Monday, 3 March 2014

The Supporting Actor Project: 2013

The Supporting Actor Project and my embarrassing track record with it is as good a stand-in as any for my blogging ideology. If I say I’ll do something I will get to it, I’ll just get to it way later than I promised. (I still haven’t addressed 1961 which I promised to do two years ago).

Some background for the unfamiliar, though, was borne out of the simple observation that of the six “major” Oscar categories, in any given year the supporting actors are almost always the ones who get paid the least of attention. I’m not sure if it’s a representation of quality, pure coincidence or a larger indication of weirdness. More personally, though, of the major Oscar categories I’ve seen the least of the Supporting actors. For example, reigning supporting actor king Walter Brennan has three statues and I’ve not seen a single of his Oscar winning performance. So this venture is as much a distant public service to the men of this category as it is a chance for me to fill some blindspots.

Winner: Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club
The Nominees: Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper in American Hustle
Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street

Evaluating the field: So, 2013. Jared Leto’s place as Oscar, for a few months now, was assured which is unsurprising and still surprising considering each of the other nominees had viable “narratives” as potential victory stories to justify each winning the prize. Last year the nominees were all former winners, this year the nominees are all from Best Picture nominees – you decide if that was indicative of voter-laziness or pure happenstance. I’m inclined to believe the legitimacy of the former if only because the non-nominated performers who seemed most eager for a place (Daniel Brühl in Rush and James Gandolfini in Enough Said) were working from films with significantly low amounts of buzz heading into the award season. Brühl’s attention pulling, heavy makeup transformation and Gandolfini’s every-man charm mixed with his unfortunate death couldn’t overpower the luck of being in a picture nominee. It’s a good thing that the slate of nominees is fairly good so the omissions of those two (who’d top the actual nominees) doesn’t hurt too much. Each time I find myself feeling slightly ambivalent, for whatever reason, with this category this year I remember my absolute loathing for last year’s slate and I realise my least favourite performance of the nominees is still as good as 4/5 of last year’s slate.

The race narrowed down to a seven horse race fairly quickly and apart from Daniel and James, of the films Oscar seemed focus on only Will Forte (Nebraska) seemed like a spoiler. If Saving MR Banks had endured more Hanks seemed to be a legitimate option. Because, let’s be real, no one ever really though James Franco in Spring Breakers was an option here, did they?

My Ballot: Forthcoming, with a couple of the nominees here battling with about 7 others for a space in my personal top 5
The Field of Nominees: B

I was sure of who I preferred here a month ago until reconsidering after much thought me realise what a neck-and-neck battle this was. Even though my #1's film did not endear me any more to it second time around a rewatch made me fairly certain of my choice even though that top 2 is still so close for me.

My Pick
Bradley Cooper in American Hustle ★ ★ ★ ★
On one hand, unlike any of the other nominees, Cooper is very lucky that his film is infatuated with him (up until the last five minutes when he’s cast out unceremoniously), on the other hand even at his highest moments American Hustle seems to be laughing at Richie more than it is laughing with him, so who can be sure? How to make his petulance and his overzealous desire tipping into the bawdily stupid come off not as crippling immaturity but as indicative of something more humane? Cooper is best-in-show not because he’s served great moments but because he manages to make those separate moments all a facet of the most significant, continuous, aspect of Richie’s character his desperately desire to win. Even as he may be sincerely infatuated with Sidney/Edith he’s also thrilled to have a chance to one-up Irving, finally a chance to win. He’s the over-eager chump who’s so excited about the good hand he’s been dealt at the poker that he overplay his austere poker-face and betrays his excitement. It could be obnoxious but Cooper gets to the root of Richie’s childlike inclinations so his overzealous streaked when pitched just the right way becomes profoundly moving for the way it betrays a sincere case of arrested development. More so when his fate at the end is sealed. Also, bonus points for sharing the scene with Adams, the two of who manage to escape any issues you may want to accuse the film of completely unscathed. Second bonus point: Dance break!

How I’d Rank Them from there....

Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips ★ ★ ★ ★
Even before Muse gets aboard the ship and takes the reins of the film, Abdi is doing something good. The film has found itself in unfortunate hot water for its handling of the villain/hero dynamic, unfortunate because Ray’s screenplay is not accusatory, but even more than the screenplay kudos to Abdi for adding even more profound depth to this man making him so much more than just "evil pirate". Abdi is doing a fine job of projecting Muse’s desperation, his resentment of those aboard MV Maersk Alabama and his (misguided) determination to see this battle through to the end. Curiously, as much as his “I’m the captain now” sound bite keeps being repeated for a debut performance it’s particularly impressive how much excellent his non-speaking parts in the films are. That look when he’s arrested at the end after asking “You shoot my friends?” says everything we need to know about how as much as the film is a tale for survival for Phillips, this pirate expedition was the one chance for survival for Muse and his friends, too. It’s the sort of longing, hollow, spaced-out gaze that stands in eerie contrast to brauvara which as the film wages on becomes more hysterial and desperate than real and true. Surest signs of a man trying desperately to stay afloat.

Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street ★ ★
I still suspect that a significant portion of the ire which has come Hill’s way for daring to have two Oscar nominations is a synthesis of both his bro-heavy comedic background and his heavyset appearance and it doesn’t help that unlike his work in Moneyball, his work here is – at least ostensibly – much more “Jonah Hill” being Jonah Hill than “Jonah Hill playing against type”. I say ostensibly because as much as Danny’s overt nature of comedy is indicative of Hill’s comedic any cursory glance at the award circuit this year reveals it’s not like Hill’s projected media persona which doesn’t bode well for “playing himself” monikers. More, this performance – vacillating between being completely on point, then too large for its own good – is one I greatly appreciated. From the moment he shows up there’s clearly something off about Donnie Azoff. He lacks tact, is overly eager to an ungainly degree and doesn’t seem to realise that half of what he’s saying is bullshit. The biggest crutch of the performance is the film’s tendency to pay overzealous attention to him. For, in a three hour film that doesn’t feel overlong Donnie is the one facet which suffers, on occasion, from being too in love with himself. It’s more an editing issue than an acting issue, though, because Hill gets Donnie’s grossness and also his sadness. Like the needy, try-hardy quality which marks his interactions with Jordan and the way the film lingers on him too long only tends to exacerbates the way Donnie’s worse foible are as much about his intrinsic not-all-there self as well as his desperate need to make an impression.

Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club ★ ★ 
Considering how Rayon seems to exist in the Dallas Buyers Club script as principally a character foil for Ron it’s odd that Leto managed to become one of the surest winners heading the front of his respective pack this season. Other than the scene with his father which, itself, feels awkward in its placement the film isn’t ever really interested in telling us anything about Rayon except it being in relation to how Ron feel. On one hand, critics of the film’s politics would say it’s just an example of the way such characters are rewarded when they are ancillary but it’s significant to point out a great percentage of this is owed to Leto who manages – sometimes through sheer force of will – to make the character something more than an incidental creation. It’s there from his opening scene and every inflection and vocal tic onward as he plays Rayon’s exasperation, frustration, mockery and surprise at Ron in a way that assures us – even if it’s offscreen – an agency in the character which sometimes seems lacking. For example, consider the scene with Tucker in the supermarket. Even though it could be played as a moment of Rayon having to deal with the society, the film pitches it as a Ron moment. Rayon is literally on the fringe of the shot with Ron getting the focus of the camera. Good on him, then, without any real dialogue in the scene doing all the acting with his eyes projecting Rayon’s embarrassment at the situation, stolid determination to not let it bother him, and a complex sort of reticent appreciation that Ron is in his corner even if it’s not as simply as enthusiastic thanks. So, like this scene Rayon’s inner feelings become amplified with complexity which is never explained not for Leto’s fault but the film’s general disinterest. A hard case of being forced to play a cipher but, mostly, acquitting himself of the issues it presents.

Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave ★ ★ 
Fine, I’ll show my hand and admit I’ve never been completely enraptured by Fassbender the actor, but then even then of his performances from 2011 onward this is roundly my least favourite (aside from Haywire) and the most significant takeaway I had after seeing his performance was how unremarkable I found this creation of Mr Epps. Look, I’m as happy as anyone to see an actor excelling and Fassbender seems charming enough that I’m ready to love him as a performer but we’re on different wavelengths. It’s fair to note that the film and its assets are already working against his efforts. 12 Years a Slave is not a film which exists to serve its actors, this is deliberate to the point that it might seem particularly stolidly focused on its theme than its players. Then the almost-bildungsroman attributes require that Chiwetel remains at the centre placing great difficulty for the supporting players to do more than play types. It’s a problem that seems to fell Fassbender more than any of his major co-stars. His Epps, instead of feeling like a whole creation onto himself instead seems to me an amalgamation of him in various registers – Rochester’s austerity when he first meets Solomon, Brandon’s hunger when looking at Patsy, Jung’s embarrassment after his drunken tirades, Lensherr’s terribleness in that whipping scene but the coalescing of these various Fassy’s does not even amount to a “best-of” reel but only seems to point out a major issue in Epps character being formed depending on which aspect of plantation-life Ridley wants to show us instead of as specific, and idiosyncratic singular entity. He holds my intention, but never rivets.

Previously: 2010, 2011, 2012
Upcoming: 1961, 1996, 1941,1954

I'm curious, though, Leto seemed crowned from the inception but who were you rooting for? Someone sell me on Fassbender's performance, or anyone colder on Cooper and Abdi than I?


Anonymous said...

I love this series! Exploring Oscar's track record within the parameters of a single category is great, and Supporting Actor is one of my favorite categories (personal, NOT Oscar-wise) so picking apart their selections is a great place to start.

You should post your personal ballots as well!

I have only seen Leto and Abdi, and I really liked them both. I consider Abdi Lead though, since he really isn't supporting anyone. He shares the story with Hanks. Leto was exceptional though, and I was very happy he won.

Andrew K. said...

fisti on abdi, i don't quite think he's lead because each of the pirates seem to get moments of their own but category placement so often be difficult to decide on.