Presenting the Supporting Actresses of '16. This year's slate of nominees features a selfless adoptive mother, a doting but suddenly resentful wife, a woman whose tragic past has suddenly resurfaced, a savvvy mother hen and supervisor struggling to gain respect, and an addict who makes her sensitive son's life a nightmare of instability.
One long-time-coming breakthrough for an exciting actress (Get it Naomie Harris), two Oscar winners elevating their films with warmth and precision (Kidman & Spencer), and two Oscar darlings who arguably should have won already attacking tragic material (Williams and Davis). Who will be triumphant in the smackdown?
THIS MONTH'S PANELISTS
Though we usually arrange for special guests including actors, writers, and film critics, for the first Smackdown of the new season, we opted to do it all 'in house' with only TFE crew just to get the series back up and running: Nathaniel, Abstew, Chris, and Murtada (you can read about the team here) are discussing the nominees. And now it's time for the main event...
SUPPORTING ACTRESS SMACKDOWN
VIOLA DAVS as "Rose Maxson" in Fences
Synopsis: A 50s housewife, realizing her big-personality husband is having an affair, struggles to make peace with the compromises she made in life.
Stats: 51 yrs old, 35th film, 3rd nomination. 72 minutes of screen time (or 52% of running time).
Abstew: Living in the shadow of her blustering husband, Rose has had to compromise a lot in her life. But Davis, the actress, compromises nothing. Working with head-on precision (properly explosive in her big confrontation scene, but equally diminutive when needed) and with a complete lack of vanity. (Her snot running down her face in emotional scenes is a trademark at this point.) But perhaps because this seems like the quintessential Viola Davis performance, there is very little that surprises here. Maybe she just makes it all look easy, but this doesn’t seem like much of a challenge for the actress. ♥♥♥
Chris Feil: When Tony’s deception breaks her back and their marriage, Davis is seismic in the sudden release of decades of resentment, but she’s equally compelling when hiding behind the guise of dutiful wife. Much as Fences focuses on Troy’s tragedy, Davis turns Rose’s personal limits and compulsive forgiveness into the most complicated emotional terrain even when the film tries to oversimplify it. But even the film thinks she’s a lead - just as fascinated by the cracks in her doting wife veneer from the beginning as her emotional fallout. ♥♥♥♥♥
Murtada: Viola Davis gives us the highly emotional acting we've come to expect from her but also showing us new surprising shades. She’s earthy and sexy earlier on in her scenes with Denzel Washington. Then in the epilogue she shows subtle pathos as her Rose finally gets to tell us how she sees Troy’s story. I was ready to cheer her Oscar win after the big explosive confrontation with Washington, but with that ending I knew that I loved the performance. ♥♥♥♥♥
Nathaniel: The word "volcanic" is deployed often and for good reason with Viola. Her emotions are so big that it would have been a seismic loss to the world if they didn't have a big screen to gush from. But she's just as strong with the quieter before and after of Rose's suddenly rocky marriage than she is during the key "standing in the same place as you" freakout. Is it petty that I'm docking her a heart for this being a lead role? You can't judge what an actor can do with a sidebar part when they're working with the wide expanse of an enormous role. ♥♥♥♥
Reader Votes ♥♥♥♥¾
Actress earns 21¾ ❤s
NAOMIE HARRIS as "Paula" in Moonlight
Synopsis: A crack addict struggles to understand and emotionally connect and support her meek effeminate son
Stats: 40 yrs old, 25th film, 1st nomination. 14 minutes of screen time (or 13% of running time).
Abstew: Harris has said that she almost turned down this role as an addict, not wanting to portray another stereotype. But Harris is simply incapable of creating a stock character here. Without any judgment of this woman, Harris layers her with contradictions, able to swing wildly from manic highs to desperate lows. All while keeping her grounded in a place of love for her troubled son, even when Paula’s actions seem hurtful or dismissive. And as the only actor to appear in all three sections of the film, her third act catharsis is earned through the journey we’ve taken with the actress. ♥♥♥♥
Chris Feil: Before we even really know her, Harris reveals the woman she might normally be with how her addiction goggles provide mutated warmth, rage, and ever so fleeting charm. Her final scene’s humility is heartbreaking, filling in years' worth of unmentioned history with a hard-won quiet optimism. One of 2016’s many cinematic mothers that are both seen and unseeable thank’s to an adept and evolving performance - we know exactly who Paula is without knowing much about her. ♥♥♥♥
Murtada: Watching Harris come at Mahershala Ali sing-songing “ You gonna tell him why the other boys kick his ass all the time”, I sat straight up. I knew this was something special. She amplifies the heightened scenes of her as a memory of Chiron’s with her lithe physicality. I can still clearly see her in that doorway screaming that awful word, though we never hear it. It’s a marvel of a performance. ♥♥♥♥
Nathaniel: It's thrilling to watch her disorienting stabs at being a good mother in the middle of being a terrible one and to feel the disruption every time she appear, throwing Chiron (and the film) off of its dreamiest moods and tilting them towards nightmare. Arguably she's playing an idea memory or concept (Chiron's?) rather reality but she's fearless. Favorite scene: spoiling for a fight of mutual self-loathing with Juan while utterly wasted. ♥♥♥♥
Reader Votes ♥♥♥♥
Actress earns 20 ❤s
NICOLE KIDMAN as "Sue Brierley" in Lion
Synopsis: A warm adoptive mother, struggling with one estranged son, realizes that her other darling boy wants to find his birth mother in India
Stats: 49 yrs old, 53rd film, 4th nomination (1 previous win). 18 minutes of screen time (or 15% of running time).
Abstew: Often criticized for her chilly onscreen and public persona, Kidman radiates maternal affection and compassion in this personal role as an adoptive mother. Her rousing monologue about dreams of adoption, which she delivers with effortless conviction, might have secured her the nom. But it’s in the smaller moments, when she insists a table setting be kept for someone that will never come or quietly struggling with frustration late at night, that Kidman breathes life into the character. And she does it all believably in a Little Orphan Annie wig. ♥♥♥♥
Chris Feil: Kidman’s choices are more interesting than what’s on the page here. The pivotal “little brown boy” monologue is pretty tricky material to pull off without moment-sinking schmaltz or making it sound like hokey bullshit. But then that’s one of the best traits of the performance as a whole: her ability to avoid the trite by delivering genuine feeling, often understated and lived-in. It’s really saying something that those wigs never become a distraction. ♥♥♥
Murtada: I rolled my eyes throughout her big scene. Not because of the performance but because of what the character was saying. The “vision of a brown child” is the epitome “white savior” syndrome. We are still doing that? But apart from the silly retrograde politics of the film, Kidman delivers. There’s a warmth we haven’t seen on screen from her in while, particularly in her scenes with the young Saroo. ♥♥
Nathaniel: Kidman serves as the bridge between Lion's childhood and adult dramas and invests it with so much specificity and purpose, not merely a mother but a guide to help it mature. Her turn grows more resonant with each viewing as she rafts a three dimensional woman with a full range of feeling from little annoyances to deep drive to pain that only rarely levels her. I've rarely seen parenting this infused with spiritual purpose on film. Even the way she first looks at little Saroo with wonderment and impatience is heart swelling. ♥♥♥♥♥
Reader Votes. ♥♥♥¾
Actress earns 17¾ ❤s
OCTAVIA SPENCER as "Dorothy Vaughn" in Hidden Figures
Synopsis: A supervisor of a group of female "computers" at NASA gets proactive when she realizes her job may soon be obsolete
Stats: 46 yrs old, 60 films, 2nd nomination (1 previous win). 29 minutes of screen time (or 23% of running time).
Abstew: Dorothy Vaughan, the real-life mathematician and mother hen to her “girls” in ‘60s era NASA, is the kind of no-nonsense woman that evaluates a situation and gets the job done without any fuss. And there’s the same workman-like mentality that Spencer brings to the role. She knows this woman and, without drawing attention to herself, executes her performance with efficiency and effectiveness. But against scene-stealer Janelle Monáe in the same film, I could have used a little more piquancy for her to be a true standout. ♥♥♥
Chris Feil: This kind of crowd-pleasing impact isn’t nearly as easy to pull off as Spencer makes it look. Like the film itself, I wish there were more risks or opportunity for Spencer to play outside the exact boundaries we expect to be dealt. But you can’t blame them recognizing the warm center of a warm center movie. This nomination is much more satisfying to me as a representative of a pretty stellar ensemble, especially considering how Dorothy herself serves as something of a spokesperson for the women she supervises. ♥♥
Murtada: This is a warm, funny and compassionate performance.The only one of the 5 nominated who had me cheering on her character throughout, that is a testament to Spencer’s presence. And of course the cheering got loudest for the great big fuck you and “truth telling” she gives to racists everywhere (personified by Kirsten Dunst). ♥♥♥
Nathaniel: While this is the the least juicy and challenging of the key roles within Hidden Figures, she's still best in show. Hidden Figures opts for broad strokes characterizations, and Spencer is now such a relaxed and grounding screen presence that she knows to do very little to sell its most pointed bits; watch the way she understands not to lean into the dialogue as a "moment" when she calls Dunst's boss out on her racism. Contrary to popular belief with screen acting less can be more and if you ask me she's just right throughout. ♥♥♥
Reader Votes ♥♥♥½
Actress earns 14½ ❤s
MICHELLE WILLIAMS as "Randi Chandler" in Manchester by the Sea
Synopsis: A woman who has had to rebuild her life after an unspeakable tragedy must face her ex-husband again when his brother dies
Stats: 36 yrs old, 34th film, 4th nomination. 13 minutes of screen time (or 9% of running time).
Abstew: As a grieving mother forced to confront a years-ago tragedy when her estranged ex-husband comes back to town, Williams is essentially reduced to that one fateful scene. And it’s not that Williams, an actress that projects a fragile vulnerability, easily able to access raw emotional damage, doesn’t convincingly portray this woman’s grief. But the film has very little interest in her to begin with and the big scene is over almost as soon as it begins, with Williams unable to fully color in the outline of the character she’s given. ♥♥
Chris Feil: The differences in Before and After versions of Randi are more immediately noticeable for the way she is costumed, but Williams makes confrontation different on both sides of the tragedy. Her grief has made her more timid, so that big scene is all the more feverish as she rediscovers how to appeal to Lee and the language of their relationship. I don't jive with the Beatrice Straight comparisons because the big scene doesn't pay off without those brief earlier glimpses. ♥♥♥
Murtada: She’s better in Certain Women in a more interesting part. Here she’s asked to play one note - broken hearted. It’s a devastating note that could easily veer into histrionics. Williams delivers big time in that scene, she owns it. I just wish there was more for her to play. Sometimes that’s not needed but this time I needed more from Randi. Is it the screenplay or the performance? ♥♥♥
Nathaniel: Curiously the least impressive of the nominees despite a still potent part. The problem could be that the film itself has no curiousity about her character. She isn't given much to work with beyond very impactful but short bursts of agonized emotion. Also curious: she's much stronger in the early scenes playing an ordinary harried mother with a fun but exhausting marriage than she is dealing with inarticulate shared tragedy. ♥♥♥
Reader Votes. ♥♥♥¾
Actress earns 14¾❤s
THE SMACKDOWN GOES TO VIOLA DAVIS
in what proved to be a fairy tight race with Naomie Harris
And the Oscar Goes to...
Well, that's for the Academy to decide on February 26th.
Would you have chosen similarly?
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Previous Smackdowns ICYMI: 1941, 1948, 1952, 1954, 1964, 1968, 1973, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1984, 1989, 1995 and 2003 (prior to those 30+ Smackdowns were hosted @ StinkyLulu's old site)
NEXT UP? The Smackdown will return on March 31st, 2017 with the supporting actresses of 1963 from The VIPs, Tom Jones, and Lilies of the Field.