meryl Streep. Three years later, she competed against Streep for Best Actress honors: Davis for The Help and Streep, the victor, for The Iron Lady. Curiously, Davis is now competing in a race that includes Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures), who actually won an Oscar for her supporting turn in The Help. That means that Spencer is now tied with Whoopi Goldberg as the second most nominated African American actress in Academy history, having been nominated for Best Actress (The Color Purple) in 1985/86. and winning Best Supporting Actress (Ghost) in 1990/91. To compare, Davis’s Fences co-star Denzel Washington (already a two-time winner) is in his 7th and 8th Oscar races as he is credited, besides his acting nomination, as one of the Best Picture candidate’s producers..
Based on her recent wins at the Golden Globe, Critics Choice, and SAG awards, Davis looks to be an Oscar shoon-in. Certainly, hers is a towering talent and she masterfully–masterfully–portrays the put-upon wife of Washington’s character. Oh, he’s a slippery SOB, a surly drunk who abuses the trust of his loved ones, especially Davis’ character. Most of the time, she works at being good-natured. Then, she reaches the point at which the betrayal simply hurts too much, consumes her, and she lashes back. But good. In a performance that spans the full emotional gamut, Davis is fierce, ferocious, formidable, and unforgettable, but the Academy has gotten it wrong. The fault is not Davis but the category in which she has been nominated.
Simply, this is Best Actress material as evidenced by the Best Actress Tony award Davis won for the 2010 revival of the play upon which the film is based–also opposite Denzel Washington. To be fair, the great Mary Alice, who originated the role in the 1987 Pulitzer winner, won her award in the Featured (or supporting) rather than Leading category. The Tony committee has concrete guidelines for these distinctions. Typically, performers billed above the title are “leading” while cast members billed below the title are “featured.” Simple enough…unless an appeal by a producer warrants renewed consideration. Obviously, backing up to Mary Alice, it would seem that she had been billed below the title in deference to star-billed James Earl Jones, the marquee draw. At this point, Viola Davis has earned over the title status, so the point should be moot; after all, no less than legendary Bette Davis once famously harrumphed that she would NEVER agree to Best Supporting Actress consideration for any award, regardless of role size, because she was a star and always earned over the title billing. Also, the late Peter Finch railed at the suggestion that his character in Network, famously deranged news anchor Howard Beale, could EVER be considered supporting. The whole story hinged on Beale’s nervous breakdown; however, as the story goes, another take was that if Finch were to be nominated for Best Actor, he would likely split votes with Best Actor hopeful William Holden from the same film. Ultimately, Finch won both the argument and the Oscar, posthumously, of course, but the nomination was already in the bag. Likewise, Anthony Hopkins also bristled at the notion of being listed as supporting player for Silence of the Lambs even though, to this moviegoer’s mind, that would have been the better fit due to the character’s limited screen time, but Hopkins emerged victorious anyway. I still think Nick Nolte should have won that year for The Prince of Tides, but it’s hard to ignore the cultural impact of Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
These controversies and inconsistencies go way, way back by the way. Luise Rainer won her first Best Actress Oscar for 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld in what was essentially a supporting role powered by one well played tearjerking scene; Barry Fitzgerald was actually nominated for Best Actor AND Best Supporting Actor for 1944’s Going My Way, winning the latter and watching top-billed Bing Crosby from the same film carry the former…and then, of course, the dreaded Louise Fletcher being promoted to “Best Actress” status for her role in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to take advantage of what producers saw as an especially weak field of Best Actress possibilities. A strategy that worked, btw. That’s a short list.
Let’s back up just a bit. In contrast to the Tony awards, movie producers and studio marketing personnel may position a performer as either leading or supporting when they launch their awards seasons campaigns, for whatever reasons, but the final call is left to the discretion of voters. This option is how Susan Sarandon garnered her first Best Actress nod, for 1981’s Atlantic City, after Paramount promoted her as a supporting player. Interestingly, Atlantic City and Fences are both Paramount releases, thirty+ years and several studio turnovers apart. I’m surprised Academy members took the “Best Supporting” bait this year, but I shouldn’t be; after all, last year’s winner in the same category (Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl) benefitted from a similar strategy. I guess an Oscar is an Oscar is an Oscar. Winning is winning. Reportedly, the thought is that this year’s Best Actress race is so incredibly competitive, led by Emma Stone in La La Land and Natalie Portman in Jackie, that the powers that be determined Davis would be fare better in the secondary category, and, by all accounts, Davis is fully on board with the idea.If she’s balked, we might be witnessing a different scenario…though I can’t imagine what it’s like being told that one’s work, when one is already a Tony and an Emmy winner, might not be competitive enough for Best Actress, so Best Supporting Actress will have to do. Really?
Again, I was sure that Academy members would reject Paramount’s ploy and nominate Davis in the other category. My thought is that IF Davis had been nominated for Best Actress, she would have won in that category–and handily–and I certainly would have cheered her victory. Davis seizes the roles, seizes the screen, and seizes the audience in the process. She won’t just win this category because she is unquestionably great, she will win because no one else stands a chance because no one else in this lineup has as a role that compares; after all, besides the huge range of emotions involved, Davis has notably more screen time than her competitors, meaning more opportunities to connect with viewers, that is, voters.
Of course, this year’s lineup is interesting in that it features a quartet of Oscar vets, including two previous winners, the aforementioned Spencer and Nicole Kidman, who won Best Actress for 2002’s The Hours and is back in the race for Lion. This is Kidman’s fourth Oscar race, with additional Best Actress nominations for Moulin Rouge (2001) and Rabbit Hole (2010). Another four time nominee is Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea). Her first nod was in this category for 1995’s Brokeback Mountain, but she has also been up for Best Actress twice: Blue Valentine (2010) and My Week with Marilyn (2011). I can’t imagine that Kidman has much of a chance here though, clearly, her nomination signals healthy support. On the other hand, Williams stands as tough competition. Full confession: I have yet to see her nominated flick, but it’s a major contender, and by all accounts Williams delivers the goods in only a few scenes, and that might be what it takes to steal some of Davis’s thunder.
Here’s something else. Besides Davis’ historic third nod, this is also the first time in Academy history that one performance category celebrates three black nominees. Besides Davis and Spencer, the ballot also includes Naomie Harris as the abusive mother in Moonlight. I think English born Harris, whose character ages more than a decade over the course of the film, has a chance here because her performance so sharply differs from her previous portrayals of Miss Moneypenny in the two most recent 007 entries, in which the character has a lot more oomph than in previous incarnations. This is also a world apart from her role as Winnie Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013). Harris might invite compassion for the woman she plays in Moonlight, but awarding an Oscar to a woman, a black woman, for playing a crack addict might not seem, well, progressive. This brings us back to Spencer. Hers is true supporting role in major crowd pleaser. I don’t think a second Oscar is in the cards, but I’m still considering that SAG award for the entire Hidden Figures cast, and I wonder if voters might jump at the chance to honor Spencer as a way of honoring the film as a whole. Of course, jumping at that chance involves a huge leap past Viola Davis in Fences.