2001 Supporting Actress Smackdown

Hi all! How’ve you been? Due to not having a job for the first two thirds of May, I managed to watch a lot more films than usual for this month’s (last month’s?) Supporting Actress Smackdown. The 2001 vintage features a quintet of performances I mostly like but can’t help feeling a little unimaginatively selected in some way – perhaps because I think Jennifer Connelly’s is the least interesting film and performance of the bunch. Still, given the limited perameters on what often counts as nominatable acting and roles, the Oscars did a solid job for themselves.

The Nominees:

Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind – The most wan, flattening element of a film bent on sentimentalizing a truly difficult marriage. Her retinue of expressions and vocal cadences are shockingly limited – either serene or troubled, whispered or screamed – her placid supportiveness an eternal constant through so many decades of mental instability and marital turmoil. Alicia’s most upsetting declarations of dissatisfaction – confessing a truly heartbreaking coping mechanism to Sol, smashing her bathroom mirror, slapping Bender so hard he never reappears in the film after that scene – just read as inauthentic because Connelly has done nothing to indicate the depths of rage and sadness this woman is feeling. Nor has she blessed Alicia with the intellect, prickliness, or spine that would’ve gotten her in Nash’s class and gotten her through their marriage, let alone the “oddness” he describes that would’ve made them compatible. Played right, this should’ve been a co-lead instead of a vacuous supporting role.

Helen Mirren, Gosford Park – An exciting break against typecasting for a woman who’d made her name on figures of authority, though I suppose being head servant still counts a little, right? She’s a commanding presence, instructing her fellow servants with the ease of a proven leader. This initial impression, maintained even after her employer has been killed, makes her behavior around Mr. Parks all the more intriguing, suggesting some kind of affinity to this man without hinting what it is. If I’m never completely sold on how she plays Mrs. Wilson’s mix of professionalism and repressed feeling in her confession to Kelly MacDonald (though she is very good), Mirren is perfect with Eileen Atkins, so painfully upset even as she has to keep her expressions of grief private. A full, moving characterization, discretely tucked among Gosford Park’s vivid ensemble.

Maggie Smith, Gosford Park – A pleasantly fun performance. Lady Trentham spends most of the film balancing a naked boredom at the whole damn party without offending the polite sensibilities of her brother and his guests. Nor does she seem interested in raining on anyone else’s parade, taking comfort in the bridge games she plays and her cadre of friends, especially her bonhomie with Kristin Scott Thomas. Smith, however, seems like she’s having a pretty swell time playing a woman who wants to evaporate out of the film, dropping in lovely, unexpected pauses and intonations into already delicious lines like “Are you going to keep going on – making films?”. Perhaps her relationship with Mary could be richer, and Trentham isn’t as detailed a creation as some of Gosford Park’s other figures, but her joyous laughter at Denton’s ruined outfit is pretty delightful.

Marisa Tomei, In the Bedroom – Given how weirdly peripheral Natalie is, and how disinterested Todd Field seems in shaping her or Sissy Spacek’s characterizations compared to the men, I’m less inclined to blame Tomei for being such a watery presence. She at least provides a base coat of pained, beaten-down unease and sadness that serves most of her scenes. But for a character that spends an awfully large amount of time talked about rather than seen, Tomei doesn’t answer the many questions surrounding this woman – Does she think Frank is just a summer fling? How scared is she of Richard, and how new is his increasingly violent behavior? What does she think of Frank’s parents? Does she know what Ruth thinks of her, or expect her olive branch to be rejected so cruelly? A capable performance, but few layers.

Kate Winslet, Iris – A sharp, plausible, distinct interpretation that communicates marvelously with Judi Dench’s performance as the same woman. Winslet is intelligent, sexy, casual at deploying her Learned Young Person affectations and references, conversing about her philosophies with the assuredness of a grad student but also perfectly open to discussing her ideas instead of using the person she’s talking to as a sounding board. This openness follows her into her relationship with John, leading him to try new things but testing her own boundaries in the moments they chart new ground as a couple, or when he needs something from her she didn’t expect. Winslet refuses to sentimentalize a more “alive” version of Iris, making the young Iris and John storyline feel necessary through the quality of her playing, in tandem with an equally charming Hugh Bonneville.

Of the nominated women, I suspect I’d vote for either Winslet or Mirren, though I admit I’m even more curious imagining how winning in 2001 would impact their Best Actress steamrolls a few years later. Looking at this lineup and the precursors surrounding it, this group seems like it must’ve been a pretty sure bet come nomination morning, and even if I can’t wrap my head around a few of these choices, the reasons they were all coronated makes sense. Still, 2001 has a lot of supporting actressing to offer, and here are thirteen performances and three ensembles – some good, some wanting, some absolutely stellar – that were worth writing about.

Other Possibilities:

Individual Performances:

Eileen Atkins, Wit – In a film about the dichotomies and paradoxes of warmth and coldness, teacherly excellence and human interaction, intellect and heart, Eileen Atkins’ two sequences – very nearly bookending Wit – remind us these concepts are not in any way oppositional dichotomies by braiding them together so beautifully. She’s able to discuss seventeenth century poetry like it really matters, not just in the realm of academia but to the world at large, parsing punctuations and interpretations with certainty even as she concludes her meeting with Emma Thompson’s intimidated student by telling her to go out and have fun instead of returning to the library. That she’s just as impressive to behold reading aloud from a children’s book is equally miraculous, connecting to the sad and sentimental emotions of the sequence without overdoing it. Atkins embodies Wit’s central philosophical quandary with zero fuss, playing a tangible person in scenes that superficially encourage a one-dimensional paragon. Rich, film-elevating work, and the highlight of an already strong ensemble.

NBR winner for Best Supporting Actress

Cate Blanchett, The Man Who Cried – Watching The Man Who Cried’s political resonances and other performances fall utterly flat, it’s obvious Cate Blanchett is building her character alone, without director Sally Potter to “guide” her. As interpreted by Blanchett, Lola is easily the film’s most dimensional figure, saved from the script’s shrillest and most judgmental impulses to become a shrewd, worldly survivor our protagonist should pay some heed to. She’s sincerely friendly with Ricci and captivated by Turturro, seeking wealth and glamor without seeming amoral, politically cognizant enough that her awakening is not one of Right and Wrong but of complicity against her friends and reconsideration of personal safety. In every scene you see how much thought Blanchett has put into her expressions and posture and line-readings, yet she never looks like she’s over-acting even in this dull group. Serving up a full characterization from thin air, nailing her accent and in-film artistic bonafides in way her costars never do, it’s impossible not to watch her and wonder why she isn’t the star.

BSFC winner, SAG and Golden Globe nominee for Best Supporting Actress

Cameron Diaz, Vanilla Sky –  You cannot blame Cameron Diaz for the absolutely atrocious dialogue she is asked to speak, ranting about Tom Cruise’s nut while driving fifty miles through thirty traffic out of pure jealousy, because what woman wouldn’t be aggrieved their fuck buddy Tom Cruise – who went for four rounds with them one night, a sure sign their courtship Means Something – might Have Feelings for Penelope Crúz. I cannot imagine the actress who could make Julie Gianni’s words and actions come across as anything other than lurid male fantasia and misogynistic nonsense. Diaz at least gives the role a fuckton of energy and charisma, which is more than her costars offer. She deserves better than be immortalized by Oscar’s records for this blazing yet utterly incoherent character, but as its own thing, you walk away embarrassed for Diaz while respecting her impact in this messy, messy film.

Nona Gaye, Ali – A standout among Ali’s impressively large gallery of figures orbiting Muhammad Ali, and certainly the most interesting of his three wives. Khalilah Ali is already a more compatible choice than Muhammad’s first wife Sonji Roi (played by a charming Jada Pinkett Smith), not just because of her Muslim faith but because Gaye conveys a personal fortitude that matches her husband’s. She quickly shows herself to be a steady advisor but also one of the few confidants unwilling to put up with his crap on a personal level, standing by his decision to dodge the draft but unable to stomach his pettier indignities. That Ali so firmly refuses to condone Muhammad’s infidelities is a fairness not enough screen wives are afforded against their great, philandering husbands, but Gaye’s convictions and submerged anger are so resolute throughout that we understand how much he’s hurt how – how undeserving he is of her – when she confronts him about his newest affair and leaves him for good.

Laura Elena Harring, Mulholland Drive – After three viewings of Mulholland Drive, I’m less convinced that Harring is a legitimate supporting player than I used to be. She’s mostly joined to Naomi Watts at the hip, has about as many scenes alone as Watts, and is so obsessed over in the blueprint of the film that she haunts the few scenes she isn’t in, especially for Diane. Either way, Harring’s performance is remarkable, operating in a completely different acting style than Watts while wholly synchronized to Lynch’s vision. Harring evokes a solid idea on who Rita is as well as the murkiness at her center, eventually converting this energy into a clearer but more intentionally distanced characterization. She’s emotionally transparent, playing palpable shifts in thought and feeling without pulling faces or letting herself simply be a blank slate for Lynch’s craftspeople and the audience to project onto, even as she leaves space for us to wonder what else Rita/Camilla might be thinking. Coherent yet mysterious, whole yet incomplete, Harring nimbly negotiates a truly strange character arc with tremendous skill.

Anjelica Huston, The Royal Tenenbaums – There’s a lightness to Huston’s tone, intriguing and ingratiating amidst so many vaguer or more complicated performances, that makes her a welcome presence. Her volatile reaction to Royal saying he’ll be dead (or not) in six weeks – one of the best scenes in the film – is an early highlight for Huston and for Tenenbaums. She’s pleasant company, if not on the level of Hackman or Paltrow, but I wish she and Danny Glover as her fiancé had more to do besides be totally sweet together (which they are) and react to Royal and her family’s shenanigans. Fulfills and enhances what she’s asked to do wonderfully, but too often her thread in this story feels lost.

Scarlett Johansson, The Man Who Wasn’t There – In a film whose colorful supporting cast often seems like they’re disrupting the overall tone, the normalcy of Scarlett Johansson and her screen dad Richard Jenkins come across as remarkably assured. She slots perfectly into the Coens’ mannered period while coming across as any average teenage girl, particularly one who knows she’s average and isn’t bothered by it. You see why Ed would value his time with her so much next to his own, increasingly fraught life, yet Johansson never does anything to make Birdie very charismatic beyond the self-assurance underneath her plainness. A wholly plausible characterization that never begs for attention – two things many of her costars fail to accomplish. 

Mary McDonnell, Donnie Darko – There’s a lot of good to be said about the performances in Donnie Darko, all of whom bring their own peculiar energy into the project while seeming totally credible in a very strange world. Best of all of them is Mary McDonnell’s vivid, tonally flexible, and period-attuned performance as Rose Darko. She interacts beautifully with her costars, grounding and enhancing even the biggest performances by responding to them so sincerely, operating on a wavelength that’s completely singular yet compatible with everyone else. I love that she’s able to relish in Beth Grant squirming to ask her for help without seeming actively rude yet can’t help considering this woman’s questions against her parenting skills, even when it couldn’t be clearer Rose deeply loves her family but is heartbroken that she cannot protect her son from his own illnesses. Perhaps the most indelible achievement of a very highwire film, and equally persuasive as auditions for 20th Century Women and Hereditary.

Saturn Award nominee for Best Supporting Actress

Frances McDormand, The Man Who Wasn’t There – A fun casting choice, as McDormand is rarely called up to play characters this pettily self-absorbed, and because her number of major collaborations with her husband always feels smaller to me than it should. McDormand clicks with Doris’s curdled dissatisfaction, and her more subdued air of disappointment beats Michael Badalucco and Tony Shalhoub’s showboating. Still, there’s nothing in her performance and precious little in the film beyond Billy Bob Thornton’s nimble work to make us feel sympathetic for Doris’ plight, let alone communicate what could’ve made her want to marry Ed in the first place, or what he might miss once she’s left the picture. A moody, engaging presence, but her sourness clogs up more interesting interpretations, and ultimately less detailed than expected.

Independent Spirit Award winner for Best Supporting Actress

Carrie-Ann Moss, Memento – I see what there is to like about Moss’s Natalie, the spikiest person Leonard comes across but also the most directly confrontational to his ideas about himself, his mission, and this particular journey. As much as Moss serves her scenes and gives Guy Pearce a tangible characterization to play off, her performance is also the only one of the three principles disconnected from Nolan’s tone, coming off as too hard and one-dimensional next to the men’s lighter touch. Joe Pantoliano does a much savvier job of conveying a specific, layered persona that subtly challenges Leo’s notions of his missions and identity without sacrificing the mystery of who he is. For all the script’s turns and reveals, Natalie never becomes more interesting over time, largely due to Moss’s limited playing. Of Memento’s supporting cast, I’m much more taken with what Harriet Samson Harris contributes to her small, sad arc as the increasingly conflicted wife of Sammy Jenkis.

Saturn Award nominee for Best Actress

Frances O’Connor, A.I. Artificial Intelligence – The decision to center A.I.’s first arc on O’Connor’s Monica Swinton is already an unusual choice for Spielberg, given his propsenity for kid’s-eye POVs and the lack of domestic dramas in his filmography. Her narrative carries the philosophical and moral ramifications of a Philip K. Dick story, fully attuned to questions of family, personhood, and mortality as she learns to live with the mechanical son she never asked for, in replacement of a child no one expects to wake up from his coma. O’Connor is brilliant at playing these shifts in thought, actively considering her choices without looking strained or distracted from whatever she’s actually doing. And as the evolution of Monica’s home life leads her to consider decisions she might never have imagined, watching O’Connor act on them is as exciting a spectacle as the film’s best set-pieces.

Gwyneth Paltrow, The Royal Tenenbaums – A deep, unusual sadness, especially for a Wes Anderson film. Paltrow establishes a palpable sense of sorrow from the outset, larger and more convincing than the her brothers’ but also one seeming to encompass the storied life she’s said to have led. Her neuroses seem less singularly rooted in her family relationships, not simply the acting out of a stunted child but of a lost woman trying to figure out where her potential went. You don’t get the sense that Margot’s depressions are suddenly alleviated once Tenenbaums ends, the way it suggests so many of its other arcs are suddenly cleaned up, even if her last appearance seems happier and more self-possessed than her first. Best of all is the sheer range of notes Paltrow can conjure from within this limited spectrum of overt affect, playing her plotline with Bill Murray for real and coaxing a stronger performance from Luke Wilson than he achieves on his own, enriching her corner of the film without upending its tone.

Goya Toledo, Amores Perros – Possesses the smallest of the film’s triptych segments at roughly 40 minutes, and the protagonist most exclusively contained within her own story. There’s a lot of way to play Valeria that would flatten her, putting too much emphasis on wallowing self-pity or repellant shrillness or making her so nobly likable throughout her suffering. What makes Toledo’s performance so incredible is how she imparts and negotiates so many character traits without steering us towards or away from sympathy. Nor does she simply luxuriate in her film’s rot. At every moment we see exactly what she thinks of her dog, her boyfriend, her health, her career, all of it written on her incredibly expressive face and posture. Dexterously shifting moods while imparting the full might of whatever she’s feeling, be it cooing delight or high tempers or quietly sliding straight from hope to utter ruin, it’s entirely to her credit that a model’s physical rehabilitation and crumbling life is just as riveting as a hitman’s remorse or a dogfitting ring.

Ensemble Achievements:

Baby Boy –  Admittedly, there’s a ceiling to how great Baby Boy’s cast is, as a collective and as individual actors. No one manifests the layered heights of, say, Tyra Ferrell in Boyz n the Hood, and there’s an odd lack of connective thread in the characterizations, as though the cores of these people feel mostly static despite some pretty intense confrontations throughout. Still, within these odds caveats is a totally game group of actors who energize the hell out of Singleton’s script, playing familiar types with fresh, distinctive takes inside a broad, punchy tone. Adrienne Joi-Johnson has the largest of the supporting female roles, and is ideal as the intelligent, sexy, and empathetic (but not endlessly so) mother of the main character, doling out advice to him and his girlfriend while working on revitalizing herself with a new garden and a new man. Baby Boy also boasts an unexpected collection of bit performers doing captivating work, from Tracey Cherelle Jones as Taraji P. Henson’s best friend to an entire hair salon full of women who Tyrese Gibson tries to sell dresses to, some enticed by his salesmanship and others more interested in him. I wish Mo’Nique had reappeared after her delightful scene as Johnson’s drinking buddy, and the film could’ve used a little more of Angell Cromwell as Gibson’s baby mama. Frankly, some of Baby Boy’s best scenes have its female characters interacting with each other, and even if the uniform quality of the ensemble suggests an even greater set of performances with a little stronger direction, the acting we get is both massively entertaining and a real accomplishment.

La Cienága – As odd and omnipresent as Martel’s audiovisual filmmaking senses are, it’s similarly impressive how she’s able to allow her actors to make their own contributions rather than letting her style dictate and overwhelm their choices. Graciela Borges as the embittered, often inebriated matriarch of a bourgeois family and Mercedes Morán as the more personable and resourceful but equally stressed cousin of Borges’s character are the film’s two most defined centers, smartly etched by their performers and structurally highlighted by the script. Admittedly, the many younger actresses who play their children and servants and their kid’s friends blur together in some ways, but I like that about Martel’s ensemble. There’s tangible differences between these girls, but also a sheen of indolence and horniness and need to do something together besides lounging around – unless they can’t be bothered to get out of bed – that links these characters so fascinatingly. You get the sense of individual figures but also how they operate as pairs and groups and families, intoxicated by particular, overlapping qualities and allegiances that hold stronger with some than with others. To be so charismatically bored is a rare gift, but Martel and her cast usher together such peculiar tones that even two girls trying to sleep through the heat is as much as spectacle as a mad dash towards a pool.

Gosford Park – Altman’s ensembles are always a treat, as twenty-odd distinct personas clash against each other and reveal new, unexpected sides of themselves while fully synchronized to his directorial style. Gosford Park is no exception to this standard, and as engaging as the men are, it’s the women who craft the film’s strongest performances. Tertiary roles are as smartly cast as the film’s leads – an odd term for a film pretty evenly spread among its massive cast, though if there’s any one lead it’s surely Kelly McDonald’s watchful, green, but very determined new maid to Maggie Smith, who works her lines beautifully even as her character often looks like she’d rather be anywhere else. Claudia Blakley’s gauche, open-faced wife is perhaps the best of the tertiary performances, testing her mettle against a party of strangers and a shitty husband, and nailing her scenes whenever she bobs to the film’s center. Helen Mirren’s mix of professionalism and surpressed feeling is a palpable through-line all the way to her climactic finish, though for my money there are two performances that are even more impressive: Kristin Scott Thomas as the wife of the party’s host, who seems genuinely relaxed lounging about in her brilliant outfits, but expresses her discomfort and jabs at her guests through that same veneer of civility, and whose friendship with Maggie Smith is one of the film’s most sincere companionships; and Emily Watson, whose loose physicality and wry, very nearly murmured line readings suggest a certain jadedness but also the only character who might be truly content with their lot in life – even after some tumultuous changes to her situation, and whose underplaying yields rich implications even as the character often couldn’t be any more direct. A treasure trove of great performances, even besides the ones I’ve singled out, and endlessly rewatchable.

My Lineup

So! After tallying up all of the performances, I’d say my current lineup would be:

Cate Blanchett, The Man Who Cried
Mary McDonnell, Donnie Darko
Gwyneth Paltrow, The Royal Tenenbaums
Goya Toledo, Amores Perros
Emily Watson, Gosford Park

Eileen Atkins for Wit would wind up on my ballot if I felt more certain of including a TV movie performance, just as Laura Elena Harring would be added should I ever reconsider her as supporting instead of a co-lead in Mulholland Drive. Barring those two, my runners-up would be Kristin Scott Thomas in Gosford Park, Kate Winslet in Iris, Helen Mirren in Gosford Park, Frances O’Connor in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and Scarlet Johansson in The Man Who Wasn’t There, with further mentions for Claudia Blakley and Maggie Smith in Gosford Park, Nona Gaye in Ali, and Anjelica Huston in The Royal Tenenbaums.

I tracked down a few more 2001 films that I didn’t find time to watch before posting this, and know that there’s certainly more riches to be found from this year. So who are some of your favorite supporting actresses from 2001? Is there anyone you think I should look at, or a performance listed here I should reconsider? Check my viewing log for May to get a full survey of the films I’ve watched for this, and let me know if there’s any favorites from 2001 – actressy or not – that you’d want to shout out.

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