For the love of entertainment
As with the other categories for this decade, I’ll update the rankings each time a new winner is declared. We shall see who reigns supreme come 2019. Anything can happen! Once again, it behooves me to point out that although I will comment on who should have won in a given year, whether or not someone deserved their win cannot impact their position in the ranking.
Let’s get something out of the way immediately: I am not a fan of Boyhood. I thought it was wildly overpraised, and I thought Patricia Arquette was equally overpraised as a mother struggling to raise two kids and make ends meet. Critics gushed that her performance is emblematic of what it is to be a mother, but the role just feels slight to me. We don’t actually know anything about this woman other than the fact that she has poor taste in men. She has three or four crying scenes, but she’s mostly a cipher. When her son graduates from high school she expresses frustration that she had expected there to be more to life–but the moment would have a much larger impact if we had any idea what that ‘more’ would look like.
Should have won in 2014: Jessica Chastain wasn’t even nominated for A Most Violent Year, but she deserved the win.
Leo is certainly good as the cheap, chain-smoking, boozy mother in The Fighter, but to my thinking everything about the movie was over-praised. I do think Leo was better than her Oscar-winning costar Christian Bale, but her role adds less to the film than his. She’s just cigarette-soaked and hard-edged. The character also suffers because she doesn’t have an arc the way her fellow winners do. She’s there, she smokes, she’s crass, she’s borderline abusive to her sons, and that’s it. There’s no defining moment to add layers, and I would argue that each of her competitors here has that, which makes it difficult to put Leo anywhere but here. But you do have to give her credit for saying the F-word onstage after winning–in front of Kirk Douglas, no less. Then she stole his cane. It was train-wreck TV, capping off an Oscar campaign many deemed overly crass and grasping (none of which impacted her place in the standings here, of course).
Should have won in 2010: the always reliable Helena Bonham-Carter was a delight as the Queen in The King’s Speech and the very young Hailee Steinfeld lived up to the title of True Grit. Either would have made a fantastic winner, but I would have given Steinfeld the edge.
Like Melissa Leo, Hathaway got a lot of criticism for her Oscar campaign. But her turn as Fantine, a woman who is forced to sell her teeth, her hair, and finally her body in order to support her beloved daughter, could not be denied. It’s a role primed to catch attention, with one of the musical’s most iconic songs to boot. Hathaway clearly knew this was her shot at an Oscar, and she seized it. It’s a very small role, but to her credit, the movie does suffer some once Hathaway makes her exit, and she makes her performance ripple throughout the rest of the film.
Should have won in 2012: The Master is a weird movie, but Amy Adams should have gotten the win for it.
Yes, Spencer plays a stereotypically sassy lady in a movie that’s supposed to subvert class expectations of race in the south during the mid-20th century. People also criticize that she played a maid, essentially meaning she plays what is supposed to be an outdated bit of type-casting for black actresses, but that’s unfair. It’s not like her character had many other opportunities living in the south in the 1960s. It’s fair to say that Spencer fills the role of comic relief–but only to a point. Her Minny is also a mother, a fiercely loyal friend, and an abused wife. That Spencer manages to balance these attributes with such care is an enormous credit to her. Spencer uses these moments to give Minny depth and nuance. She also provides an essential counterpoint to Viola Davis’ sad, stoic Aibileen–making her the definition of a good supporting actress.
Should have won in 2011: Spencer deserved it.
Let’s be honest, Vikander has a leading role in The Danish Girl. She has more screen time than Eddie Redmayne, who was nominated for Best Actor. She campaigned in this category to increase her odds of winning. The sad thing is it’s possible Vikander would have ridden her strong performances here and in Ex Machina to the podium in Brie Larson’s place for Best Actress. She would have deserved it, too. I complain that there are a lot of ‘sad supportive wife’ types in the Supporting Actress category and this role as Gerda Wegener, a woman whose husband becomes the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery, definitely fits that bill. Thanks to Vikander, Gerda is a well of gorgeously portrayed emotion. That makes her among the best when it comes to this archetype.
Should have won in 2015: Vikander based on the way the category worked out. But if Vikander had been in Best Actress where she belonged, I imagine Kate Winslet would have claimed a second Oscar for her supporting turn in Steve Jobs.
Janney has been putting in memorable performances for a long time, so it’s no surprise that she completely steals the show in I, Tonya as the caustic, abusive mother who pushed Tonya like a redneck pageant mom. What is surprising is the great care Janney takes in crafting her scene-stealing mother. Her face is a mask never letting you know what she really feels or thinks, but somehow Janney manages to let you know that it’s all for show anyway. There’s a lot of deft work going on here that you almost don’t notice, which is what makes her stand out from Melissa Leo’s caustic mother in The Fighter.
Should have won in 2017: Janney was equally as good as Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird, but Metcalf’s is the performance that will stay with me. The care and layering Metcalf deployed was incredibly subtle (which allowed Janney’s flashier part to get the win), and pitch perfect.
Viola Davis’ role as Rose is Alicia Vikander 2.0 in some ways. First, because she plays a sad supportive wife–but if I said that Vikander is one of that archetype’s best, put Davis ahead of her. Davis inhabits every scene, every moment as Rose and makes her feel like a woman with a whole life of hopes and hurts. Fences would be good enough as a vehicle for Denzel Washington’s virtuoso performance, but Davis’ chemistry with him deepens the movie at every turn. She can be hard and soft in the same scene. It’s mesmerizing. But the second thing that makes this Vikander 2.0 is the category fraud, although here it’s less overt because when Fences first debuted on Broadway the actress who played Rose won a Tony for Supporting Actress. But when Viola Davis revived the role in 2010 she jumped to leading Actress. It was only when they decided to adapt the play for film that she decided to bump herself to the less competitive Supporting category.
Should have won in 2016: It’s shady, but given the role’s history as a supporting performance I’ll allow Davis to remain in this category, where she wins easily. Naomie Harris in Moonlight was her closest competition to me.
Lupita Nyong’o was nothing short of a revelation in 12 Years a Slave. Previously unknown, she took to the spotlight as if she was born to be there, commanding attention on red carpets and providing sharply intelligent sound bites in both speeches and interviews. She’s the real deal. Even better: she’s a fantastic actress. Her performance as a field slave, Patsey, haunts a movie filled with violent, unspeakable imagery. Patsey herself is something of a ghost, empty after years of degrading life in the fields and capturing the unwanted attentions of the man who owns her–except that Nyong’o shows you the desperate longing inside of Patsey and the girlish side she might have let loose under very different circumstances.
Should have won in 2013: Lupita. Full stop.
Now just for fun, let’s see what the top ten would like like if everyone who should have won had won:
8. Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs (2015)
7. Hallie Steinfeld, True Grit (2010)
6. Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year (2014)
5. Octavia Spencer, The Help (2011)
4. Amy Adams, The Master (2012)
3. Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird (2017)
2. Viola Davis, Fences (2016)
1. Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave (2013)