For the latest edition of StinkyLulu's Supporting Actress Smackdown -- which was delayed for reasons I won't bore you with again -- Stinky and I welcome you to a much-discussed Oscar contest, ten years back. This was not, as we've rediscovered, a particularly strong vintage despite a certain nostalgic pull for any storied shortlist that combines five very distinct performers. The truth of it is that most of 2003's acting races were messy affairs with little precursor agreement or too much of it. Further complicating matters was a mix of various stages of career momentum, a frontrunning film without any acting bids (Return of the King), and that semi-annual deadly combo that always mucks with Academy discernment: weak prestige pieces and much of the best work occuring in genres Oscar doesn't care for. The Best Actress race, for example, was historic but totally odd and disatisfying, and Best Supporting Actress coalesced around these five players...
Shohreh Aghdashloo, a "discovery" at 51 though she was already famous in Iran, and previously snubbed character actress sensation Patricia Clarkson were the first timers. Oscar winners Marcia Gay Harden and Holly Hunter were also included for anchoring gritty dramas as desperately confused mothers. And finally Renée Zellweger, the eventual winner, on her third consecutive nomination but her first for a drama after two lead nominations for popular comedies. (All legitimately supporting roles. That doesn't happen over a whole supporting field anymore)
You know who won the Oscar but who will win the Smackdown? Read on...
Nick Davis, Guy Lodge, Joe Reid, Nathaniel R, Tim Robey, Stinkylulu and You (we tabulate reader votes as well and quotes from your ballots appear).
SUPPORTING ACTRESS SMACKDOWN
SHOHREH AGHDASHLOO as "Nadi" in House of Sand and Fog
Synopsis: A regal Iranian wife fears becoming no better than a gypsy in her new country when her husband buys a home to flip
Stats: Then 51 yrs old. First nomination! 32 minutes of screen time (or 25% of running time).
Nick: Like many of these nominees, suffers from vague writing. Nadi manifests high, sudden tempers but also scared docility, acute intuition and totally perplexity. Perelman’s script obscures how pill-dependent Nadi is, how depressed, how excited or not about the new house. These could play as fascinating paradoxes, but the slightly stiff Aghdashloo doesn’t suture these disparate impressions. Charismatic, deft at playing awkward exchanges, but her Nadi never fully comes into view. ♥♥
Guy: An exemplary Best Supporting Actress nominee, in that it’s genuinely unforeseen, perceptive character work from the sidelines that valuably enhances the work of the lead – and yet the performance itself isn’t quite as vital as I’d remembered. I love that she’s out to build scenes, not steal them, but the script too quickly corners her into noble stances of pride and anger: I’d like to hang out with her a bit more. ♥♥♥
Joe: The trembling subservience of Nadi at times threatens to infantilize her, but Aghdashloo pulls the character's feet out of the fire, time and again. The scene where she insists Kathy write down what she's saying; the bathtub incident. The intersection of pride and helplessness inside her helps fill in the blanks for Ben Kingsley's character. In that respect, she acts as classic support, for Kingsley, for Jennifer Connelly, even for poor, inept Ron Eldard. ♥♥♥
Nathaniel: We see her three times before she gets a line (it’s a sizeable role but not at all what I remembered and rarely the focus or even in focus) already a victim of the movie’s distracting ‘this equals that’ cross-cutting. The regal actress nails her key moments on the strength of screen presence. She often seems to be reacting to the previous thing that occurred (I love the delayed acqueisence to her husband’s petulant demands) rather than keeping pace with the scenes, which is a smart touch for a character so completely thrown by cultural barriers and her husband's secret crisis. ♥♥♥
Readers: "Doing more with small gestures and shaded vocal intonations that most actresses could do with pages of dialogue you ache for her gentle character and remember her long after the film is over. Appalling that she hasn't been better utilized in the years since." - Joel (reader avg: ♥♥♥¾)
Tim: The movie sinks faster each time I go back, but Aghdashloo totally holds her head above the rising peasouper. Particularly good as a smiling but speechless hostess, she presents a figure of believable contradictions – furious only at her Behrani, meek and terrified in every other way. Good, bulwark playing, lacking only the third-act chances to bump her up a ♥. ♥♥♥
StinkyLulu: In the decade since I first saw this film, I forgot pretty much everything about it — except Shohreh Aghdashloo’s face. Her capacity to convey who this specific woman was, who she is, and who she’s terrified of becoming — all with a single look. Yes, Kingsley and Connelly churn with meticulously angsty conflict, but it’s the often wordless eloquence of Aghdashloo’s Nadi that makes this movie the tragedy it is. ♥♥♥♥♥
Actress earns 22¾ ❤s
PATRICIA CLARKSON as "Joy Burns" in Pieces of April
Synopsis: a dying cancer patient takes a road trip to visit her daughter for Thanksgiving dinner
Stats: Then 44 yrs old. First nomination! (apologies. forgot to record screen time).
Nick: Depressing to award Clarkson one star, but what can you do? She’s stuck in a horrendous experimental film, omitting human behavior as strenuously as The Artist omits dialogue. Clarkson doesn’t (and couldn’t) make the script worse, but Joy never jells. She doesn’t seem about to die. Her prickly, often appalling comments are sitcommy insincerities. Her despondent roadside breakdown is totally rigged. Her jokes aren’t that funny. Her epiphany is unfathomable. ♥
Guy: If I were thinking like an Oscar voter, I’d give Patricia Clarkson five hearts just for being Patricia Damn Clarkson, not watch this wretched movie, and be done with it. But this isn’t even valiant slumming: she has a dry way with a quip, rolls her eyes probably more than the script instructed, and suggests not one new thing about her character from first scene to last. It’s the performance the film deserves, but... ♥♥
Joe: You guys, I just don't know. She's not particularly terrible, given the material she was given and the film surrounding her, but this is not the kind of "overcoming bad material" that sometimes characterizes a nominee. There are moments when Joy's frustration and impish sense of humor peek through, but just as often they're blown up by a script and by direction that don't want to let Clarkson's acting speak for itself. ♥
Nathaniel: We shouldn’t grade on a curve but it’s difficult to imagine why the Academy saw fit to bestow this great actress with her sole Oscar nomination for a turn this unchallenging. It asks so little of her beyond gallows humor and deadpan pathos both of which she hits hard like a concert pianist bored and angrily plinking on a child’s toy keyboard. Joy's face is sometimes completely blank – I imagine Patty was dreaming of her other films and the fertile soil they gave her to grow whole characters in. ♥♥
Readers: "A wonderful biting performance but I wish she had been nominated for her wonderful work in The Station Agent instead." - Chris D. (reader avg: ♥♥♥)
Tim: Can’t save a wretchedly sketchy picture – of all things, Clarkson got in for this? – but nor does she do it any great disservice. Never has opportunities to sculpt much detail, but little moments here and there, especially her silent bathroom check-in, suggest where she may have taken the part in a better context. At least Joy seems as bored with every other character as we are. ♥♥
StinkyLulu: The role prevents Clarkson from drawing upon the knowing sensitivity that is perhaps her greatest actressing strength. Perhaps as a result, Clarkson’s Joy (check that irony!) relies on her other gift for acid line-readings to make this woman (whose disposition is as discomfiting as her wig) almost believable. Still, Clarkson’s abiding soulfulness shines through, so I never quite buy her as this particular monster mother. ♥♥♥
Actress earns 14 ❤s
MARCIA GAY HARDEN as "Celeste Boyle" in Mystic River
Synopsis: a confused wife begins to question her husband's sanity and innocence when she learns a friend's daughter was killed one night while he was out.
Stats: 44 yrs old. 2nd nomination after a surprise win three years prior. 21½ minutes of screen time (or 16% of running time).
Nick: That brow! Those features! Harden sometimes appears to overact even before she speaks or gestures. That wordless interlude where she tremulously passes silverware to Katie’s mourners while clocking her shaky husband summarize everything that’s overdone about Harden’s Celeste but also what’s special about her. She seems gripped by real emotions, if maybe too emphatic about them, while other castmates get mired in accents or unsellable affectations. Her finale is spellbinding. ♥♥♥
Guy: I recall a number of people being surprised by this nomination, and me not being among them – revisiting it ten years later, I’m still not. More than anyone, I think, in this wildly mixed ensemble, Harden gets the key of earnest but heightened intensity Eastwood is going for: the sheer fretfulness of the performance, with all that darting and hand-wringing, is contagious, which should be more of a compliment than it sounds. ♥♥♥
Joe: Harden is -- like all the actors in this film, to one degree or another -- hamstrung by a character who doesn't make much sense. In all the scenes she shares with Tim Robbins, the audience gets zero indication of what their marriage was like before The Incident. Part of that is the film's fault, and part of that is on Robbins, but Harden doesn't exactly spin straw into gold either. She's far more effective in her scenes with Penn, but there are one too many scenes of wide-eyed, telegraphed horror for her own good. ♥♥
Nathaniel: The women in Mystic River are pointedly mute, through death, narrative disinterest or, well, "other" (I can't with those phone calls) but she manages to find a character within the rigid confines of skittish meekness. It's as if each sentence is a reckless toe stuck in water that might scald her as her hands and arms reflexively cross her body in protection (her husband isn't the only one who's been manhandled). Harden is very smart about how dumb to play her, Celeste's eyes widening in full horror but half-comprehension. ♥♥♥♥
Readers: "River is often too lurid and grandiose but Harden brings this high-headedness down to real, quaking life. She's a bit shaky when it comes to Celeste's almost impetuous stupidity, but she's tremendous at building an arc for her character... setting the seeds for that horrifying stagger through the parade." - Matthew Eng (reader avg: ♥♥♥)
Tim: Harden’s best when she’s ferocious, and crumpling, confused Celeste is never really playing to her strengths. Even so, she strives to make the best of a non-ideal situation, finding a genuine arc in a role that might have been flat and functional. Points for holding it together opposite Robbins, and giving the coda what shivery charge it has; still, only just worth a nom. ♥♥♥
StinkyLulu: Harden’s wracked-with-worry Celeste reminds me so of Maureen Stapleton’s nominated turn in Airport (1970), as that other wife terrified that her husband might be responsible for something awful. Like Stapleton then, Harden here is a workhorse, driving the narrative tension — introducing, then escalating, the devastating suspicion that implicates her husband. Harden’s is a haunting, efficient performance — one that this tautly-managed mystery needs in order to work. ♥♥♥
Actress earns 21 ❤s
HOLLY HUNTER as "Melanie" in Thirteen
Synopsis: a recovering alcoholic realizes her daughter is descending into cutting and drug use
Stats: Then 45 yrs old. Fourth nomination after a win ten years earlier! 44 minutes of screen time (or 44% of running time).
Nick: Incorporates Hunter’s real-life persona: spry but laidback; naturally but self-consciously sexy; unpretentious but whipsmart; centered but volatile. Then again, Hunter submerges her Southernness, flirts atypically with self-delusion, and conveys thirteen tortuous years of parenting despite having rarely played mothers. Her underplaying—of single lines, of the former addict’s desperation—tempers her film’s and castmates’ excesses. An epitome of supporting actressing, grounding the film and making it work without pulling focus. ♥♥♥♥
Guy: The film hasn’t aged well: what once seemed nervy and hell-for-leather now reads a bit tawdry and smug, and I was worried the same would go for Hunter’s performance. It doesn’t: she’s still a lightning bolt of authentically frayed energy in a designer-distressed environment. I love how she balances the beseeching desperation of any teen’s parent with flickers of almost envious recognition, one bad girl to another. ♥♥♥♥
Joe: Hunter does such a great job conveying the inconsistent jumble that is Melanie's parenting strategy. She sways from meekly ingratiating "cool mom" to naggy suspicion without ever once stepping over the line into plot service. She and Evan Rachel Wood make for a natural/combustible duo, and it's in her raw helplessness that Thirteen finds its non-exploitive reason for being. ♥♥♥♥♥
Nathaniel: Hunter gifts her Bohemian mom with such vivid interior life that there isn’t one scene where she’s not multi-tasking as she tracks the strange new temperatures of her daughter in the room. Mel is so many people: “hot big sister,” chill friend, recovering addict, tactile mom, overextended friend. Her many selves braid together as tightly as she holds her daughter in the intervention climax. Hardwicke didn’t need a shaky-cam; Holly makes the whole film vibrate with raw feeling. ♥♥♥♥♥
Readers: "Eloquently conveys the predicament of a mother torn between tightening her grip on her obstinate daughter and the fear that disciplining her will only push her further away. Hunter’s performance is remarkable ... she single-handedly elevates an otherwise mediocre film." - Cameron (reader avg: ♥♥♥♥)
Tim: Jeremy Sisto is Sorry, distracted. While not always helped by the fickle editing, Hunter makes working motherhood multi-dimensional and practically defines generous, movie-elevating support here. Wood’s constantly better in their scenes than elsewhere, and Holly’s gifts with rapidly communicative close-ups of shock and hurt are aces up Hardwicke’s sleeve. ♥♥♥♥
StinkyLulu: The film creaks as noisily as one those afterschool specials I grew up with, but Holly Hunter’s performance endures. Few can play paradox as plausibly and as palpably as Hunter. She’s utterly vulnerable yet steely strong. Steady yet equivocal. Terrified yet brave. In a film that delights in letting the girls run wild, Hunter’s incomparable grip holds the reins, helping me both to understand and to care. ♥♥♥♥♥
Actress earns 31 ❤s
RENEE ZELLWEGER as "Ruby" in Cold Mountain
Synopsis: a weird tactless hillbilly comes to the rescue of a dainty southern belle during the Civil War arming her with farming and survival skills.
Stats: Then 34 yrs old. Third consecutive nomination. 36½ minutes of screen time (or 24% of running time).
Nick: To be fair, virtually everyone in Cold Mountain flails with Charles Frazier’s marble-mouthed dialogue, facing insuperable hurdles in passing off prolix conceits as human characters (though I love Law). As Minghella mandated across the board, Zellweger slathers on a “Carolina” accent that fools nobody. But those uninflected line readings, graceless movements, jutting grimaces, opaque close-ups, and garish stabs at comedy? Zellweger’s alone to answer for. She squashes every conceivable nuance. ♥
Guy: Stomp! Stomp! Stomp! Zellweger strides into this slightly porridgey movie with a sense of purpose, as if she knows there’s livening-up to be done – and that’s the only correct call she makes here. For it’s the wrong kind of livening-up: all movement and exclamation and grimacing, and no inner life or logic from one scene to the next. Comic relief should never look like this much work. ♥
Joe: Oh, Renée. My impression of her performance in Cold Mountain is the same after this recent rewatch as it was the first time around: in a film with as many dead spots and lulls as this one, I was incredibly thankful whenever Ruby bushwhacked her way onto the screen. It's a complete cartoon turn in a film that needed to adapt to her wavelength way more or way less. Seen in a vacuum, it's every bit as terrible as people say it is. In the context of the movie, it's a more welcome -- if not trophy-worthy -- distraction. ♥♥
Nathaniel: Ruby has enough tics in the writing from truthy catchphrases to vocalized spelling / counting that the only reasonable approach is minimalist; let the character play itself. Instead Renee doubles down on mannerisms: robotically jerky arms (akimbo or swinging), bird-like head-tilting, lip pursing, and so much more. My favorite note in the performance is the way her frantic face-pulling stops abruptly whenever music plays. Music soothes the savage beast. But which beast? Ruby is neither recognizably animal nor human. What remains is some kind of unholy hybrid species: Thespian Extremus. ♥
Readers: "People just jumped on the bandwagon and exaggerated how awful her performance was. She is in fact the best part of the movie. Based on her physicality, I believed she could survive in the Carolina wilderness. Her best moments are the quiet ones with Kidman though..." - Tom G (reader avg: ♥¾)
Tim: Is it even worth saying? Stomps in, stomps out of scenes with the same muddy-boots emphasis on every last line. Works the comedy in with a trowel. Somehow both inadequately defined and very specifically disastrous. A rare, cloth-eared failure when it comes to Minghella’s casting instincts. Makes NO sense, not even Renéesense. I’d rather she had an Oscar for Case 39. ♥
StinkyLulu: It’s one of the enduring mysteries of Supporting Actressness: whose idea was it to give Ruby Thewes that mouth? With that upperlip cramping ever upward, as if sprained by a lifetime of eating corn through a barbed-wire fence? And without even a bucky dental appliance to justify it? Though Zellwegger invests Ruby with a sensible and even sensitive emotional arc, those HeeHaw externals foul what might have been a worthy performance. ♥♥
Actress earns 9¾ ❤s
AND THE SMACKDOWN GOES TO...
Oscar chose Renée, surely due to career momentum. (When it's time it's time, damn the actual performances!) But the Smackdown gives the prize wholeheartedly to... Holly Hunter in Thirteen
Thank you for attending!
If you enjoyed it, share it on facebook or twitter or other social media sites. Surely you have a friend who you saw some of these movies with you ten years ago! If you're new to the Smackdown we've revisited 1968's sinister sapphics, September's 1980's warm hugs, and 1952's pie-throwing brawl plus the old archives @ StinkyLulu.
you might also want to read the "introducing" piece that features each of these nominees first scenes in their movie
What's next for the Smackdown?
Despite the long looooong wait for this one, we'd like to continue if you'll forgive us. Let me think on a year we should revisit and get back to you. I'll try to choose something with less than five films represented to ease us back in less painfully