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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actress, 2007-2008)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

2007

Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There

Ruby Dee, American Gangster

Saoirse Ronan, Atonement

Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone

Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton

Analysis:

Oh, this was a big category for me. No one knew what the fuck was gonna happen. And I had a strong opinion on it as well. But let’s get into the precursors first before anything.

SAG had 4/5, with Catherine Keener as the fifth nominee for Into the Wild over Saoirse Ronan.

BAFTA had 3/5, with Samantha Morton (Control) and Kelly MacDonald (No Country) over Ruby Dee and Amy Ryan.

The Globes had 4/5, with Julia Roberts (Charlie Wilson’s War…. HA!) over Ruby Dee.

And BFCA had 3/5, with Catherine Keener and Vanessa Redgrave (Atonement) over Ronan and Dee.

Saoirse Ronan was a bit of a surprise nominee, but not really. Since the film was over the Oscars. But she is a child, and Vanessa Redgrave could have been considered the bigger option. Though I was always firmly in her camp all around, so I was ecstatic and thought she deserved to win.

I remember this feeling like a wide open category when we got to the ceremony. Which the precursors back up, since they were split four different ways. Ronan won nothing, but that makes sense. No one actually thought she was gonna win. (I just thought she should win at the time.)

Blanchett won the Globe, Swinton won BAFTA, Dee won SAG and Ryan won BFCA.

I remember a lot of people thinking Ruby Dee would win on veteran status alone, the way she won SAG. But then you get into the “she’s not really in the film…” territory, which seemingly hurt that. And then you have Amy Ryan, who was solid, but never felt like a serious contender in the category. Cate Blanchett felt like a solid choice, given the double nomination this year, and the fact that she was playing Bob Dylan and looked uncannily like him. But did enough people see the performance to vote for her?

And then you have Tilda Swinton, in a movie everyone saw and liked (three acting nominations, Best Picture and Best Director, for a film that could have just as easily not been nominated for anything), doubling up with a Clooney lead nomination when he was the darling of the Oscars. Even he said at the time, “I wouldn’t count her out. I think she’s our best shot at winning something.” And he was right. He actually picked all the six big Oscar winners cold. I remember reading an article where he did that. And picked them cold, even Marion Cotillard. But anyway, yeah. She was a bit of a surprise winner. Don’t think most people had that one.

I’m Not There is the craziest pseudo biopic I’ve ever seen. It’s a film about Bob Dylan, and in a perfectly Dylan way, it has six different actors playing versions of Dylan throughout his career, including Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin (a young black child) and Cate Blanchett.

The film has six different parts, all representing different aspects and time periods of Dylan’s career. Christian Bale is the folk singer era Dylan. “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” Marcus Carl Franklin is young Dylan when he became obsessed with Woody Guthrie. Richard Gere plays Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid era Dylan. Heath Ledger plays an actor playing Christian Bale in a biopic, reflecting the era when Dylan became so iconic he was almost a parody unto himself. Whishaw plays a poet who was a heavy influence on Dylan, who is interviewed and answers purely with things Dylan has said over the years.

But the one segment we’re interested in is Cate Blanchett’s. She plays 60s Dylan. Her segment is shot in black and white. And she plays the most overt version of Dylan that we know. You watch her and go, “That’s Bob Dylan.” This is the version where he goes around doing acid with the Beatles and plugging in an electric guitar, to the outrage of his fans.

She’s awesome in this part. She does a spot-on Dylan. Though… it’s pretty much just an impression and not a whole lot more. That’s impressive in and of itself, but I’m not sure I see enough actual performance there past the impression to want to take her. Especially in a category like this. Then again, it might be enough. So we’ll see.

American Gangster is a film that I was so excited for when it was coming out. Because it’s everything we all love. A 70s crime film with a great cast that reminds you of the other great crime films you love.

Also one of the greatest trailers I’ve ever seen. I watched the shit out of this in advance of seeing the film:

Of course, in the end, it didn’t work out quite as well as we’d hoped, but it’s still a pretty cool movie.

Frank Lucas goes from right hand man to aging gangster to heroin king of New York, quietly the most powerful gangster in the country, that no one knows about. Until of course the police get wind of him and it all comes crashing down.

Ruby Dee plays the mother, of course. The mother of the gangster is a classic trope. Plus she’s Ruby Dee. This is a veteran nomination through and through. She doesn’t really have a whole lot of screen time in the movie, and she has one big “Oscar” scene that makes the whole thing feel worthwhile. You know the, “She will leave you! I will leave you!” scene where she slaps Denzel in the face.

Look, I’m not gonna say she shouldn’t have been nominated. Because she’s Ruby Dee. Please fucking nominate her. I wouldn’t even have been that upset if she’d won. I just need to be honest about the performance, which is that she’s fine, she’s a veteran, and the work is strong enough in the one scene to make it feel okay. But this is not something I’d vote for on its own, and it takes her stature as an actress and a woman to really make me consider this anything other than a number five in the category.

Atonement is a fucking tremendous film. I love it so much. This was the big Oscar film of 2007 that just lost steam by the time the ceremony happened. I must have seen this three times in theaters.

Briony Tallis is a 13 year old aspiring playwright who has written a new play she wants to put on. Over the course of the day, she bears witness to a romance between her sister and the gardener, whom she also has a crush on. Through a series of misunderstandings, she thinks the gardener has been making rude advances toward her sister and has raped her. Then, later, when her cousin is sexually assaulted in the woods, she pins it on the gardener, who is thrown in prison. And then the film cuts to five years later, as war has broken out and each of the characters’ lives is forever changed by that one day. It’s such a great, great film.

Saoirse Ronan plays Briony at age 13. There are three actresses that play Briony at different ages. So, in a way, she’s only part of the character. But her character is in the film for 50 minutes of a 110 minute film. So that’s just about half of it. It’s not like she’s lacking for screen time. Her interpretation of the character is the one that sets the tone for who this person is, and how she is played for the rest of the film.

The beautiful thing about this character is how she’s just a 13 year old girl. She wants to be the center of the universe. And she gets caught up in things she doesn’t quite understand or have full context about. So it makes sense that she acts the way she does. And I think Ronan did a fantastic job with this character and I really loved the performance. Objectively, did she give the best performance in the category? No. But I do love the performance. So that will always factor heavily into my decision-making. The only real question for me is if I love another performance enough to vote for it over her.

Gone Baby Gone is Ben Affleck’s directorial debut. The one that helped him “make good” for all the years when everyone hated him. You know, the Gigli and Surviving Christmas years.

A little girl in Boston is kidnapped. Her mother goes on TV to ask for her daughter to be found. A husband and wife pair of private detectives go over to help look for her. That’s pretty much the film. Things get uncovered, more may be going on than we think, you know the drill. It’s a solid film.

Amy Ryan plays the mother of the child. On the news she comes across as a concerned, loving mother. But in reality she’s a junkie, a completely unfit mother and was gonna do more harm than good to the child in the end. On the surface she’s evasive, sarcastic, and is openly dismissive of the cops. They start to question whether or not she even cared about her child. But the more we see her, the more we see that she really does care for her daughter, she’s just a horrible mother. She gets to add layer upon layer to this character as the film goes along, and ends up with this fully realized character that’s a truly impressive piece of work.

The first forty minutes of the film are almost completely hers, and then she disappears for much of the next hour. Not the worst thing in the world, considering the impression she makes, but also something that could hurt her status in the category for people voting. Doesn’t really mean all that much to me, the way Ronan going away and being replaced by an older actress doesn’t bother me. Impressive is impressive.

Michael Clayton is a throwback 70s thriller. I remember thinking two things when this was coming out. 1) I can’t wait to see this. 2) Are they seriously naming this movie after the wide receiver from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Well, time has sided with this film and not the wide receiver. Still, a generic title that somehow doesn’t hurt the film.

George Clooney is a fixer for a law firm. He makes problems go away. The opening of the film is him surviving an assassination attempt. Then we flash back to how we got there. It involves his mentor, Tom Wilkinson, working on a long case involving a pesticide company being responsible for death and deformity in children and the like, and him losing his mind during a deposition and taking all his clothes off. And slowly the web of conspiracy unravels. It’s such a great movie. It really is. It holds up perfectly.

Tilda Swinton plays Karen Crowder, the lawyer for the pesticide company. She’s trying to keep her shit together in the face of imminent doom for her company, as they find out that Wilkinson got his hands on a document that revealed everything — the company knew about the harm their product caused and did nothing about it. So she’s not thrust into doing some horrible shit, namely hiring people to have Wilkinson killed.

It’s a solid performance. The first scene perfectly sets the tone for the character — her, in a bathroom stall, her underarms pouring with sweat, essentially putting on her “work” face. She’s a woman in a cutthroat man’s world, and we see her getting herself ready to be a part of it. It doesn’t come natural to her. And doing horrible shit actually does affect her, even if she is someone who is willing to do it. Her greatest moment is, of course, the confrontation with Clooney in the end, where it’s clear she’s in over her head and, in trying to fix everything, gives it all up.

It’s a very well put together performance. I don’t know if I love it enough to vote for it, but it’s definitely worth voting for. I think, in the end, it’s kind of a shame that she won for this, even though she wholly deserves an Oscar, simply because she’s been better than this. She’s great here, but I’ve seen her be unforgettable. But still, as far as performances go, this is definitely a worthy winner.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This is a big category for me. I love the category. I think it’s one of the strongest of all time. And it’s big because this was a chance for me to completely change my opinions. Not that I expected to, but I knew it was a possibility. Because I wanted to make sure I watched all five again to really get an idea of what I felt about the performances. And since they’re all so great and all the performances are so close together in quality, I knew the entire category could be turned on its head. A #1 could become a #4, and vice versa. So, here’s where it shook out:

Ruby Dee is my #5. I love her, I wouldn’t be against a win by her, I just can’t vote for her. There’s nothing to the performance that makes me want to take it. She was my #5 last time, and that should come as no surprise to anyone.

Now here’s where it gets interesting…

Where do you guys think I went #4 this time? Last time it was Tilda. I, personally, would have had my money on Amy Ryan, if you’d asked me what I thought I’d do before I started watching the films again. But it wasn’t. It was Cate Blanchett.

I had Blanchett as my #2 last time and thought she probably could have and maybe even should have won this category. But honestly, having watched it again… it’s just a Dylan impression. She’s good, and she’s a wonderful part of the film, but she’s just doing Dylan, and there’s not a whole lot going on other than the fact that she’s doing Dylan. It’s not as impressive to me as the Linda Hunt thing because there, you didn’t know that was a woman in that movie until the end. Here, the film is playing on the notion that a woman is doing Dylan. So, while I still love the performance, she moves back a bit in terms of how I’d vote in the category. It’s not that the performance is any worse, it’s just that now I’d take three different people above her. And that was something I did not expect to happen going in.

So that leaves three performances: Ryan, Swinton  and Ronan. We all know how I feel about the Ronan performance. At this point, I feel like it’s up to one of the other two to knock her off. I understand that she’s not the #1 performance in the category and is more likely #3 or #4, but personal favorites are personal favorites.

So now, Ryan, I love the performance, but something about it makes me feel like she’s just a #3, solid but not a vote. And, just like that, Tilda Swinton is in my top two. Which I didn’t think would happen five years ago. I think she takes an underwritten role and does wonders with it. But I still don’t like it enough to vote for it, even though it’s the kind of situation where I know full well that my choice isn’t going to win, so, in all, I’m cool with how it ended up. I’d probably have been cool any way this went, because it’s such a strong category.

And all that said… I’m still taking Ronan. I know. But I love the performance. It is what it is. I’ve always been enamored with the performance, and I’m gonna continue taking it.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
  2. Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
  3. Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
  4. Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There
  5. Ruby Dee, American Gangster

Rankings (films):

  1. Atonement
  2. Michael Clayton
  3. American Gangster
  4. I’m Not There
  5. Gone Baby Gone

My Vote: Saoirse Ronan, Atonement

Recommendations:

Atonement and Michael Clayton I’m calling essential. A decade hasn’t passed, so nothing’s definitive yet, but I’m making the call that you need to see them. So there.

American Gangster — Ridley Scott, Denzel, Russell Crowe, and the rest of the cast, which is really great — it’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a damn entertaining one. Which is all you need. See it. Basically essential because of everyone involved.

I’m Not There is not essential, but should be seen because it’s so bold and unique and weird and off the beaten path that it should be seen because it encourages experimentation in the biopic realm, which is something there’s so little of. High recommend.

Gone Baby Gone is a solid film. Affleck does a great job in his directorial debut. Good performances, decent story. Overall solid. Recommend but not a particularly strong recommend.

The Last Word: Swinton was a great choice. They’re all great choices. For different reasons, but they all are. My preference is Ronan. Yours may be different. We’re all right. The category is one of the strongest of all time and they’re all great choices. They made a good one, and I’m fine with that.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

2008

Amy Adams, Doubt

Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Viola Davis, Doubt

Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

Analysis:

Oh yeah, this one. This one felt like a Cruz win all throughout the process, and it infuriated me since I hated this movie. Actively hated it. It might have been partially my constant feeling in my younger years of “I don’t like Woody Allen movies” which prejudiced me against everything of his, and the fact that everyone seemed to love this movie. And if that happened and I didn’t understand the love, I just hated it and everything that had to do with it. Anyway, into the analysis…

SAG had 4/5. They missed Tomei. We’ll get into winner in a minute, since it’s a weird year.

Globes had 4/5. They missed Henson.

BAFTA had 3/5. Missed Davis and Henson. They had Freida Pinto (Slumdog) and Tilda Swinton (Burn After Reading. Which, wow! Awesome, but also, wow).

BFCA had all five, with a sixth nominee of Vera Farmiga for Nothing But the Truth (which is a movie that I loved at the time that no one saw. And no one’s still seen).

As for winners… you can’t really go by precursors, since this was the year where Kate Winslet had both Revolutionary Road and The Reader. And it was widely acknowledged as “her” year, so we knew she was winning. The only problem was that no one knew how the nominations were gonna turn out.

For SAG, she was nominated for both, but won Supporting for The Reader, which she ended up being nominated (and winning) for at the Oscars. Because at that point, they knew where the performance was gonna be at the Oscars and just voted for that. The Globes just straight up had her win both lead and supporting for the two movies. She also won BFCA too.

BAFTA didn’t nominate her, so Cruz ended up winning.

So really, when you take Kate out of the category, you’re left with Cruz as the only one with a win who was really the favorite. Since no one figured Tomei or Henson had any shot. And Davis and Adams had the vote split. So most people would have had this one right when picking. I’m curious to go back and see if my opinion’s changed on it.

Doubt is a great film. Basically a play on film, but when the actors are as good as the ones here, it doesn’t matter. It’s mostly a four-hander: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Viola Davis. And they were all nominated, and with good reason.

Hoffman is a charismatic priest at a parish. Everyone loves him. Meryl Streep is the strict, humorless head nun who rules with an iron fist. Amy Adams is the idealistic and naive new nun. And Viola Davis is the mother of a boy, who comes into play later in the story. Adams notices some strange things going on between Hoffman and one of the boys in the school, and begins to suspect there may be something inappropriate going on. She tells this to Streep, who never particularly liked Hoffman (he being the polar opposite of her), runs with it. And pretty soon a full blown scandal has erupted. And everyone, by the end, including the audience, is left in (insert title here) as to what the truth actually is.

Amy Adams is the new nun, and it’s a perfectly cast role for her. She’s naive, idealistic, timid yet enthusiastic, and grows into her own convictions and character by the end of the film. At the time, it made total sense and was such a great performance. Now, it fits nicely into the Amy Adams oeuvre and its perfectly in terms of her development as an actress in terms of the kinds of roles she plays. She’s quite good here. Her big moment is when she starts to behave more like Streep wants her to and yells at a kid.

Viola Davis plays the boy’s mother, who has one powerfully charged scene with Meryl Streep that’s just lightning in a bottle. It hits hard and stays with you, and I totally get the nomination.

The scene is Meryl starting to talk to her in vague words about how her son is doing, and then eventually getting into her concerns about the nature of the relationship between Hoffman and her son. To which she responds with almost indifference. “He just has to make it til June.” Because in June, he goes to high school, and he could maybe even go to college. There’s a weird sense of bargaining that goes on internally here, where it’s almost as if the act is worth it if it helps the son’s future. And she reveals that her son is gay, and his father, other students, everyone hates him. And the one man who takes kindly to him is Hoffman, and if that means… impropriety… then that’s fine. She’s this conflicted woman who just wants what’s right for her son.

It’s a hell of a performance. She completely nails it and you could even vote for this for the win. Completely worth it. Would I? Probably not, but possibly. I’ll keep her in contention. The big nominee that’ll determine where she ends up is next.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Woody Allen. And man, did I hate this film when I saw it in 2008. I really didn’t like it, and then when everyone did, that made me even more upset. So I was completely against this performance and this win from the start. But that’s what the purpose of this reconsideration is, to give things another shot.

Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall go to Barcelona for the summer. Hall is engaged, and Johansson is not. They meet Javier Bardem, a painter. He flirts with both of them. Hall is not amused, Johansson is. He invites them to another part of the country for the weekend. They go, mostly at Johansson’s urging. And of course she, the single one who wants to sleep with Bardem, ends up on the sideline while Hall spends the weekend being charmed by him and ultimately is the one who sleeps with him first. Though then he ends up sleeping with Johansson and starting a relationship with her. And then the wife shows up, and shit gets crazy.

Penelope Cruz plays Maria Elena, Bardem’s ex-wife. Naturally. They spend the first 50 minutes talking about her, setting up her appearance, and then she shows up for a whirlwind last 40 minutes. She’s fiery. That’s for sure. I’ve definitely come around on this being a solid performance, but I’m still not sure if I’d vote for her. I don’t know if there’s enough there for me to take her.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a David Fincher film. Which is crazy when you think about it, since it feels nothing like a David Fincher film. (Then again, I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a David Fincher film.)

Benjamin Button is a child who lives in reverse. Born an old man, he gets younger as he gets older, eventually dying a child. That’s the film. And it’s awesome. The special effects are great, and the film is just terrific all around (if totally reminiscent of Forrest Gump in a lot of ways).

Taraji P. Henson plays Benjamin’s adopted mother, who finds him abandoned and raises him as her own. She’s really solid in the part, don’t get me wrong, but let’s not pretend like this isn’t black Sally Field as Mrs. Gump. She’s there, she gives advice (“You never know what’s coming” is this film’s “Life is like a box of chocolates”), she’s loving. That’s the character. No way anyone votes for this, and she’s clearly fifth in the category no matter how you shake it. That’s just what it is. She’s fine and I don’t begrudge the nomination at all, but let’s not pretend anyone’s voting for her here.

The Wrestler is such an amazing film. A small indie that you wouldn’t even expect from Darren Aronofsky. And the casting of Mickey Rourke was so spot on. Everything about this movie felt magical.

Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a professional wrestler who peaked in the 80s. Now, in his 50s, he’s still wrestling. But in high school gymnasiums and in these shitty shows for which he’s getting paid a couple hundred bucks. And he’s still putting himself through hell for it. And we watch him go from shitty show to shitty show, autograph session where only fifteen people show up, to his daily routine of visiting his favorite stripper, and also trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter, all the while working a day job at a grocery store, where he gets recognized by people all the time in the most humiliating ways. Only now, he’s just had a heart attack, and continuing to wrestle is going to put his life in jeopardy. It’s fucking wonderful.

Marisa Tomei plays the stripper, who is your classic stripper character. Single mom, potential redemptive woman. You know the deal. And of course in the end he has to choose between her or the ring.

The performance is strong. She adds layers to this character that go beyond the potential one-note cliche it could be. I think she was well worth the nomination and gave one of the more memorably supporting performances of the year. That said… wouldn’t take her. At best she’d be third in the category for me.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I’m so torn about this category. I have such doubts. Here’s where I’m at with this one…

I’m not gonna get into Winslet being here instead, since even though she has somewhat limited screen time, her character feels like the lead. So that’s fine. I’m gonna deal only with what I have to choose from.

Henson is a no for me straight off the bat. Tomei, I want to want to vote for her, because I love the film, but I just am not feeling that performance for a vote.

Between the two Doubt performances… it’s Davis over Adams. Last time I voted for Adams, but a lot of that was wanting to get her an award and a compromise choice in a category I didn’t love. Here… Davis has the stronger performance overall. So Adams is out.

And then, between Davis and Cruz… I still don’t love the Cruz performance. So it’s Davis for me. Another compromise choice, but at least I can live with it.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Viola Davis, Doubt
  2. Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
  3. Amy Adams, Doubt
  4. Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
  5. Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Rankings (films):

  1. The Wrestler
  2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  3. Doubt
  4. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

My Vote: Viola Davis, Doubt

Recommendations:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is probably essential. It feels too soon to really tell, but we’ll call it essential.

The Wrestler is essential. I already know that one’s essential. And even if it’s too soon, oh well, still essential until time tells.

Doubt is essential because of the cast. No reason to not see this movie. It’s incredible. 100% essential for any film buff. These are all pros at the top of their game working off a Pulitzer Prize winning play. Greatness all around.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a Woody Allen film that I used to hate that I’m not mostly indifferent toward. Which is really the only recommendation you’re gonna get out of me. Essential for Oscar buffs because of the win.

The Last Word: Cruz is a finer winner. I never thought I’d say that, but she is. Davis would have been a fine choice, and even Adams could have been decent. I think they made the only choice they really could have. Davis would have also held up pretty well. But I think they did fine in a category that didn’t have a decisive winner.

– – – – – – – – – –

(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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