2017 Supporting Actress Smackdown – Originally completed 2/25/18

Hey all! Working on write-ups for a personal ballot that may or may not be finished before the Oscars are broadcast. Everything has a tweet-sized write-up but I’ve got a paragraph per nominee in about six categories so far. Should be coming around soon. But before all that, what about Oscar’s choices? Specifically in Supporting Actress? Well, here’s what I thought!

Mary J. Blige, Mudbound: Possibly the performance I have the most trouble wrapping my head around. On the plus side, Blige is completely convincing in her role as a farmer’s wife forced to support her family to a greater extent than she could have imagined, as well as the family of white folks who’ve become her new employers. Her narration is often moving, and that her physical vocabulary is so emotive despite wearing eye-covering sunglasses is a genuine achievement. She plausibly fulfills all of the requirements that Mudbound asks of her, but Blige and her film hit more muted emotional chords than I expected. Not in any way a bad performance, and the flaws here are more endemic of the film’s limitations than Blige’s, but still difficult to see what’s Oscar-worthy. (Three Hearts)

Allison Janney, I, Tonya: I resent the term “one note performance”, in relation to Janney’s work in I, Tonya. A better term I heard used on this Smackdown is “one key”, which feels far more generous to actors doing good work in well-worn archetypes. Janney dodges a lot of pitfalls here: stage mothering; mocking her character’s diseased notions of parenting; validating them; turning LaVona into a monster; scouring the room for jokes; sucking up the oxygen to keep Robbie from acting. What’s best about Janney’s performance is her completely human brand of nastiness, casually sharing the screen with Margot Robbie and crafting a real, damaged mother-daughter relationship even as she co-signs herself to a limited range of expressions and physical gestures. Her constant stillness, combined with those flattening costumes and Janney’s impressive height makes her even more intimidating. Still, she’s not too revealing watching Tonya skate, and the scene in her daughter’s room offering a false white flag after shit has hit the kneecap is weirdly uneven, both because of its predictable trajectory and because Janney plays it too generously. Her awkward hug suggests a woman moved by her daughter’s love and awkwardly unsure how to reciprocate, rather than a woman who’d cast off notions of love long ago as being too soft. The faults in the performance register as hers more than the script or direction’s, but she’s better than fellow Juno costar J.K. Simmons was playing a similar type of character in Whiplash, and if not for Metcalf, I’d be happy to see her and her parrot walk away with the trophy. (Three Hearts)

Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread: From the moment we see Lesley Manville’s Cyril, her icy demeanor and confident gait is enough to sketch a pretty clear portrait of what this woman is like. From scene to scene her work impresses, but the larger threads (ahem) don’t really coalesce. At what point is she plausibly Reynolds’s sister? When exactly does she start warming towards Alma, and how much (if at all) does she consider this woman responsible for her brother’s unexpected and violent illness? I wonder if I’d appreciate her work more if she was recast as a trusted business partner or discarded girlfriend who never got around to leaving that seemingly endless house. Nevertheless, Manville neither digs deeply enough into the limited, Danversian archetype of her character nor imagines a life for her beyond what the script (or her brother) says about her. (Two Hearts)

Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird:  I know I’ve mentioned on this site before that Laurie Metcalf’s is my favorite nominated performance of the year, but it bears repeating. She gives Marion a real POV, connecting emotional rich chords between short scenes and making her character’s iminent poverty a genuine concern as well as a mask over her character’s anxieties. You can’t even see the harpy this character superficially reads as under all the layered detail and underplaying Metcalf imbues her with, though she’s also willing to court rough edges and make Marion a pill. Still, she’s just as athletic in warm and loving moments, not just with her daughter but her entire family, her patients, coworkers, with Danny. You can’t not feel her infectious joy watching Larry unwrap his Christmas present, as she bursts out laughing at the gift she got him. Her conversations with Lady Bird illustrate different facets of their relationship at different times, making it abundantly clear how she could love her daughter without always liking her. The sight of her sewing Lady Bird’s Thanksgiving dress in the middle of the night has made me cry every time I see it, as pure and uncomplicated an example of the effort and love Marion has and gives for her daughter in spite of their tumultuous relationship as we (but, pointedly, not Lady Bird) are graced with getting, one that makes the whole film richer because of it. In degree of difficulty, success with her role, and enriching the script without breaking from her director/writer’s quietly ambitious project, she wins this by a country mile. ( Five Hearts)

Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water: One note, is, occasionally, an apt term for a performance, and though Spencer’s is surely not the worst performance nominated this year, it’s easily the most dull. It’s not her fault the script almost completely drops her once Elisa’s romance with the fish man starts up until the great escape, nor that Zelda is given the least development of any human character,. But that doesn’t excuse the alarmingly broad way she seems to talk “at” Elisa instead of having a real conversation in their early scenes, nattering away to the audience instead of looking for any kind of response from her friend. And again, as with The Help, Spencer makes her character’s bitterness and disillusionments more comedic fodder instead of something weighing her down. I longed for Viola Davis, who turned an equally plot-service character in Solaris into a secretive, angry, and scared woman. It might be the smallest role in her film, but that doesn’t excuse how little Spencer actually did with it. (One Heart)

Since my own lineup is so close on the horizon I’m not gonna do any kind of “For your consideration” write-ups, and I thiiiink the time of submission for this Smackdown has already passed. But check it out anyways! I’ll post the results when they come in. See y’all soon!

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