Oscar Breakdown: Best Supporting Actor

By  · Published on February 23rd, 2011

This article is part of our Oscar Week Series, where you will find breakdowns and predictions for all of the major categories.

The Best Supporting Actor category is one of the most interesting. As Cole and I discussed last week, there really is no stable definition of what constitutes a “supporting” role, so this category can run the gamut from scene-stealers (Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight) to memorable parts with a limited amount of screen time (Hal Holbrook for Into the Wild) to nominations that seem only to be banking off the presence of a film in other categories (Matt Damon for Invictus).

Fortunately this year saw five pretty strong nominees (and three first-time nominees), but this year also exhibits the potential variance of the category. Here we have a crack addict, a sperm donator, a townie gangster, an unqualified speech therapist, and somebody named “Teardrop.” Let’s see how these five incredibly different performances size up against one another.

With my winner prediction in red, here are the nominees:

Christian Bale, The Fighter

Why He Was Nominated: Redemptive sports movies and stories about drug addiction have often been fodder for beloved and intense performances. Put them together and you have Oscar gold. This might sound like a jab at The Fighter, but what’s so wonderful about this film is that it doesn’t work despite the clichés, but because of them. Bale here takes a role that could have easily devolved into sappy melodrama or vain exhibitionism and imbues it with heart and conviction that is devastating.

Dicky Eklund is a tricky role, because on one hand you have to see his drug addiction as an extent of his naïve and pathetic selfish attitude with respect to the careers of himself and his brother. So in this sense he has to be despicable, but he also has to be empathetic enough to exhibit the close connection he has with Mickey that the protagonist finds so difficult to move past. Bale accomplishes both tasks impressively and shows how the film’s title not need apply exclusively to Marky Mark.

Why He Might Win: Bale is currently the favorite and the undeniable front-runner, and this shouldn’t be surprising. There’s been a sense in the blogosphere and amongst his fans that this passionately and intensely devoted actor was one of the Academy’s most significant oversights thus far, but at the same time he hadn’t quite found that Oscar-friendly role that reveals the true extent of his talents. This is that role.

Why He Might Not Win: I would say his reputation for being a little “too intense” on set may affect him here, but it seems his past outbursts don’t have the sustained collective memory of, say, David O. Russell’s. The performance simply speaks for itself. Unless Geoffrey Rush pulls an upset (and Rush’s previous win suggests otherwise), Bale is taking home his first Oscar.

Previous Nominations: 0

Previous Wins: 0

John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone

Why He Was Nominated: With all due respect to Jennifer Lawrence, when I first came away from Winter’s Bone it was this performance that stayed with me. In playing a soft-spoken man with a lot of secrets, Hawkes brings a brooding emotional undercurrent that speaks volumes even when very little dialogue is present. He’s able to play dauntingly intense and empathetically loyal at the very same moment, longing to protect his niece from the truth at any cost.

Hawkes doesn’t spend very much time on screen, but he leaves a mark on the film, which is an emblem of a great supporting turn. For me the scene where he makes eye contact in his rear view mirror with a police officer while clutching a gun was the moment that solidified his performance as truly great: he’s able to convey so much with so little.

Why He Might Win: Hawkes has been a longtime character actor whose appeared in a variety of work from Me and You and Everyone We Know to Eastbound and Down, so the versatility component alone works in his favor. Hawkes is a character actor through and through, and will likely continue doing memorable supporting turns, and this is an opportunity to honor that kind of acting for a truly great performer that will rarely be the center of attention.

Why He Might Not Win: While Hawkes’s performance is admittedly my favorite on this list, the subtlety factor does not work in his favor. The award traditionally goes to the more front-and-center supporting performance, and Teardrop exists mostly on the margins, if memorably so.

Previous Nominations: 0

Previous Wins: 0

Jeremy Renner, The Town

Why He Was Nominated: Renner’s now pulled a one-two punch of playing incredibly charismatic and magnetic loose canons between last year’s The Hurt Locker and his supporting turn in this film. As a Boston bank robber not to be messed with, Renner’s “Jem” embodies intensity, but not simply for its own sake. His character represents the history and loyalty that Ben Affleck’s Doug must push himself away from. So in a sense he’s The Town’s Christian Bale, playing both friend and foe.

But despite the centrality of his performance in relation to other characters, Renner here simply continues to prove how he owns the screen when he’s on it. Look no further than the climactic showdown in which he roams the streets of Boston wearing a police uniform and reduces John Hamm to a frightened child.

Why He Might Win: Renner is undeniably on a roll, and with two consecutive nominations is showing his rising value as an actor. There’s a sense that he deserves the recognition at some point, and that moment could be now.

Why He Might Not Win: While not unjustified, this was the surprise of the category, and there’s been a sense amongst critics that, while The Town is for the most part a well-honed, it does have its dramatic holes and indulgences, which makes Renner’s performance come across as not so much another display of genuine danger like The Hurt Locker but simply Renner doing his best James Cagney. There’s also the prevailing notion that The Town is more of an ensemble piece than anything else, so Renner’s performance is a bright piece in a much larger puzzle.

Previous Nominations: 1 (Best Actor)

Previous Wins: 0

Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right

Why He Was Nominated: Let’s put it this way: we all know Mark Ruffalo is a charming guy, but in The Kids Are All Right he gives us, well, the full Ruffalo. When you really think about it, it is a hard role to accomplish. He’s a former sperm donor who must convince a close nuclear family that, against all potential weirdness, he should be part of their lives and the lives of his biological children. He does so by charming the family and us, awkward moments in tow.

But what’s interesting is that the full Ruffalo is turned on its head – that the man we found so charming, intriguing, and even adorable despite how uncomfortable his conversations are is, at heart, actually a selfish and desperate human being; a man, in short, who has no problems joining Nic and Jules for dinner after sleeping with Jules. He pulls it off with layers and sincerity, showing how even the best of intentions can be misguided and self-involved.

Why He Might Win: He’s one of three strong performances essential for this film to work, and he does pull his weight. His chemistry with Julianne Moore works and, more importantly, makes sense in his articulation of the character. His subtle humor is also worthy of note.

Why He Might Not Win: Even though Julianne Moore didn’t get a nomination, Ruffalo’s role is arguably the least celebrated of the three, mainly because there’s an overarching sense that Ruffalo is simply “playing Ruffalo” here. Also, comedies tend to get less attention, especially in a year where he’s competing against a crack addict.

Previous Nominations: 0

Previous Wins: 0

Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech

Why He Was Nominated: For The King’s Speech to work, it requires the chemistry of two powerhouse actors, and Rush definitely brings his A-game. Where Colin Firth explores in detail the difficulties of not being able to articulate words, Rush shows a masterful command of spoken language. It is through his powerful delivery and his irreverent sense of humor that ultimately convinces us that Lionel Logue was somebody who was able to transgress boundaries of English custom and propriety to know royalty on an intimate first-name basis.

Rush’s role is one of those supporting turns that is, in a sense, a “co-lead.” His role not only supports that of the lead, but is essential to it. In some ways The King’s Speech is just as much about Logue as it is about the King, and what’s often overlooked here are those quieter moments that allow us to get to know Logue better, like when he botches an audition or spends time with his kids. Logue, as realized by Rush, is far more than a speech therapist.

Why He Might Win: Just as Firth’s performance is getting heaps of praise, as is Rush’s, and for good reason. You simply can’t have one without the other, and Rush here has the privilege of playing the wittier and more charismatic character – but not, of course, without these essential moments of pathos.

Why He Might Not Win: He’d be the front-runner if it weren’t for two factors, 1) Christian Bale, and 2) the fact that he’s the only one on this list who has won before.

Previous Nominations: 3

Previous Wins: 1 (Best Actor)

Who do you want to win?

Check out our predictions for:

Best Supporting Actress

Best Original Score

Best Animated Feature

Best Lead Actor

Best Lead Actress

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