Editor’s Note: We turn to our last acting category as we prepare to wrap up our Oscar coverage before the ceremony.
Christian Bale The Big Short
Tom Hardy The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo Spotlight
Mark Rylance Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone Creed
Every Oscar is equal. Whether lead or supporting, directing or writing, each winner gets the same statuette. But image is everything, and the supporting actor category has steadily endured as the least glamorous of the acting categories. It’s a crystallisation of many oddities. This is the categories where older actors, sometimes forgotten, sometimes ignored, come to get their accolades. It doesn’t always happen, but it often happens. And that reading of the category’s history might immediately rule out one or two nominees.
Tom Hardy was, statistically, the surprising nominee of the bunch. Since the effusive reviews for The Revenant, which is in many ways a two-hander between DiCaprio and Hardy’s battling men, it seemed like a likely nominee for him but unlucky bids from the Globes, the critics and significantly the BAFTA seemed to indicate little chance for him. The thing about The Revenant, though, is as the late December release its buzz was peaking just around the time votes were heading in leaving Hardy fresh in the viewers mind. Logically, one would expect his chance of actually winning are significantly lower. And I would imagine so, but this awards season has been marked by oddities. For the first time the SAG winner for an acting category was not Oscar nominated (Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation) and there is a precedent for an actor with no Globe, SAG or BAFTA nod winning a surprise Oscar (Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny and Marcia Gay Harden in Pollock).
For pure tenacity and officiousness of role Hardy, on paper, has a charming enough role but if he’s got the baity scenes his co-nominees have handy narratives, too. The odd thing about this category is how even the most unlikely nominee could make a case for a win.
For example, Christian Bale obviously will not win for his work in The Big Short having only won half a decade ago for more peerless work in The Fighter. Except a lesser follow-up in a short time didn’t stop Christoph Waltz winning for Django Unchained. Moreover, The Big Short is heading into the ceremony as one of the touted Best Picture favourites. Bale’s role emerges small in a large ensemble until we notice the things that voters love her – the tic laden performance, the single man ahead of his time, the reluctant hero. His biggest liability is no traditional “Oscar scene” and yet a win here wouldn’t be out of the imagination.
Similarly tic laden and with a host of scenes to use for his Oscar reel a “Mark Ruffalo sails to the podium” narrative makes even more sense. It’s his third nomination in this category after two decades of great character work. He’s the sharpest and the loudest of the Spotlight ensemble and the one with the most straightforward narrative (probably why he emerged from fellow performers Shrieber, and especially Keaton to earn the nomination). Ruffalo is a quintessential supporting actor, he tends not to repeat himself and his work here although towing the line between melodramatic is forceful and efficient. Amidst the ostensible race of the two older giants, to ignore Ruffalo as a threat would be folly.
If we were playing the numbers race, Ruffalo might seem a more likely threat. It’s his third nomination in six years in the same category. Surely voters might be thinking, “Just give him the Oscar already!” Except….
For those two older gentlemen. The race seems to have boiled down to two men: the respected thespian vs the redeemed movie star.
In one corner we’ve got Mark Rylance, perhaps the most celebrated theatre actor of his generation. Rylance in Bridge of Spies is playing the character responsible for the film’s thrust. Rudolf Abel is the hard to read prisoner who changes the face of the Cold War. He gets a quippy line that resounds throughout and he benefits from a sharp, silent opening at the beginning of the film which sets up the nuances of the character. He is Mark Rylance, he is charming, if diffident. It’s a sympathetic but complex role, it might seem an easy win on paper except even as a fan of the performance the way this role has shot to the head befuddles. Rylance is a fantastic performer, but he’s never given a great deal to actually do in Bridge of Spies. It’s a performance that veers from subtlety into quietude. There have been a few winners who were similarly but consider them, Plummer in Beginners, Freeman in Million Dollar Baby – they were both older actors working the narrative of being “due”. Rylance is a fantastic actor, but not a film actor, are voters really willing to look beyond the quiet? This category loves their showy men – their abusive music teachers (Whiplash) or their horrific murders (No Country for Old Men, Inglourious Basterds, The Dark Knight) or their somewhat moving, somewhat heroic older men (Iris, Little Miss Sunshine).
And speaking of heroic older men, wouldn’t Sylvester Stallone fit that narrative well enough? For what does Creed emerge as, if not a nostalgic look back to Rocky? – the 1976 Best Picture winner. On one hand, I’m reluctant to say that this is the tour-de-force performance his biggest critics would argue. Stallone is more than adequate here, but the film’s emotional acting prowess emanates from Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson more. What this is, though, is a surefooted turn well aware of the actors limitations. Stallone’s advantage is that he has been playing Rocky for more than four decades. There’s history here, and there’s redemption with Creed being arguably the finest Rocky entry since the seventies. And who doesn’t love redemption? Everyone does, especially Oscar voters.
So where does that leave us? With five turns, none of them terrible, some of them good, even great. And five narratives that could all make sense. Hardy has the strongest role on paper, but he’s the greenest and they’ll make him wait. Bale has a sympathetic role, but he already has his Oscar and is less sympathetic than his co-nominees so we’re left with the tenacious reporter in one of the Best Picture frontrunners vs the legend making a heroic combat in a tearjerking way vs the acting chameleon in a subtle but sharp turn?
Who wins? In one of the acting categories I suspect we will have something surprising happening. It’s been two unpredictable a year for there not to be something odd happen. Will it be here? My gut tells me that Ruffalo could sail to a surprise triumph, except they wouldn’t pass up a chance to welcome Stallone to the fold would they? But, then, they will want to give Best Picture nominee Briges some recognition won’t they? Stallone’s narrative is the sharpest and the most emotional.
Thus, simple logic says it’s Stallone’s to lose. We will see if the Academy goes for logic…