For the love of entertainment
Again, in trying to determine the best of the best, I have decided to only focus on the men who actually won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. So it doesn’t matter if you think Robert De Niro was robbed for Silver Linings Playbook–that debate is for another day.
As the decade goes on and new winners are announced, I’ll update the rankings so we can continue to judge. That is, after all, what the internet is for, right?
Mark Rylance is a stage actor with a reputation for taking his craft seriously and shying away from publicity–which is perhaps why until 2015 his film credits were few and far between. He was mostly absent from the Oscar press tour and wasn’t even seen as a lock for a nomination, yet in one of the biggest upsets in recent memory he took Oscar home. What is particularly sad is that there really isn’t anything to his role in Bridge of Spies. Rylance plays Rudolf Abel, a man imprisoned for being a Soviet Spy who is a pawn in a prisoner transfer during the Cold War. Rylance is barely in the movie. It’s strictly a Tom Hanks vehicle, making Rylance almost incidental. He’s absent for long stretches and you don’t really miss him when he’s gone. Usually when an actor wins an Oscar for a short performance they at least get a character-defining moment. Beatrice Straight delivered a master class in acting when her husband revealed his infidelity in Network. Anthony Hopkins oozed so much menace in The Silence of the Lambs that people forget he had less than 20 minutes of screentime. There’s none of that here. To be fair, Rylance gives an exceptionally lived-in performance, but watching Abel scratch at his ear and walk about heavily is not exactly compelling cinema. He’s a great understated actor but there’s not enough here to merit an Oscar.
Should have won in 2015: Rylance’s win most likely means Academy voters were reluctant to vote for Sylvester Stallone, who emerged as the frontrunner after a particularly confused nomination period. Stallone was the sentimental favorite who after a, well, rocky career finally had a moment of greatness by once again revisiting the role that made him famous: Rocky Balboa in Creed. By voting for Rylance over Stallone, Academy voters could be seen as ‘protecting the quality’ of the Oscar. Well, they made a mistake. Stallone’s performance in Creed was easily the most heartfelt and impactful of the year. The other contenders failed to muster much emotion at all. It should have been Stallone’s year.
I hated the movie Beginners, and I had really been looking forward to seeing it. Thankfully, Christopher Plummer was far and away the best part of the movie. In my mind, its only redeeming quality. He plays Hal Fields, an elderly man who rocks his son’s world with two announcements: that he has terminal cancer, and that he has decided to come out of the closet. In his final act, Hal has decided to finally allow himself to be who he is. Plummer turns in a sweet, heartbreaking performance, but in the end the movie is only really asking him to be an adorable old man. He does it well, but it dooms his performance to the lower ranks of the decade. The movie desperately wants to be about his son’s character, not him, so he keeps getting relegated to the sidelines. In that sense, Hal’s journey only matters through the prism of his son.
Should have won in 2011: You could make the case that Plummer’s strong award season had a lot to do with a “lifetime achievement” storyline–that the Hollywood veteran had been a respected actor for decades without acknowledgment, prompting voters to give him an Oscar as recognition. You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong–but he didn’t exactly have stiff competition, anyway. It was just a weak year for supporting actors.
Call me a hater if you must, but I don’t really get the obsession with Christian Bale. I mean, he’s fine and all. He made an excellent Batman, even if his gravelly voice was a touch cartoonish at times. I just can’t really watch him in a movie without constantly thinking that I’m watching Christian Bale perform. He doesn’t seem effortless like a Meryl Streep or a Daniel Day-Lewis to me. Instead, he just always seems to be trying so hard. To be fair, he succeeds more often than not, but his performance as the bad-boy brother in the already-overpraised The Fighter just felt like more of the same to me. In fact, I would argue that his placement on the list has more to do with a general sense that he deserved recognition for saving the Batman franchise than anything else. His competition (John Hawkes, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, and Geoffrey Rush) all felt more natural in their roles to me. But in the end, they didn’t win, so here we are.
Should have won in 2010: Mark Ruffalo gave a perfectly ruffled performance in The Kids Are All Right (he specializes in that kind of performance), but I would have given it to Geoffrey Rush for The King’s Speech. Rush was easily the most charming–and amusing–part of a movie I otherwise wasn’t particularly impressed with.
Full disclosure: I haven’t actually seen Django Unchained. I refused to out of protest because I hated Inglourious Basterds, and this seemed like more of the same from Quentin Tarantino. So how did I know where to put Christoph Waltz on this list? I watched a bunch of clips from the movie on YouTube. If I’m being honest, glancing through I think I would have given the Oscar to Robert De Niro for Silver Linings Playbook, but as with Christian Bale–we’re only dealing with the people who actually took Oscar home that night. But unlike Bale, I liked what I saw of Waltz’s performance. He’s a very assured, natural actor. I feel very comfortable placing him here–even if I have no plans to see Django in its entirety any time soon.
Should have won in 2012: 2012 was a packed year for Best Supporting Actor, but like I said: I’d have gone with Robert De Niro for Silver Linings Playbook.
Like with Matthew McConaughey, there was no one more surprised than me that Jared Leto won an Oscar–let alone that he deserved it. And deserve it he did. While McConaughey was busy filling Dallas Buyers Club with blustery, eff-the-world energy, Leto was quietly giving it a heart and a soul. It’s exactly what Dallas Buyers Club needed–and the purest definition of what a supporting role should do. McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof fought the man, while Leto’s Rayon embodied what the struggle was about in the first place. His messy, drug-addicted drag queen gave the AIDS epidemic a face and a context without for a moment becoming preachy or saccharine. Rayon wasn’t a saint, but Leto made you love him despite his rough edges. And he broke your heart. Repeatedly and violently.
Should have won in 2013: Leto, Leto, Leto.
Mahershala Ali only appears in the first segment of Moonlight, a movie divided into three acts that follow the life of its principle character as he grows up. And in the transition from the first segment to the second, Ali’s character disappears rather abruptly. He seems to have become a father figure to our protagonist one second, and in the next we’re hearing veiled reference to his funeral having recently occurred. But you can credit Ali with setting the tone for the entire movie. His Juan is a complex dude: a drug dealer who nevertheless notices a struggling child and takes him under his wing to offer him some peace. He teaches him to swim, offers him shelter from his drug-addicted mother (who happens to buy her drugs from Juan), and perhaps most importantly tells him a story about his childhood that gives us the movie’s title and central theme. Ali inhabits him with a natural instinct and offers each moment with an understated ease. He never oversells and yet you always feel the full impact of what Juan is going through. It’s a masterful balance.
Should have won in 2016: some worried that Ali’s sudden departure from Moonlight‘s plot would hurt his chances (and indeed Ali lost some key award indicators on the way to the Academy Awards), but he was the one who truly deserved to win.
This is a towering performance? Dude is absolutely terrifying. And not in that supervillain way we saw in the top 3 in the 2000’s–although Simmons’ brutal teacher, Fletcher, is headed in that direction. He doesn’t just try to coax the best out of his elite music students. Save that crap for Dangerous Minds. No, this guys beats it out of them. If a beating is off the table, verbal and psychological abuse will do just fine. Any other actor would have lost the double-edged sword at the heart of Whiplash: true genius and true talent require a vicious work ethic. It requires sacrifice and single-minded dedication. It requires you to be pushed beyond the limit you thought you couldn’t overcome. As much as you want to hate Fletcher, you just can’t help but wonder if he has a point when he says that the two most damaging words in the English language are “good job.”
In the end, Dallas Buyers Club Leto was a great supporting actor in Dallas Buyers Club but McConaughey could have carried the movie without him. Mahershala Ali’s supporting turn in Moonlight added depth and gravitas, but the movie still would have been an artistic achievement on its own. Whiplash would have been nothing without J.K. Simmons.
Should have won in 2014: It was definitely Simmons’ year.