As usual the academy can’t quite stick to a definition of ‘supporting’ pitting co-leading roles against glorified cameos. The male categories leave much to the imagination as two of the nominees, Richard E Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Mahershala Ali in Green Book have yet to show British audiences what all the fuss is about. I shall still be in the middle of composing my review of Green Book when this piece goes to print and we will have to wait even longer to see Grant’s turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
But although it remains to be seen whether these performances will be the showcases for these actors that the academy assures us they are, we all know from past experience that these actors have it in them to deserve them. Richard E. Grant attained legendary status for his portrayal of Withnail in the grimy black comedy Withnail and I and he has been livening up many a dull costume drama with his dubious accents ever since, although he remains something of a wild card since his film is the only one not also nominated in neither the Best Picture nor Best Director categories. While Ali and Rockwell were the last two men to take home the statue in this category for Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri in 2018 and Moonlight in 2017 respectively, so this is an opportunity for Rockwell to defend or Ali to retake his title. However Ali seems to have been given the subtler role in the form of Green Book’s refined and complicated Jazz Pianist Dr Don Shirley, while Rockwell’s short, broad and thoroughly unremarkable comedic turn as George Bush Jnr. may strike voters as frivolous by comparison.
Of the performances British audiences have already been given a chance to see, alongside Rockwell for Vice we have Adam Driver for his performance as a Jewish detective undercover in the Ku Klux Klan in Spike Lee’s brilliant BlacKkKlansman and Sam Elliott as Jackson Maine’s stoic older brother Bobby in A Star is Born. For my money these films are the only convincing prospects out of the Best Picture nominees, but neither really forms the best showcase for the talents of these particular performers. In my opinion it was criminal that Driver was overlooked for both his bombastic performances The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi and his wonderfully subtle turn in Jim Jarmusch’s perfect slice of life poem Paterson, so this would be an opportunity for the Academy to correct that particular wrong, but against those performances his turn in BlacKkKlansman is nothing special. Sam Elliott makes a more convincing candidate, he’s a veteran of the screen but has never to my knowledge played a part of such vulnerability and pathos as Bobby Maine before. Backing out his truck with his tear-reddened eyes turned away from his little brother, he gave A Star is Born perhaps its most heartbreaking moment.
That said, all things considered, Elliott is a long shot, like Rockwell, it’s just too small of a role to compete with Driver or Ali who it could be argued are in the wrong category and should be competing for the leading spot. If I were a gambler, my money would be on Ali, he’s already been garlanded by the AACTA, Critics Choice Awards, Houston, Washington D.C. Area and Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Associations and the Golden Globes for the role, not to mention winning two years prior for his tender performance in the fantastic Moonlight.
Once again in the female category there seems to be some confusion as to what constitutes a ‘supporting’ role with both Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz nominated for The Favourite despite getting just as much, if not more, screen time than Olivia Colman who is elevated to the leading actress role for her performance in the same film. We also run into the barrier that Vice, for which Amy Adams has been given an opportunity to make up for being criminally overlooked for The Master and Arrival, and If Beale Street Could Talk, for which Regina King is recognised, have yet to pass across British screens. Adams is unquestionably a terrific actor and this makes her sixth Oscar nomination despite none yet yielding wins. It’s quite possible that she will be felt to have earned it by this point but with her thoroughly average turn in Vice being one of three undeserved nominations film has received for the categories for the acting alone, it’s quite possible that, Meryl Streep-like she’s merely filling a spot. She definitely deserves recognition, but this is equally definitely not the performance she deserves it for. King however is in almost the opposite position, a character actor best known for her TV work if at all, there’s a chance that her director Barry Jenkins will perform the same star making alchemy that helped relative unknown Ali create an upset two years ago. The biggest surprise though is Marina De Tavira, all but totally unheard of abroad, nominated for her role as the priveliged matriarch of the family in Alfonso Cuaron’s inert nostalgic folly Roma. Although there is nothing wrong with her work on the film, her inclusion in the list of nominees is as inexplicable as the popularity of Roma itself.
As for The Favourite, although the film itself, left some, myself certainly included, cold, none could say a word against the performances, with Weisz, Colman and Stone cutting loose and embodying the kind of ‘unlikeable’ characters in the kind of performances that male critics like to call “daring”. Weisz and Stone are both past winners, with Stone winning recently for La La Land and Weisz some years ago for The Constant Gardener. To choose who would be the more deserving of the two is tough as Stone gives the ‘bigger’ performance as the duplicitous Abigail Masham while Weisz succeeds in making the wiley and melancholy Sarah Churchill more of a character, putting more of herself into the role. I think perhaps that the Academy will be more likely swayed by the fireworks of Stone’s performance.
We will have to wait and see whether Ali, Grant, Adams, King and Rockwell really do deserve the prize, but so far none of the Academy’s choices have impressed me as much as Ben Foster’s overlooked portrait of a father watching his daughter (played by a similarly snubbed Thomasin Harcourt-McKenzie) slip away into adulthood in Debra Granik’s peerless Leave No Trace. Equally frustrating is the total ignorance of George Tillman’s superb The Hate U Give in every category, most relevant here is the omission of Russell Hornsby’s equally stern and loving father. Neither have Anders Danielsen Lie’s or Daniel Kaluuya’s chilling performances in 22 July and Widows been recognised or Barry Keoghan’s turn as timid college student turned library robber in American Animals. Nor are Lily James’s infectious turn in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again or Emily Skegg’s efforts as a self-loathing Christian lesbian in Desiree, Akhavan’s masterpiece The Miseducation of Cameron Post deemed worthy of acknowledgement. To say nothing of the omissions of the fractious turns given by Ruth Wilson in the superb gothic adaptation The Little Stranger, Elizabeth Moss as the self-pitying Masha in The Seagull or Carey Mulligan in midwestern family melodrama Wildlife. Any of these performances would make far more convincing nominees than the middling performances of Adams and Rockwell in Vice or De Tavira in Roma.
Unfortunately, the Academy Awards are still as effective a barometer of quality as ever.