Editor’s Note: The strong batch of supporting female performances gets the focus as our Oscar coverage continues
Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara in Carol
Rachel McAdams in Spotlight
Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs
Trivia: We have three ladies playing biographical characters. Only one of the nominees is from a Best Picture nominee, but four are nominated alongside costars. All five women are the main female character in their films (in Leigh and McAdams’s case the only female in male dominated films).
It is not completely unfounded to say that an actor or actress who works with the richly-crafted characters of Quentin Tarantino has a reasonable chance to be in contention for one of the most prestigious and career-changing set of awards in the Oscars race. Not to completely disregard or undermine the performer’s own talent in relation to the masterful composer of characters that Tarantino is, I am of course referencing any of the four acting awards. This collective of awards the Academy bestows on beguiled artists year after year, after which they instantly become defined, as if the status ‘Oscar winner’ is the life-blood that sustains them in their professional life thereafter. Although Samuel L. Jackson’s ever captivating performance in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight has unfortunately gone unrecognised in this year’s nominations, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance as Daisy Domergue who is perhaps the most hateful of the bunch, has broken through and been rightly celebrated in the Actress in a Supporting Role category.
Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance is one of the standout performances of The Hateful Eight. As the only immediately present and resonant female character amongst a group of equally degenerate male characters in the film, Leigh holds her own with vigour. She brings the unspoken abhorrence of her character to life through each menacing glare and ill-mannered physical tick or impulse. These elements of her performance form the foundation that defines Daisy Domergue’s sadomasochistic and unreservedly violent character before any dialogue comes into play, an achievement which is commendable in itself and gives Leigh an enduring presence on screen in the film’s three hour running time. The cold and reserved composure of her character in the first half of the film casts an air of uncertainty and suspense over the confine of Minnie’s Haberdashery, before the tense climax. During which Leigh’s performance comes into its own when Domergue unleashes the extent of her repugnant nature and history. This is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s first Oscar nomination, and the subtle physical mannerisms and escalating madness that is beautifully ingrained in her portrayal mean that she would certainly be worthy of the prize on the night.
To change the spotlight (sorry, I couldn’t resist) onto another and arguably surprising addition to this year’s Actress in a Supporting Role nominees, Rachel McAdams. McAdams has been recognised by the Academy for her performance in Tom McCarthy’s remarkable film Spotlight, which follows the story of the journalists who uncovered the widespread scandal and cover-up of child sex abuse by Catholic priests in Boston. When a film like Spotlight comes along, faultless in its relatively nuanced, naturalistic performances by a talented ensemble cast it is important to think about the kind of performances that the Oscar’s traditionally honour. There is a reason why the cast of Spotlight took home the SAG award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, and it is both satisfying and reassuring to see that these sort of understated performances are not being forgotten about or diminished this awards season. Though to some degree the distinction between Mark Ruffalo’s performance and that of Michael Keaton or Liev Schreiber in the Actor in a Supporting Role category is perhaps questionable. In that Ruffalo’s character has a scene of aggressive confrontation that provides the Academy with an easily identifiable and classic Oscar’s clip to show on the night.
Nevertheless, Spotlight is a film full of fantastic performances that certainly includes Rachel McAdams’ portrayal of journalist and Spotlight member Sacha Pfeiffer. As previously mentioned, the characters presented to us in Spotlight are decidedly normal in their characteristics and mannerisms. McAdams’ performance is as fantastic in this respect as the whole cast and really allows Josh Singer and director Tom McCarthy’s screenplay to resonate with its audience in the intended way. This may not sound as instantly impressive as some of the more outward eccentricities and emotional outbursts of the other performances in this category, however it is easy to underestimate the difficulty of such a naturalistic performance. Of the performer not having any kind of dramatic or pervading characteristic to rely upon. In this sense McAdams’ performance is all the more impressive. Sacha Pfeiffer is one of the only journalists we see having to react to the distressing statements of the victims, and in one moment the disturbing rationality behind the abuse conducted by an ex-Priest, not to mention that she is a character who also feels the impact of her current work on her own family. McAdams’ portrays these complexities of character with such skill that greatly adds to the realistic tone so successfully executed in Spotlight, deservedly earning her a first Oscar nomination.
Alicia Vikander is undeniably one of the most talked about actresses this year, being double nominated at both the Golden Globes and at the BAFTAs for her performances in Ex Machina and The Danish Girl. Vikander tops off her awards season recognition with her first Oscar nomination for her affecting performance as artist Gerda Wegener in The Danish Girl. The somewhat ambiguous title of Tom Hooper’s film is a tribute to the enduring presence of Gerda in the film and the nature of Lili and Gerda’s developing relationship that carries much of the narrative. The nomination of Vikander as Gerda and indeed Rooney Mara for her role as Therese Belivet in Carol in the Actress in a Supporting Role category troubles me slightly and highlights the obvious problem with categorizing artistic performances. I very much regard Vikander and Mara’s performances as leading, if I were to categorize them differently which may be hypocritical in itself, as both their co-stars Eddie Redmayne and Cate Blanchett. However, I assume that it is difficult as it is to recognise the abundance of talent and fantastic performances in the acting categories, and I assume that Vikander and Mara’s performances have become overspill from the leading actress category. Nevertheless, it is a positive that their performances are still being recognised regardless of their more prominent positions in their respective films.
As Gerda Wegener, Alicia Vikander breathes life into the character just as an artist would to their painting, carefully constructing each delicate emotion with believable and fluctuating details. This is a crucial element of Gerda’s role in the film, her mood and emotions flower and fade so quickly and delicately as the dynamic between the two artists develops. Vikander’s performance exposes a whole breadth of emotion that spans pure admiration, heartbreak, isolation and desperation. She often manages to display these emotions all at once, wrapped and entangled together in their conflict. The true triumph of Vikander’s performance in The Danish Girl is the way she captures the unflinching honesty and raw emotion that accompanies Lili and Gerda’s relationship with such finesse and fragility, which could well see her win her first Oscar.
Rooney Mara receives her second Oscar nomination for her performance as Therese Belivet in one of the year’s most beautiful films. Mara shines in Todd Haynes’ opulent romance Carol as a wistfully naïve young women. An aspiring photographer captivated at first by the image of an older, incredibly enigmatic woman in 1950s New York Therese is a character who becomes completely entangled by her love for Carol. Mara’s performance is as soft and alluring as it is assertive in the instinctive romance that follows, she seems to be able to capture the intimate way that their love and separate realities collide and flourish with such a charm that resonates for quite some time after the credits roll. This resonant quality alone makes Rooney Mara a creeping but none the less potent threat to the other nominees.
The final nominee is Kate Winslet for her performance as Joanna Hoffman in Steve Jobs. This is a nomination that I was overjoyed to see on this year’s list after the film failed to find a large audience, which I firmly believe to be unmerited. Kate Winslet is no stranger to the Academy, her performance in Steve Jobs marks her seventh nomination and is the first nomination since her win for Best Performance by an Actress in Leading Role for The Reader in 2009. Danny Boyles’ three act biopic, written by Aaron Sorkin, is a film defined by the dynamic performance of Michael Fassbender which itself is a performance that is superbly complemented by Winslet. The influence, support and relationship that existed between Steve Jobs and Joanna Hoffman is present throughout the whole structure of the film and in a sense upholds it. She is an assertive and unique character who was also uniquely present in the life of Jobs, the chemistry between Fassbender and Winslet is clear and allows their respective performances to standout. Winslet’s performance in Steve Jobs is the epitome of what an excellent supporting role should be and has already won her the BAFTA, placing her in prime position to receive the Oscar.
The variety of characters and their accompanying performances in this year’s Actress in a Supporting Role category are incredibly difficult to judge. As always, this makes the category invariably more interesting when it comes to crowning the winner, so much that I feel too conflicted to profess my own opinion on who should triumph. All of the nominees are undoubtedly deserving of the accolade, however I suspect Alicia Vikander or Kate Winslet may just have the edge on the other nominees.