Category placement is always a delicate dance come Oscar time. In 1966, Walter Matthau won the Supporting Actor Oscar for The Fortune Cookie even though he was on equal footing with co-star Jack Lemmon. In 1981, Susan Sarandon admitted to voting for herself in Supporting for Atlantic City only to surprisingly land in lead. Patricia Neal took Best Actress for Hud in 1963 even though she was really playing a supporting role. Anthony Hopkins could have gone for support in 1991’s Silence Of The Lambs but was campaigned instead for lead and won. George Clooney was originally going for lead in 2005’s Syriana, where he almost certainly would have lost to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote, but strategically dropped to support where he also became an Oscar winner. And, in the most complex of scenarios possible, Catherine Zeta Jones went strategically for support in Chicago while her equal co-star Renee Zellweger had Best Actress to herself but lost to Nicole Kidman, who won for The Hours in a role that could have been classified as supporting but that’s where her co-star Julianne Moore competed so as to avoid cannibalizing her own chances for lead actress in Far From Heaven.
Get the picture?
Until 1936 in Academy Awards history, featured actors either competed alongside stars or not at all. Since then, the Supporting actor and actress categories have tried to make distinctions between themselves and lead, although it seems every year the line gets blurred. It was no exception in 2010 with so-called leading roles being campaigned for Supporting in some instances to give them a better shot at a nomination or avoid competing with co-stars. Which is perefectly acceptable since the Academy actors branch leaves it up to voting members to determine the appropriate category for each performance. Sometimes this results in split votes. Often in surprises. So here are this year’s prime contenders by alphabetical order:
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Christian Bale, The Fighter (Relativity/Paramount) – Bale’s dynamic turn as crack addicted Dicky Ward has drawn top reviews and made him a heavyweight contender not just for a nomination, but also the win. His dramatic weight loss and surprising performance is just the kind that attracts Oscar.
Jim Broadbent, Another Year (Sony Pictures Classics) – This previous Supporting Actor winner (Iris) retains his usual class and dignity, delivering another quietly effective performance for frequent director Mike Leigh. But that may not be enough to overcome flashier competition.
Pierce Brosnan, The Ghost Writer (Summit Entertainment) – Brosnan gets a real chance to stretch his image and show his chops under the direction of Roman Polanski. The film’s February release doesn’t help being remembered against a tough field of contenders.
Vincent Cassel, Black Swan (Fox Searchlight) – This French star gets a juicy, hard-edged role in an American film and runs with it. The fact that he is also being campaigned in the lead category for his mesmerizing two-part Cesar award -inning portrayal in Mesrine won’t hurt his chances.
Matt Damon, True Grit (Paramount) – Damon is an Academy favorite. Under the guidance of the Coen Brothers, he gets right the role singer Glen Campbell screwed up in the 1969 version. But he’s playing second fiddle to Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges more likely to earn nods.
Michael Douglas, Wall Street Money Never Sleeps (20th Century Fox) – Douglas revisits the Gordon Gekko role 23 years later and has the industry rooting for him to overcome his bout with cancer. He could become the first actor to win two Oscars for playing the same character.
Andrew Garfield, The Social Network (Sony Pictures) – Garfield was impressive in two distinct dramas this fall, the other being the little-seen Never Let Me Go. Plus he’s the new Spider-Man. But his role here is earning Oscar talk with Golden Globe and CCMA nominations.
Ed Harris, The Way Back (Newmarket) – A four-time Oscar nominee, this well-liked veteran is overdue, and his physically challenging role is first-rate work which his peers expect from him. But the film’s year-end qualifying run and lack of marketing funds may dim his chances.
John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone (Roadside Attractions) – Although Jennifer Lawrence seems to get all the attention, nominations for this journeyman actor’s authentic backwoods portrayal from the Spirit Awards and SAG are beginning to make a longshot Oscar nod far more realistic.
Bill Murray, Get Low (Sony Pictures Classics) – Many feel Murray was robbed of the Best Actor Oscar for Lost in Translation and the actors branch might just want to make it up to him by recognizing this nicely-etched performance which scored an Indie Spirit nomination.
Sean Penn, Fair Game (Summit Entertainment) – Penn steals this entertaining true-life political thriller. The role would seem to belong in lead but Summit is hoping the two-time Best Actor might stand a better chance in supporting. Though the movie has faded without much buzz.
Jeremy Renner, The Town (Warner Bros) – With a triple-play of supporting nods from SAG, Golden Globes and CCMAs, Renner has emerged as a very good bet to grab his second consecutive Oscar nomination after first being named last year in the leading actor category.
Sam Rockwell, Conviction (Fox Searchlight) – Rockwell is popular with his fellow actors and long underrated. He won early buzz for his performance but has so far not shown up in many pre-Oscar contests. With lack of recognition by SAG, he is suddenly in an uphill climb.
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right (Focus Features) – Ruffalo worked just six days on this indie dramedy but he obviously did something right to earn SAG, CCMA, and New York Film Critics attention. This lively supporting turn should result in his first career Oscar nomination.
Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech (The Weinstein Co) – Rush hits it out of the park and gives this very accessible period drama its heart and soul. A former lead actor winner for Shine, Rush is one of the frontrunners to hold Oscars for both lead and supporting roles.
Justin Timberlake, The Social Network (Sony Pictures) – Pop star Justin Timberlake has displayed acting talent before in films like Alpha Dog and his SNL hosting gigs but he is suddenly in the Oscar conversation despite fierce competition from even his own movie.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams, The Fighter (Relativity/Paramount) – Adams has already landed two Oscar nominations and seems certain for a third in this change-of-pace role as the expletive spewing, tough-as-nails bartender girlfriend of Micky Ward. Voters love to see actors go against type and expertly so. Read More »