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Who is the Best Supporting Actress of the 2010’s?

Like 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 in order to make determining the best of the best possible, I decided to limit myself to the winners. So in this post I will only be considering the ladies who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress between the years of 2010 and 2019. No nominees, and no actresses who may or may not have been snubbed.

Patricia Arquette-Boyhood7. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood (2014)

Let’s get something out of the way immediately: I am not a fan of Boyhood. I thought it was a wildly overpraised movie, and I thought Patricia Arquette was wildly overpraised for her work as a mother struggling to raise two kids and make ends meet. Critics fell over themselves to gush 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.

Perhaps the movie is trying to make a larger point, but I would argue that the movie and this role are slight. Certainly, I would argue that this role is shockingly slight to have been the far-and-away frontrunner it was. It was clear that Arquette was going to win back in November of 2014. I fundamentally do not understand that.

Should have won in 2014: Laura Dern’s performance as the mother in Wild was much more haunting and effective in my opinion.

Melissa Leo-The Fighter6. Melissa Leo, The Fighter (2010)

Leo is certainly good as the cheap, chain-smoking, boozy mother in The Fighter, but to my way of 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 does, if that makes sense. 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 anything else to her, and I would argue that each of her competitors here has that. Which makes it very difficult to put Melissa Leo anywhere but here. But you do have to give Melissa Leo credit for saying the F word onstage after winning–in front of Kirk Douglas, no less. After she flirted with him, but before she stole his cane. It was true train-wreck TV, culminating an Academy Award campaign many people deemed overly crass and grasping–none of which impacted her place in the standings here, of course, but still notable for its hilariousness.

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.

Anne Hathaway-Les Miserables5. Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables (2012)

Like Melissa Leo, Anne Hathaway got a lot of criticism for her Oscar campaign. But her turn as Fantine, a woman who is unfairly left jobless and penniless–forcing her 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, even on the stage, and it has one of the musical’s most iconic songs to boot. Fantine even dies horribly in a hospital bed, for crying out loud! Hathaway recognized and respected all those qualities–she 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.

The big gimmick of the film adaptation of Les Mis was that the actors sang the songs live on set as part of their performance–they did not lip sync to a recording they had already prepared in a studio. It was supposed to be a game-changer because it allowed the actors to feel the moment and interpret the role as they acted it. In the end, however, it only really gave us a succession of actors making cringe-worthy faces in close-ups while they strained to hit the high notes. Hathaway was one of the few performers to avoid this trap… for the most part.

Should have won in 2012: Sally Field was predictably steely in Lincoln, but she (and Lincoln) lost steam throughout award season. I probably would have given it to Field.

Octavia Spencer-The Help4. Octavia Spencer, The Help (2011)

Okay, yes, Spencer plays a stereotypically sassy black 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. She plays a poor black woman in the south during the 60’s after all–it’s not like her character had opportunity to be a guidance counselor or go into medical billing, for crying out loud.

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 as an actress. Spencer seizes these moments and uses them 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.

Alicia Vikander The Danish Girl

3. Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl (2015)

There was a lot of outrage over whether or not Vikander or co-nominee Rooney Mara belonged in the Supporting Actress category given the size of their roles in The Danish Girl and Carol, respectively. Because let’s be honest, Vikander has a leading role. She has more screen time than Eddie Redmayne, who was nominated for Best Actor. She’s in this category to increase her odds of winning (the supporting categories are less competitive). The sad thing is that in a year without frontrunners, it’s likely 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 definitely fits that bill in the revisionist history The Danish Girl applies to Gerda Wegener, a woman whose artist husband becomes the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Gerda is an artist in her own right and, thanks to Vikander, a well of gorgeously portrayed emotion when it comes to her husband’s transition. That makes her among the best when it comes to this archetype, even if it doesn’t seem to apply to the real Gerda Wegener, who parted ways with her husband before his first surgery.

Should have won in 2015: 2015 is a big year for ‘what ifs.’ Vikander based on the way the category worked out. But if Vikander and Rooney Mara had been put in Best Actress where they belonged, I imagine Kate Winslet would have claimed a second Oscar thanks to her supporting turn in Steve Jobs.

Viola Davis Fences2. Viola Davis, Fences (2016)

Viola Davis’ role as Rose in Fences is Alicia Vikander 2.0 in some ways. First, she plays a sad supportive wife type–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. 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: Davis, given the way the category shaped up. Had Davis been in Best Actress instead, I think she’d have had a shot at beating Emma Stone before Stone’s win in that category became inevitable. Popularity probably would have been on Michelle Williams side to take the Supporting throne in Davis’ place in that case for Manchester by the Sea, but I think Naomie Harris in Moonlight was the most deserving supporting actress of the year.

Lupita Nyongo-12 Years a Slave1. Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave (2013)

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 to the brim 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.

To call this a powerful performance is a grotesque understatement.

Should have won in 2013: Lupita. Full stop.

For more, check out my Academy Awards page. Up next: Best Actress of the 10’s.

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3 comments on “Who is the Best Supporting Actress of the 2010’s?

  1. Salvador
    March 29, 2015

    Everything about your ranking is just wrong. Lupita should have been the last on your list, not the first. Arquette was better than her, and it’s not even close. Lupita just cries and screams throughout the whole movie. Arquette does that too, and much more. There’s nothing defining about Lupita’s character in the movie. Arquette gives so much dimension to her character: she’s serious, she’s playful, she’s sweet, she’s smart, she can be a pain in the ass, she’s lovely, she’s caring, she’s a flawed human being. What can we say about Patsy? And Spencer ahead of Hathaway? Really?

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    • gregtbaird
      March 30, 2015

      The good thing about lists like this is that they are entirely based on opinion. Which means that in the end, we’re both right. Personally, I thought Lupita and Octavia brought subtle layers to their roles that really added depth and nuance. I hardly think you could say that all Lupita did is cry and scream. She brought a profoundly broken woman to life. Patsey asking Solomon Northup to kill her because she doesn’t have the courage to do it herself… it’s just haunting. Not just because of what’s happening, but because of the way Lupita delivers the lines. Octavia, meanwhile, took a role that was really just supposed to be comic relief and grounded her in real life. Her chemistry with Viola Davis gave their friendship life. The scenes with her children let you know that this wasn’t just a funny lady–she’s a fiercely protective mother trapped in an abusive marriage. I just didn’t see anything that nuanced in Arquette’s performance. Like the rest of Boyhood, it was all surface to me.

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  2. Salvador
    March 31, 2015

    Fair enough, of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I’m sorry to hear that you found Boyhood to be rather shallow, for me it was one of the best movie experiences I’ve ever had in a theater. Maybe that’s why I love Arquette’s performance so much, I don’t know. But if you ever watch the movie again, I suggest you to take a closer look at what how much depth she gives to her character. Look at the scene where’s she’s telling Mason that she needs to sell the house. So natural, so soulful. I can’t see any other actress doing it so well. It seems like I was watching myeself talking to my mom. I never once doubted she was his mother and that’s saying something. And her last scene. The one moment when she’s say “Why,it’s the picture you’ve ever took” the way she suddenly goes from sweetness to anger and sorrow and realizes what really is about to happen is heartbreaking. She managed to make me cry without any emotional background music. I’m sorry if I seem so passionate about her performance xD And btw who do you suggest should have won? Of all the other nominated performances I’ve only seen Stone’s and really she has only one very good scene where she screams to Keaton and then suddenly regrets it. The rest is a typical Stone performance that Jennifer Lawrence could have done in her sleep (although I also find her slightly overrated). And I think you’re right Spencer was quite good now that I think of it (better than lupita IMO).

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This entry was posted on February 23, 2015 by in Academy Awards and tagged , , .
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