This year’s race for Best Supporting Actor includes a previous winner–with a total of 7 nominations–an additional previous nominee, and three Oscar newcomers–but one such exciting newcomer, at least to the Academy, will give the previous champ a run for his money.
Drumroll please…and the likely victor…more drumroll…is…Mahershala Ali in Moonlight. Officially, Ali is in the running for his performance as a shady if well-meaning mentor to the main character, a boy named Chiron being raised by a single mom. Chiron is the film’s central character, and the movie charts his life over a period of more than 10 years, from elementary school to several years after his teens, with three mostly well-matched actors playing the character as he grows from boy to man.
Ali’s Juan functions as an unlikely father figure who takes to the shy boy and wants to teach him about life, how to stand up for himself against the bullies on the playground. But Juan really isn’t the right man for the job. He’s a bit of a thug himself, a criminal, and his hands aren’t exactly clean as Chiron comes to realize in one of the film’s tense, awkward scenes, the moment when Juan has to “be a man” and answer Chiron’s tough questions. It’s an incredibly well-played, understated moment. Ali only appears in the first third of the film, but he makes a lasting impression in a true supporting role.
I think what propels Ali to frontrunner status, besides his obvious, complex talent, is the added bonus of his recent Screen Actors Guild award. That has to be a plus considering the voting body overlaps with that of the Academy; moreover, Ali has dominated the competition for most of the awards season, laying claim to prizes from the likes of the New York Film Critics, the Los Angeles Film Critics, the Broadcast Film Critics, the National Society of Film Critics, and the DFW Film Critics. I would definitely call that a streak. Add to all that, the bonus of appearing in not one but two Best Picture nominees: both Moonlight and Hidden Figures. In the latter, he portrays real-life army officer Jim Johnson who courts widowed Katherine Johnson, memorably played by Taraji P. Henson. He makes a dashing romantic lead, to be sure, and when taken together, both performances showcase good ole fashioned versatility. No doubt.
I say Ali is the man to beat because, besides all of the above, Moonlight is an amazing film, one of the most incredibly insightful films I have ever seen. No, it’s not a crowd pleaser on the order of La La Land or Hidden Figures, but its impact is hard to shake, and Academy members are likely to respond.
One of the few awards that somehow bypassed Ali is the Golden Globe. Instead, the Hollywood Foreign Press opted for Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), grizzled and ornery as ever, as a Texas Ranger in determined pursuit of a pair of bank robbers, siblings, portrayed by Chris Pine (exceptionally strong) and Ben Foster. A decade ago, Bridges was a four time nominee with 0 wins. Then, came 2009’s Crazy Heart, in which he played a broken-down country & western singer trying to pull himself back together. Suddenly, on his fifth try, Bridges was everywhere, winning awards all over the place, and the Academy followed suit. Then, Bridges scored his 6th nomination the very next year when he more or less stepped into John Wayner’s Oscar winning shoes as “Rooster Cogburn” in the Coens’ reboot of True Grit. Now, in Hell or High Water, Bridges plays a character not unlike Cogburn, and that’s why I think he won’t win. The Academy has already seen this portrayal in a different film, and Bridges is no longer the hard working vet who has yet to be honored with a statuette of his own. That noted, Bridges has one truly sublime scene, a confrontation with Pine that is just as powerfully underplayed as the scene between Ali’s Juan and Chiron in Moonlight. So, maybe it’s not over…yet. Btw, Bridges’ six previous nominations stack up as follows: Best Supporting Actor for The Last Picture Show (1971), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), and as the President of the United States in The Contender (2000), along with Best Actor nods for Starman (1984), Crazy Heart (2009), and True Grit. Whew!
Meanwhile, sitting in the wings as a possible spoiler is no less than Dev Patel for the highly promoted, fact-based, Lion. Moviegoers have enjoyed this exciting young actor for almost a decade, beginning with 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire and up through The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) and TV’s Newsroom. He’s a stunner, but he’s also young and will likely have better opportunities. Technically, he plays the lead character–but only as an adult. Apparently, the bulk of the story is told through flashbacks with a much younger actor essaying the role. Speaking of young, Lucas Hedge, of Manchester by the Sea, is only 20, about the same age as Timothy Hutton when he triumphed for 1980’s Ordinary People. But remember this: Hutton’s film was a major contender, plus he was second generation Hollywood; plus, it was just, again, obvious that Hutton had the showiest role in his respective film. Hedge fights an uphill battle. Despite reams of critical acclaim that greeted Manchester by the Sea, interest in it seems to have waned compared to, say, La La Land, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight. Did you know, btw, that the Academy members have historically been less responsive to juvenile actors than, say, juvenile actresses? Okay, so, technically Hedge is not necessarily a juvenile actor, but the role is that of a juvenile. Will that make a difference?
Finally, the wild card: Michael Shannon, back in the race almost 10 years after his first nod for 2008’s Revolutionary Road. Now, he is in the running for his turn as a detective in Nocturnal Animals‘ film within a film, that is, the dramatization of one the main character’s novels. Sounds quirky? That’s what Michael Shannon does. Quirky. Nocturnal Animals is the second feature film from designer-turned-director Tom Ford, who previously guided no less than Colin Firth to his first Oscar nomination–for 2009’s A Single Man, but I digress. Since Revolutionary Road, Shannon has garnered attention for the likes of Mud, Take Shelter, 99 Homes, and TV’s Boardwalk Empire. He even played Elvis Presley opposite no less than Kevin Spacey in Elvis & Nixon, as in Richard Nixon. See? Quirky, right? No doubt, Shannon is a hard worker, and he excels, kind of like Josh Brolin, in roles that might intimidate other actors. Plus, he’s been around for years, with credits going back as far as 1993’s Groundhog Day. The question is, whether the Academy believes Nocturnal Animals is a significant enough achievement to push Shannon to the head of the pack. I don’t see it. After all, look how long Bridges had to wait. FYI: Did you know that Shannon and Ali are about the same age, with the IMDb showing both of them born in 1974?
Did the Academy overlook any worthwhile contenders? Well, yeah, maybe. Oh, I’m all about Mahershala Ali, the first and best choice, but I was also rooting for Alden Ehrenreich as the young (dare I say, “dim”) singing cowboy in the Coens’ salute to 1950s’ Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! This exciting actor created a little buzz during the current awards season, but not enough. Enjoying a slightly higher profile is Simon Helberg, Golden Globe nominee for playing Florence Foster Jenkins‘ put upon pianist. Both actors turned in crowd pleasing performances, no doubt, but not enough to sway Academy members. Maybe their high profile efforts in 2016 will net better opportunities in the future.
Right now, hopefully, it’s Mahershala Ali’s moment to shine.
Thanks for your consideration…