The Oscar Hopefuls: Too Many Great Supporting Performances Are Falling Through the Cracks

By  · Published on December 16th, 2014

Twentieth Century Fox and Regency Enterprises

A few months ago, Pete Hammond of Deadline proposed that the Academy should increase the number of Oscar nominees in the lead actor category, because the “traffic jam is just too much.” That’s just the male leads, apparently, as he was focusing on the “just under 30” possibilities for the actor race and acknowledge that once again the lead actress category is struggling to find worthy contenders (see our response to the claim that there aren’t enough to fill five slots). Obviously there are more male lead roles out there because there are more movies with male protagonists, but never mind the two lead categories, both of which should stay just as they are. The two supporting acting awards, however, should be allowed more names in the ring. There’s never any shortage of great performances in lesser parts, and as usual this year we’re seeing some deserving players go unrecognized.

Two actresses that have been mostly overlooked this season are Gone Girl’s Carrie Coon and Nymphomaniac’s Uma Thurman. I am among those disappointed that neither has won or at least been nominated for any major awards lately. I personally voted for the two women (alongside my third pick, Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer) with my Critics Choice Awards ballot, but they didn’t make the cut. Not that any of those actually nominated by the BFCA shouldn’t be there – well, okay, maybe Meryl Streep for Into the Woods, but I haven’t seen that movie yet and can’t judge. The issue is that for every movie, there is one or maybe two main characters and then a whole slew of minor, and so there’s always a good chance that in a great movie there is a handful of award-worth supporting performances next to the one or two leads contending for the Oscar.

The Best Supporting Actress category tends to be the most hurt by the limited number of slots. This is because every year the “leading lady” role is still just a secondary character supporting the leading man. Clear examples this year are Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year and Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game, both nominated in the supporting category for the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Awards. For Knightley, it makes some sense because the movie is a biopic specifically about a famous man, Alan Turing, though in 2014 we should be rising above the last century’s patriarchal focus on male history makers and seeing women like Joan Clarke (Knightley’s role) given equal standing in these kinds of films. Chastain, meanwhile, plays a character whom we have no reason to consider mere support for male counterpart Oscar Isaacs, regardless of her shorter time on screen.

Coon and Thurman are additionally representational of the broad scope of what constitutes a supporting character and performance. Coon is the very definition of support. She is in a whole lot of Gone Girl and her character all but literally props up Ben Affleck’s in every scene they share together. Maybe the fact that she’s brand new to the movies, this being her first feature role (she’s so far been best known on Broadway and TV’s The Leftovers), contributes to why I was so interested in her as an actress, but she’s also damn good as the rational sister who holds much of the movie together while serving often as the only person for sane audience members to identify with. Thurman, on the other hand, has a single scene in only the first volume of Nymphomaniac, seizing a moment just when the movie is beginning to lag as an angry wife whose husband has left her and her kids for the titular lead.

It’s not just the ladies falling through the cracks. Another favorite supporting performance from Gone Girl – not for me, personally, but for some here at FSR and many others – is Tyler Perry’s. There’s no blood, sweat and tears to his work in the movie, but he’s the sort of comic relief that often results in supporting role honors. Plus it’s an enjoyable appearance from an actor who is mostly associated with Razzie-nominated stints as his iconic Madea character. Hardly in the same boat is my favorite overlooked supporting actor performance of the year: Riz Ahmed, the poor sap who takes an “internship” as Jake Gyllenhaal’s assistant/protege in Nightcrawler. I love Gyllenhaal’s performance in the movie, but Ahmed is even better contrasting the cartoonish sociopath lead as the most real person in the movie. It’s probably because few Americans have seen him in other roles and movies, such as Trishna and Four Lions, so aren’t aware of how much he achieves in this part. And it’s a shame, because it’s a role that has nothing to do with his race, which has to be hard for him to find in Hollywood or even outside the studio system.

Those are only four of the notable supporting players deserving of recognition this year. Other favorites include John Goodman in The Gambler, Rene Russo in Nightcrawler, Neil Patrick Harris in Gone Girl, Agata Kulesza in Ida, every man and woman appearing in Selma (except leads David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, the latter of whom shouldn’t be supporting just because she’s the wife of the primary character), Dave Franco in Neighbors, Adam Pearson in Under the Skin, Vanessa Redgrave in Foxcatcher, Glenn Close in Guardians of the Galaxy and Dorothy Atkinson in Mr. Turner. I’d even go for an acting nod from Transformers: Age of Extinction if we want to go for comic relief, though choosing between T.J. Miller and Stanley Tucci might be tough. I have to make the obligatory call for Andy Serkis in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, though there are some other worthy performance-capture performances in that movie, too, as well as in Guardians of the Galaxy. But that’s a whole other discussion.

With Academy ballots not even out yet to members, there’s still time to sway voters to go in other directions with the Oscars than the same stuff we’ve been seeing from critics organizations and other awards establishments. I’m not holding my breath, but if we all keep talking up some of these favorite overlooked actors and actresses maybe the noise will be heard. I understand that a lot of the Academy probably doesn’t even want to watch something like Nymphomaniac let alone honor it*, and they’re also less likely to go with lesser-known people like Coon and Ahmed, but I can always hope for progress and the influence of the increasingly younger membership.

*Apparently Nymphomaniac is also not officially eligible for any Oscars anyway, which makes it even more of a shame that other organizations haven’t made up for that unfortunate technicality.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.