For the love of entertainment
You know the old complaint that there aren’t enough good roles for women in Hollywood? Consider this proof. This is the weakest decade of contenders yet. Lots of pretty faces playing supportive wife figures. The top four heats up a bit, and the number one is a staggering achievement, but the decade on the whole is a definite loss for the Best Supporting Actress category. Unfortunately, the performances that would have made this a much more competitive, colorful field just didn’t take an Oscar home with them at the end of the day.
Given that, it behooves me to repeat that in order to determine the best of the best, I am only considering the performances that actually won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress during the years between 2000 and 20009. I may comment on actresses who were snubbed that year, and even declare who I think should have won, but whether or not an actress deserved the win cannot impact rank in and of itself.
I never got what was supposed to be so good about this performance. On paper, Weisz’s performance as an activist in Africa who uncovers corruption in a remote area of Northern Kenya should have been so much weightier than it is. Perhaps it’s because The Constant Gardener only uses her as a plot catalyst. Her brutal murder sets off the movie’s action, so we only get to know her through flashbacks as her husband, the real hero of the story, investigates. Essentially, that reduces her character to a standard ‘good girl’ archetype desperately trying to haunt a film that doesn’t actually want to be about her. I’ve seen this movie, and Weisz’s perfomance was good, to be fair, but utterly not memorable in the slightest. A complaint you’ll be hearing a lot of in this decade, so get used to it now.
Should have won in 2005: it would have been better if they’d given the Oscar to Michelle Williams for Brokeback Mountain instead. In fact, Williams would have cracked the top five with her betrayed housewife.
Here’s a basic character description that will pop up a lot throughout the years in this category: supportive wife. Ostensibly, Jennifer Connelly’s character, Alicia Nash, is supposed to be the foundation that keeps her mentally troubled mathematician husband grounded in reality. But what this amounts to in the end is a lot of shots of Connelly staring sadly (albeit beautifully) at things. There’s nothing more for her to do than be blandly supportive of her husband. Connelly is earnest, but maybe that’s the problem. There’s no real fire or sparkle here.
Should have won in 2001: virtually all of Connelly’s competitors would have been better, but she rode the wave of A Beautiful Mind‘s success all the way through award season. Maggie Smith or Helen Mirren, both nominees from Gosford Park, inspired more laughs (Smith) or packed a much bigger emotional wallop (Mirren).
Renee Zellweger made her win inevitable through three years of Oscar campaigning. She’d lost the Best Actress race twice in a row (first for Bridget Jones’ Diary, then with a much more serious bid for Chicago). Unlike with Weisz and Connelly, however, it’s hard to point to a specific actress who should have won instead (I’d probably go with Holly Hunter’s put-upon mother in Thirteen, although Shohreh Agdashloo’s performance in House of Sand and Fog has its supporters). But aside from the ‘inevitability’ factor, Zellweger stood out for playing a scrappy drifter in a movie that was by and large too leaden and self-serious for its own good. Looking back, clips of her performance are painful to watch, but that mostly comes down to painful dialogue. At least she wasn’t another bland wife character. That’s something you can’t knock her for.
Should have won in 2003: like I said, I would probably have gone with Holly Hunter in Thirteen.
The best thing you can say about Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls is that she sings the musical’s most iconic song well. And still, it is flooring (if not unprecedented) that something as relatively small as that made her the frontrunner throughout award season. Sure, she belts a tune remarkably well–as anyone who saw her on American Idol could attest. Sure, she imbued the role of Effie, a member of a Supremes-esque girl group in the 60’s (who gets kicked out in order to promote their more bankable member), with sass and verve. But was this really an Oscar-worthy performance at the end of the day? I would argue not. Any one of the other actresses nominated (Cate Blanchett for a teacher having an affair with a student in Notes on a Scandal, Abigail Breslin for her winning turn as the titular Little Miss Sunshine, Adriana Barraza for a woman desperately dealing with racism on the US-Mexico border in Babel, and Rinko Kikuchi’s depressed deaf girl, also in Babel) would have made a better winner.
Doesn’t it say a lot about this decade that a performance I’m being this mean to is coming in at number seven?
Should have won in 2006: I already went on record saying that Hudson was probably the weakest of the nominees, but I would probably have given it to Breslin’s indelible cheer.
I literally remember nothing about Marcia Gay Harden’s performance in Pollock, where she played the titular painter’s long-suffering wife Lee Krasner. For those of you keeping track, that’s another supportive wife character for the books. But a look back through the magic of YouTube videos reveals a performance that at least had depth and some steel to it. Yes, she’s yet another supportive wife. Yes, her character only exists to lift up her male counterpart to achieve greatness (keep in mind that this is based on a real woman before judging too harshly, though). With the refresher YouTube gave me, I feel comfortable declaring this a middle-of-the-road performance and leaving it here for your consideration.
Harden’s competitor that year, Kate Hudson, was actually the frontrunner for her role as the golden groupie in Almost Famous. That performance wouldn’t have gone far in this top ten compared to Harden, but at least it would have been memorable.
Should have won in 2000: Hudson. Her performance was far more indelible.
Thankfully, this is where things actually start getting good. Which is funny, because in lesser hands, the role of Karen Crowder (a business exec trying to help her chemical company cover up its misdeeds and further her own career at any cost) would have been absolutely rote and imminently forgettable. Thank goodness for Tilda Swinton. Limited material can kill many a good performance, but Swinton manages to transcend the limits of her script pages to give Crowder a palpable desperation that would almost be heartbreaking if she weren’t trying to find a hired killer to solve her problems. She even makes the act of hiring a hitman tense, showing the audience the conflicting emotions Crowder feels–giving a sense that she feels trapped herself.
Should have won in 2007: Amy Ryan and Cate Blanchett were actually the frontrunners for this award throughout 2007–Ryan for playing a messy mother with a missing daughter in Gone Baby Gone, Blanchett for playing Bob Dylan (seriously) in I’m Not There. Both gave deserving performances, but in this case I’m just fine with the way things ended up.
I’m hit or miss with Woody Allen, and for me Vicky Cristina Barcelona was mostly a miss. Until Penelope Cruz showed up, that is. The movie starts out a fairly standard exploration of two American girls (Vicky and Cristina, natch) exploring Spain, trying to be adventurous, misbehaving a bit, and becoming entangled with a painter named Juan Antonio who is just dripping with sexual charisma (played by Javier Bardem, natch). Just as the movie begins to tip into snooze territory, Penelope Cruz shows up as Juan Antonio’s mentally unstable ex-wife, Maria Elena, and she just burns everything to the ground. She’s fiery. She’s sexy. She’s dangerous. She’s beyond bad news. And she’s exactly what the movie needed to send it into a tailspin and out of its own ass.
Fun fact: because Javier Bardem won Best Supporting Actor the previous year, he was able to present his wife with her Academy Award. What have you done for your spouse lately?
Should have won in 2008: some people thought Viola Davis would take home the Oscar for her dramatic breakthrough performance in Doubt, but in the end there, ahem, was no doubt at all that Cruz deserved it. Besides, if she hadn’t taken it she would have seriously fucked some shit up. Believe that.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is perfect, polished, and unflappable as Chicago‘s queen bee prisoner, Velma Kelly. Until that bitch Roxie Hart gets arrested and starts stealing all of Ms. Kelly’s headlines. It took so long to get Chicago made it seems like every actress in Hollywood was up for the role of Velma at some point (highlights include Madonna and Angelina Jolie, among others). In the end, though, it turns out Zeta-Jones was the perfect Velma. If you scroll through trivia about the movie it even turns out that a lot of the character’s signature moments in the film were Zeta-Jones’ idea–right down to her hairstyle (director Rob Marshall wanted Zeta-Jones’ long brown locks, Zeta-Jones insisted on the bob). As the only lead actor in Chicago with song and dance experience prior to taking their role, Zeta-Jones effortlessly imbues Velma with advanced levels of polish and grace, which actually works for Velma’s character in the end. This is a classic case of the right actress getting the right part, then knocking way out of the park.
Fun fact: when Zeta-Jones was first approached about Chicago, they had her in mind for Roxie Hart. But the only song Zeta-Jones knew from the musical was “All That Jazz,” and she told producers she wanted to sing it. So everything worked out as it should have in the end.
Should have won in 2002: I love Meryl Streep’s restrained longing in Adaptation, but Zeta-Jones deserved the win.
Katharine Hepburn had a larger than life persona, so it might seem difficult to imagine anyone playing her in a movie. But then, not everyone is Cate Blanchett (did you catch the bit about how she was nominated for playing Bob Dylan?! That’s a thing that happened). She was easily the best thing about The Aviator, a flawed film from Martin Scorsese that made a big bid for Best Picture and Best Director, only to lose out to Million Dollar Baby. Blanchett ended up winning the film’s biggest award, and all was as it should be. Whenever Blanchett’s Hepburn isn’t on screen, you’re kinda just waiting around for her to come back. Or maybe that’s just me. I mean, Leonardo Dicaprio was good, but Blanchett was stunning.
Should have won in 2004: some made a case for Natalie Portman in Closer or Virginia Madsen in Sideways, but this award was always intended to belong to Blanchett.
Closing out the decade with a bang–and with a bit of a shock. Let’s all be honest: if you were shown a list of Academy Award winners for Best Supporting Actress 2000-2009, would you expect Mo’Nique, a comedian, to be anywhere near the top? Anywhere close to it at all? Nope. You wouldn’t. And yet here we are: the biggest performance by a supporting actress in the 2000’s is also the biggest surprise.
All these years after Precious came out, Mo’Nique’s performance still haunts my dreams. Mary, her abusive mother character, plumbed unheralded depths of despair in cinema–mostly because this kind of character is largely ignored by mainstream media. Mo’Nique was the right choice to play this role because she understood it so well, as revealed in countless interviews and acceptance speeches. She knew that Mary isn’t just an abusive mother. Yes, she’s a horrible person who commits unspeakable acts against her children, but she’s also an abandoned, unloved wife. She’s also an abused, unloved daughter. She’s the product of a system and a life that crushed her every dream and left her broken. And now she’s angry. And now she’s perpetuating the behavior that made her who she is, creating a never-ending cycle of abuse and neglect.
Mary’s final scene–confessing to abuse in a social worker’s office, crying, and desperately trying to maintain her dignity at the same time–is nothing short of astonishing. It makes you squirm, oh yes. It horrifies you, oh yes. But most of all, it breaks your heart. Oh yes.
Should have won in 2009: Mo’Nique. No question.