The Oscar Quest: Strongest Best Supporting Actress Categories

Best Supporting Actress is one of those Oscar categories — it’s not always strong. In fact, if I had to think about it off the top of my head, I’d guess that the majority of the categories, of all 84 of them, are weak. It’s just stigma. This article will hopefully (somewhat) disprove that.

The thing about Best Supporting Actress is — of all the categories — it’s the one that’s most filled with two extremes: the really old veterans and the really young up-and-comers. And that tends to distort the strength of the categories. Also, there are a lot of “types” here. The women tend to get nominated based on types, especially early on. It’s the “Ma” role, or the “tragic woman” role. You see a lot of these operating in the nominations, especially if it doesn’t make sense why something is nominated. (Also, some of them are clearly, “Hey, Warners has a new starlet they want to build up, let’s push for a nomination,” sort of thing.)

So we’ll do our best to navigate through that. But I feel, these categories are actually really strong. And I’m a bit surprised I actually got 15 that I feel are really solid categories.

Here are, what I consider (remember, as I always say — it’s not about the specific rankings. Let’s all agree that these categories belong on the list. The specifics are a matter of personal opinion) the strongest Best Supporting Actress categories:

10. 1956

  • Mildred Dunnock, Baby Doll
  • Eileen Heckart, The Bad Seed
  • Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind
  • Mercedes McCambridge, Giant
  • Patty McCormack, The Bad Seed

What I love about this category — and what made it #10 and not #11 — is the quality of the films and the fullness of the characters in the films. Dorothy Malone’s character is perfectly realized for the type of film Written on the Wind is. Merecedes McCambridge — that’s a fully realized character (despite the limited screen time). The Bad Seed — Patty McCormack carries that film, and Eileen Heckart does a great job with what her character needs to do. And Mildred Dunnock’s character is so perfectly realized in the film — this is a really great category.

9. 1993

  • Holly Hunter, The Firm
  • Anna Paquin, The Piano
  • Rosie Perez, Fearless
  • Winona Ryder, The Age of Innocence
  • Emma Thompson, In the Name of the Father

I had a lot of problems with this category. Not with the category, in voting for it. All of these performances are tremendous, and none of them stood out to me as “you need to vote for this one.” You can have a strong category, but then there’s someone like Mo’Nique’s performance that’s — you need to vote for this one. Here, you think you need to vote for someone and then there are two more that make you go, “Oh, well, maybe this is the person to vote for…” It’s a tremendous category.

8. 1945

  • Eve Arden, Mildred Pierce
  • Ann Blyth, Mildred Pierce
  • Angela Lansbury, The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • Joan Lorring, The Corn is Green
  • Anne Revere, National Velvet

This is another deceptive category. Anne Revere and Ann Blyth are clearly great. Eve Arden is also very solid. And then Angela Lansbury’s performance is so poignant that it’s actually a really solid nominee. And Lorring — when you watch the film, she’s actually very memorable. So I really like this category.

7. 1940

  • Judith Anderson, Rebecca
  • Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath
  • Ruth Hussey, The Philadelphia Story
  • Barbara O’Neil, All This, and Heaven Too
  • Marjorie Rambeau, Primrose Path

Judith Anderson and Jane Darwell are iconic. Hussey is a great supporting performance that I’m sure everyone’s seen and knows about. O’Neil’s performance is one I love a lot. I was actually really blown away by her performance when I saw the film. Those four, I feel, put this here. Rambeau — not the best performance, but

6. 1942

  • Gladys Cooper, Now, Voyager
  • Agnes Moorehead, The Magnificent Ambersons
  • Susan Peters, Random Harvest
  • Dame May Whitty, Mrs. Miniver
  • Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver

Strong category. Wright is the light of her film. Whitty is the fully realized character with the great arc. Cooper is so wonderfully evil. Peters, while not the best performance, is still pretty good. And Moorehead — she just amazes me in her ability to do what she did.

5. 1950

  • Hope Emerson, Caged
  • Celeste Holm, All About Eve
  • Josephine Hull, Harvey
  • Nancy Olson, Sunset Boulevard
  • Thelma Ritter, All About Eve

I don’t really have anything to say here — it’s just really strong.

4. 1962

  • Mary Badham, To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker
  • Shirley Knight, Sweet Bird of Youth
  • Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate
  • Thelma Ritter, Birdman of Alcatraz

Three iconic performances, one phenomenal actress, and one strong supporting performance. I really had to resist the temptation to do the easy thing and put this higher. But when you see the top three — you’ll understand why this is only fourth.

3. 1967

  • Carol Channing, Thoroughly Modern Millie
  • Mildred Natwick, Barefoot in the Park
  • Estelle Parsons, Bonnie and Clyde
  • Beah Richards, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
  • Katherine Ross, The Graduate

I think I could just say “1967” for any list of the strongest categories and wouldn’t have to explain it. Just — The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Bonnie and Clyde — what Estelle Parsons does in that — Channing and her wonderful performance. And even Natwick. When that’s the lesser of the performances, that’s how you know the category is special.

2. 2007

  • Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There
  • Ruby Dee, American Gangster
  • Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
  • Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
  • Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton

I felt this one as it happened. When what I considered to be the hands-down winner — Saoirse Ronan’s performance — is considered by most to just be a third or forth contender to win — that’s amazing. Cate Blanchett’s performance as Bob Dylan — what Amy Ryan does in Gone Baby Gone — Ruby Dee just being who she is (and also giving a solid performance) — and Tilda Swinton — this, despite how recent it is, deserves to be here. That recentness always gives me pause. It’s a reaction from people saying something is the best movie ever, meanwhile it just came out on Friday. But this category is really special. And, if I’m gonna take any shit for ranking something recent high — it’s gonna be for #1.

1. 2010

  • Amy Adams, The Fighter
  • Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
  • Melissa Leo, The Fighter
  • Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
  • Jackie Weaver, Animal Kingdom

I call it as I see it — all of these performances are #1s in any other year. No joke. Look at them. Who is weak? Now, if you think that’s weak, put it in another year. Put that performance in this year’s category. Jumps to the top of the pack, doesn’t it? That’s why this is the strongest category of all time. I don’t care if it was last year. Find me a category better than this. Go ahead.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

11. 1973

  • Linda Blair, The Exorcist
  • Candy Clark, American Graffiti
  • Madeline Kahn, Paper Moon
  • Tatum O’Neal, Paper Moon
  • Sylvia Sidney, Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams

The reason this was kept off the list is because of the Sidney nomination, and because I wasn’t sure how sold others might be on the O’Neal and Clark performances counting as really strong. Plus, when faced with Hollywood pre-1965 and post-1965, I’ll almost always take classical Hollywood. So that’s another reason. Still, though, you can see why this almost made it.

12. 1960

  • Glynis Johns, The Sundowners
  • Shirley Jones, Elmer Gantry
  • Shirley Knight, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
  • Janet Leigh, Psycho
  • Mary Ure, Sons and Lovers

This is another category with fully realized characters. Maybe it’s because it’s not so publicized is the reason I didn’t put it on the top ten. But — Janet Leigh’s performance, we know. To convince you that she’s the lead of that movie, making that shock of the shower scene actually be what it is — that’s a good performance (and Hitchcock. But still). Glynis Johns is very memorable, and Mary Ure gives a very solid performance as well. Shirley Knight is very touching in her role, and Shirley Jones — she won. Also a solid performance. It belongs near the top of the list (of all 84).

13. 1978

  • Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
  • Penelope Milford, Coming Home
  • Maggie Smith, California Suite
  • Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
  • Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter

Three amazing performances to start. Maggie, Meryl and Dyan. Then Penelope is really solid as well. I don’t like the Stapleton nomination, and Milford’s performance isn’t strong enough for me to catapult it higher. Still, strong category.

14. 1952

  • Gloria Grahame, The Bad and the Beautiful
  • Jean Hagan, Singin’ in the Rain
  • Colette Marchand, Moulin Rouge
  • Terry Moore, Come Back, Little Sheba
  • Thelma Ritter, With a Song in My Heart

We all know Hagan. Grahame is solid too (and despite my feeling she shouldn’t have won, does a good job with the role). Thelma Ritter is dependable as always. The real surprises for me were Terry Moore and Colette Marchand. Moore especially. I really loved what she did with that performance. I bought it. I saw what her character was supposed to be and how Burt Lancaster was supposed to respond to it. And when I saw her playing it — I believed it. I really think this category is very strong.

15. 1971

  • Ellen Burstyn, The Last Picture Show
  • Ann-Margret, Carnal Knowledge
  • Barbara Harris, Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?
  • Cloris Leachman, The Last Picture Show
  • Margaret Leighton, The Go-Between

I don’t love this category, but I like it very much. Throw out the Leighton nomination. That’s crap. Ann-Margret is solid, as are Leachman and Burstyn. I don’t really love Last Picture Show that much. As in — people say it’s a masterpiece that should have won Best Picture. I say it’s a very good film that is fine to have just been nominated. And Harris — she gives a very quirky and fun performance in a wonderful film. So I like the category overall, but not enough to put it higher. Still, it’s good.

After going through this — I love how what’s considered a strong category for Best Supporting Actress is what would be considered a pretty decent category in almost any other acting category. Look at the ones that I didn’t put on this list — you’ll see. (Or better yet, look at the weakest ones. You’ll see what the alternatives were.)

One response

  1. I don’t know if I can really say for sure if 2010 was the strongest year ever for the Supporting Actress category. I think 1962 MIGHT be stronger, but if that’s the case, 2010 is a VERY close second of all time.

    December 23, 2013 at 1:04 am

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