Best Supporting Actor: A Retrospective Rewind

Joe Vallese

Let’s be honest: the acting category we collectively care least about on Oscar night is Best Supporting Actor.

Sure, it’s gratifying when we see a deserving shoo-in get his gold (Javier Bardem’s terrifying – in both demeanor and hairdo, respectively – Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men; Heath Ledger’s lightning-in-a-bottle method approach to The Joker in The Dark Knight; Christoph Waltz’s Nazi with the unsettlingly elastic smile in Inglorious Basterds), but more often than not, it’s a relatively tame affair when compared with the rest of the slots that fill out the Big Four.

Best Actor and Best Actress are always big deals by default and, while not especially surprising by the time that fateful Sunday arrives, they often play out over the course of awards season like the most riveting of political campaigns: Natalie Portman’s demented ballerina edging out Annette Benning’s chances for a long overdue win for The Kids Are All Right; Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk trouncing Mickey Rourke’s Wrestler, arguably the role of his lifetime; Meryl Streep’s perfunctory Iron Lady unnecessarily sideswiping Viola Davis’ nuanced portrait of Abileen Clark in the otherwise unchallenging The Help.

Best Supporting Actress is, of course, another ballgame altogether, as it often introduces the world to an ingénue who may or may not fulfill her eventual promise (it has taken Marisa Tomei nearly two decades’ worth of unconventional roles to convince naysayers that her My Cousin Vinny win wasn’t a fluke, while Jennifer Hudson has yet to prove she actually possesses acting chops post-Dreamgirls -- e tu, Mo’Nique?), rewards a veteran actress who has been hanging in until the right role comes her way (Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway; Marcia Gay Harden in Pollock; Melissa Leo in The Fighter), or commences the fabled “Supporting Actress Curse” (see: Geena Davis, Brenda Fricker, Mercedes Ruehl, Mira Sorvino, Kim Basinger -- careful now, Octavia Spencer).

As far as nominees go, the Academy may not always get it completely “right” when it comes to Best Supporting Actor—the current ire over the exclusions of Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson for Django Unchained is absolutely warranted—but they typically get it “just fine,” honoring a healthy mix of newcomers, veterans, and performances of undeniable strength. Perhaps this is why no one is exactly jumping out his seat in anticipation at home when the envelope is cracked.

While there’s certainly an air of delight in watching Alan Arkin win for his ornery quirks in Little Miss Sunshine or seeing George Clooney dashingly dash to the podium to accept his Syriana accolade, no one is exactly losing his head over the fact that those awards were likely better suited to opponents Jake Gyllenhaal for Brokeback Mountain and Eddie Murphy for his unfulfilled Dreamgirls comeback. No one is throwing up her hands bitterly and refusing to watch for the rest of the night when Tommy Lee Jones plays detective for the umpteenth time in The Fugitive and snatches the prize out of the young hands of Leonardo DiCaprio, whose interpretation of mental disability in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape proved remarkably authentic. Nor is anyone still griping about Walter Matthau winning the award in 1966 for The Fortune Cookie -- the same year George Segal portrayed Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And it’s unlikely anybody, apart from yours truly, shakes his head in disapproval every time I pop in my worn DVD of my all-time favorite film Terms of Endearment when I’m reminded that Jack Nicholson’s manic “someoneslappedmeonthebackanditgotstuckthisway”-smile charmed the Academy over John Lithgow’s understated, awkward elegance.

This general ambivalence aside, there have been a few occasions when the Academy has gotten it so wrong that anyone wishing to delegitimize the entire ceremony as arbitrary and inconsequential need look no further than these two examples to prove their point:

Tom Cruise losing for Magnolia

Just a few years before losing it completely, Cruise rather incredulously lost Best Supporting Actor for his role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia to Michael Caine for Cider House Rules. While Anderson’s film hasn’t aged all that well—what was once regarded as experimental and challenging is, in retrospect, somewhat overwrought and bloated—time is Cruise’s performance’s best friend. The further Cruise’s career moves from this moment of anguished brilliance—the more his phoned-in action flicks decline at the box office, the wackier his public persona gets—the more frustratingly clear it becomes that Cruise so rarely lives up to his true abilities. Cruise may be his own worst enemy in a slew of ways, but Magnolia is the pinnacle of his achievements as an actor, and a reminder that he may very well one day return to the glory promised by this performance.

Cuba Gooding, Jr. winning for Jerry Maguire

Ugh. The worst of what awards buzz can yield: a charismatic but not particularly accomplished performance in a very of-the-moment, feel-good blockbuster, followed by a then-charming, now cringe-worthy acceptance speech. The ulceric acids in my stomach churn even typing the names of his fellow nominees that year: William H. Macy for Fargo, Armin Mueller-Stahl for Shine, and Edward Norton’s masterful debut in Primal Fear. I won’t lament James Woods losing for his gross overacting and poor aging makeup in Ghosts of Mississippi. Still, fourth place didn’t get a medal last I checked.

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