Oscar Chat: Calling All Contenders for Supporting Actress and Supporting Actor

Richard and Joe are back to talk about the Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress races, and why contenders seem rather scarce at this stage.

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Joe: Richard, I have a problem. I've been sitting here trying to come up with likely Oscar nominees for Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress, and I am struggling to fill the categories. Do you think Michael Shannon will campaign hard for Man of Steel? Was Beautiful Creatures too early in the year for Emmy Rossum to have a reasonable shot at winning? It's been such a bountiful year for contenders in both lead acting categories, I suppose the law of averages dictates that the supporting categories would be a bit barren, at least in the early-going. On the bright side, they're both totally up-in-the-air as far as who's going to win, so that's something to get excited about.

I guess let's get started with a couple sure bets. I'd be very surprised if Jared Leto doesn't end up with a nomination for Dallas Buyers Club, playing a trans-woman who goes into business with Matthew McConaughey, importing AIDS-battling drugs from Mexico and such. For a movie which for the longest time looked like it would be a McConaughey solo showcase, I've been struck by just how many reviewers and film types walked out singing the praises of both men. Leto himself is something of a comeback story, or at least a good example of a narrative Oscar sometimes latches onto: the heretofore middling (but popular) actor suddenly making good.

Whereas last year, the Supporting Actor field was an all-former-winners affair, this year is almost guaranteed to feature a good bit of new blood. There's Leto, there's Michael Fassbender, who finally seems poised to make good on a couple years' worth of Oscar buzz, this time for 12 Years a Slave. There's Daniel Bruhl, who is facing the twin obstacles of Rush underperforming at the box-office, as well as the fact that he's clearly a lead and not supporting in that film. (Of course, being a lead campaigned in supporting is probably only a detriment among pissy Oscar bloggers like yours truly; Oscar voters sure don't seem to mind.) I'm particularly taken with the possibility that Captain Phillips co-star Barkhad Abdi could find himself in the mix. It couldn't have been easy to stand toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks in that film, and Abdi does a fantastic job. (Interestingly, Abdi might find himself toe-to-toe with Hanks again, if the venerable President of Hollywood ends up getting a Supporting nomination for his role as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks.)

And here's where we start to grasp at some straws, with every possibility having some drawbacks. Jonah Hill for The Wolf of Wall St.? The latest trailer sure seems to feature him quite a bit, but is the world ready for two-time Oscar nominee Jonah Hill? Bradley Cooper for American Hustle is another lead who is expected to receive a supporting campaign, but it's almost impossible to say whose performances will stand out in that ensemble. Steve Coogan (Philomena) gets in only if Philomena is able to make a serious run at a Best Picture nomination. Matthew McConaughey is a double-nomination possibility for Mud, but if the voters liked him that much, wouldn't they have nominated him for Magic Mike last year? James Gandolfini for Enough Said would make a great story – and an incredibly worthy bit of recognition – but posthumous nominations don't happen nearly as often as you'd think, and Nicole Holofcener's films have never been an Academy taste. John Goodman for Inside Llewyn Davis? He certainly seems to be the actor the studio is pushing, but even now I feel like I'm stretching.

At this point, with the race this wide open, do you have any actors you think could storm the gates with a smart campaign? If this category is light on anything, it's performances that audiences are truly passionate about.

Richard: This is indeed a wild and woolly year for the Supporting slots. Usually, the most interesting narratives come in these categories, but this year the leads are, as leads do I guess, doing most of the talking. But yes, I'd agree with you that Leto is probably going to get a well-deserved nod for his gracious and surprisingly underplayed work in Dallas Buyers Club. I'd also love to see Abdi on the shortlist, as he brought the necessary humanity to a character that could easily have been played as a scary Other. Beyond those two, I'd be pretty surprised if Michael Fassbender didn't get recognized for tearing down the scenery as the mesmerizingly vile Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave. He's a monster, but Fassbender plays him beautifully.

Speaking of 12 Years, on the ladies' side of things I'm thinking Lupita Nyong'o will earn a nomination for her affecting turn as the horrifically abused Patsey. She's a recent Yale Drama School grad and is poised to burst onto the scene something big, so nominating her this year would be a good way for the Academy to re-up its star-maker cred.

Having just had the pleasure of watching Alexander Payne's lovely, aching Nebraska this week, I'd be thrilled to see the indefatigable June Squibb pick up a nomination. A lifelong stage actress who only began acting in movies at 55, Squibb, now 84, is the perfect feel-good nomination, sure, but she also delivers a fully alert, feisty, thoughtful, and wondrously naturalistic performance in my favorite Payne film since About Schmidt. She's doing a deceptive amount of careful, exacting work in the film, and it'd be a thrill to see her recognized for that.

You'll forgive me, I hope, for waiting this long to mention who is probably the other sure-thing next to Nyong'o. I like Oprah and all, but I didn't love what she did in the bland, overly simplified The Butler. But I'd be surprised if Ms. Winfrey didn't get on the list this year. The crazy thing is that she might actually win. The ladies of August: Osage County might pose some threat, but I think they'll cancel each other out. Julia Roberts was going to be campaigned as a lead, but then they thought better of that and switched her into Supporting. (The switch also resulted in the loss of what was potentially the year's most exciting match-up: Oprah vs. Meryl.) Margo Martindale could also be in contention, and then further in the distance are Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis, though I'd imagine they'd have a better shot if the play had not been trimmed down to fit film proportions. I haven't seen the film yet, but I've a feeling some of their characters' subtleties will be among the missing.

So it's an odd year! A lot of uncertainty, and lots of grasping. If I had to pick one completely out-of-left-field choice for each of these categories, I'd say Emory Cohen from The Place Beyond the Pines, who played a specific kind of Northeastern teenage boy with startling accuracy and insight, and Scarlett Johansson, who did equally accurate and insightful work as a particular kind of Jersey girl in Don Jon and, I'm told, makes quite the impression as the disembodied voice in Spike Jonze's Her. But that'd never happen. Would it?

Joe: The thing about ScarJo is that there's going to have to be a lot of love among the voters for her to get the first ever voice-only acting nomination. And I wonder if that kind of affection for her exists in Academy ranks. She's never been nominated before, even during that five-year span where she was knocking 'em out of the park on a consistent basis (Ghost WorldLost in TranslationMatch Point!). Four Golden Globe nominations and no Oscar nods puts you in Cameron Diaz territory, and that's not a place you want to be on nomination morning.

The more I think about the Johansson possibility (for Her; I'd be more surprised if it turned out she was able to sell those ol' marble columns to the Academy with her Don Jon performance, delightful as it was), the more intrigued I get. Trying to work through the merits of what constitutes an award-worthy performance, whether Scarlett's ability to create a fully realized character without any physicality to rely on, would be a much more satisfying conversation to have than whether Oprah's having won an honorary Oscar already is reward enough. Don't get me wrong, I actually enjoyed The Butler quite a bit and thought Oprah's performance was the stuff of tip-top Hollywood charisma. But any and all conversation around her tilts toward the tedious before long. What, at the end of the day, is there left to say about Oprah Winfrey?

You make strong cases for Nyong'o and Squibb (coming this spring to TNT Mondays), and you're also pretty on-point when it comes to the Osage County bottleneck. Part of me wants to hold out hope for Martindale, but I really think Julia Roberts might be sunk. There's a near-guarantee of a critical backlash to the film, and if the holiday audiences stay away, any and all failures will likely be put squarely on Julia's shoulders. You can already see which way the wind is blowing even when it comes to the rank rumor-mongering and speculation.

I'm starting to wonder whether one of the five Supporting Actress slots might go to a second 12 Years a Slave cast member. Sarah Paulson's role as Fassbender's wife -- whose resentments and motivations travel a perpendicular, though no less vile, path to her husband's -- is certainly hefty enough, and she's an actress who is having something of a moment these days, at least on television. I also think a smart campaigner could make some hay with Alfre Woodard's extended cameo as a slave whose status has been elevated by her placement as a slave master's mistress. Her scene is a tonal jolt compared to the rest of the film, but it stands out, and she's the kind of popular veteran who can often see herself swept in with a frontrunning movie (i.e. Alan Alda in The Aviator).

What else? Another nomination for Jennifer Lawrence? I actually think she might be the most promising thing about the American Hustle trailer that isn't a costume (or a set of perm rollers), but at some point, fatigue is going to set in, right? Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station) and Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) are both hoping voters will remember them from the summer. Lea Seydoux (Blue Is the Warmest Color) is ... probably not going to happen.

Predicted Nominees (based almost entirely on a pile of chicken bones found in the alley behind the old Dorothy Chandler Pavilion):

Best Supporting Actor:  Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club); Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave); Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks); Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips); Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall St.).

Also maybe: Daniel Bruhl (Rush); James Gandolfini (Enough Said); Bradley Cooper (American Hustle); Steve Coogan (Philomena); Matthew McConaughey (Mud)

Best Supporting Actress: Oprah Winfrey (The Butler); Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave), June Squibb (Nebraska); Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle); Alfre Woodard (12 Years a Slave).

Also maybe: Scarlett Johansson (Her); Margo Martindale (August: Osage County); Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station); Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave)

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