2014 Oscar Race: Best Supporting Actress

It’s February, and that means its Oscar time around this blog. This is the third of nine blog pieces set to roll out between now and the Oscars on Sunday, March 2, all of which will be breaking down (what I consider) the eight major races – Picture, Director, both writing and all four acting categories.

Like with most things on this blog, this will be a mix of fact, popular opinion and my opinion – the three of which don’t often intersect. Then I’ll post my Oscar scorecard right before the show as best I can – I’ve seen each of the films in the eight categories I’m covering, but not across the board.

On to today’s posting: Best Supporting Actress.

The Nominees
Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
June Squibb (Nebraska)

Who Will Win: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Who Could Win: Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Who Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Who Should Be Here: Scarlett Johansson (Her)

This is the third consecutive post in which I’ll talk about the spread-it-around-theory, by which many of the awards will go to American Hustle, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. It does come into play here, but it also so happens that the two actresses who are highest in contention right now are from those two films.

Yes – this is a two woman race between Lupita Nyong’o and Jennifer Lawrence. But lets discuss the other three first.

Sally Hawkins and Julia Roberts are both being hurt by the fact that their performances are not the best in their respective pictures. Hawkins played Cate Blanchett’s sister in Blue Jasmine and though she was terrific, Blanchett stole the screen at every turn (in a good way), relegating Hawkins to the background.

Same with Roberts. Though August: Osage County was filled with terrific performances (at least six could have been nominated in weak years), Meryl Streep comes out at the top of the list – as Streep usually does. Roberts more than held her own with her, but as Streep’s nomination came down to the wire (and she’s not really in play to win this year -more on that next week), Roberts isn’t really in this race either.

The wildcard is June Squibb from Nebraska. Bruce Dern is nominated for Lead Actor, but Squibb’s scenes were among the most memorable of the film (particularly the one where the 84 year old flashes a grave). She hasn’t done much in the preseason awards however, and most onlookers have her in the “it’s an honor to be nominated” category.

The one that should have made the list is Scarlett Johansson, who never even appears on-screen in Spike Jonze’s Her. Johansson plays an operating system with whom Joaquin Phoenix falls in love. Johansson’s subtle yet sweet, strong yet sensitive turn as Samantha is one of the best voice performances in Hollywood history. I’m not sure that a voice performance should be in this category – I argue rather that those who won Oscar night should create a “Best Alternative Performance” award, for 3-5 nominees yearly regardless of gender. This way, these terrific performances can be recognized; someone like Johansson or Andy Serkis who played Gollum and Caesar the Ape in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Regardless, this leaves the critical darling Lawrence and newcomer Nyong’o in a race for the finish for the Oscar.

The heat that Lawrence is generating for her American Hustle performance is somewhat perplexing. When all is said and done, Lawrence could go down as not only the best performer of her generation, but also one of its most affable as well. She definetely deserved the win for Silver Linings Playbook last year.

Despite a great performance in American Hustle, she was third or fourth best in that film. Amy Adams and Christian Bale produced what could well be career defining performances, while Cooper and Renner held their own. Lawrence’s character didn’t particularly lend itself to an Oscar – though her performance did elevate the character much beyond what I’m sure appeared on the page.

Nyong’o certainly had the meatiest role of the five and absolutely made the most of the limited screen time she was given. In the hands of a lesser actress, this role would have been relegated to also-ran status, if not forgotten altogether. But Nyong’o steals the story each time she appeared with a strong yet somewhat subtle performance in what is destined to be an important film for generations.

Nyong’o has already claimed the Screen Actor’s Guild award, and looks to cruise to her first Oscar win. Lawrence won Lead Actress last year, and that she’s only 23. Certainly there’s many more nominations coming her way.

One caveat here though: Best Actress is often awarded fairly early on Oscar night. Should Lawrence win here, look for American Hustle to run the table.