Best Supporting Actor: A Look Back

Continuing on with my look back at the major categories from 1990 to the present at the Oscars, we arrive at Best Supporting Actor! If you missed my post regarding Supporting Actress, you can find it right here:

As I did with that blog entry, I’m picking the top 3 least surprising winners (performers who essentially sailed right through awards season) and the 3 biggest upsets in each race. I am also selecting the strongest and weakest fields overall.

As a primer, here are the 28 actors whose support earned them a golden statue:

1990 – Joe Pesci, GoodFellas

1991 – Jack Palance, City Slickers

1992 – Gene Hackman, Unforgiven

1993 – Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive

1994 – Martin Landau, Ed Wood

1995 – Kevin Spacey, The Usual Suspects

1996 – Cuba Gooding Jr., Jerry Maguire

1997 – Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting

1998 – James Coburn, Affliction

1999 – Michael Caine, The Cider House Rules

2000 – Benicio del Toro, Traffic

2001 – Jim Broadbent, Iris

2002 – Chris Cooper, Adaptation

2003 – Tim Robbins, Mystic River

2004 – Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby

2005 – George Clooney, Syriana

2006 – Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine

2007 – Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men

2008 – Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

2009 – Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

2010 – Christian Bale, The Fighter

2011 – Christopher Plummer, Beginners

2012 – Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

2013 – Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

2014 – J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

2015 – Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

2016 – Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

2017 – Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 

There are plenty to choose from as far least surprising winners, but here’s my top ones:

3. Gene Hackman, Unforgiven

Clint Eastwood’s Western picked up a slew of awards on Oscar night and Hackman’s inclusion in that race was never really in doubt. It was his second statue after winning Best Actor 21 years previously for The French Connection.

2. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

It was director Christopher Nolan giving numerous awards speeches on behalf of the late Ledger, as his work playing the iconic villain swept all precursors as well. This remains not only the only win in the omnipresent superhero genre in the 21st century, but the only nomination.

1. Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men

Like Ledger, Bardem created a bad guy for the ages in the Coen Brothers Oscar-winning picture. He picked up all the precursors as well for his role.

And now the upsets!

3. James Coburn, Affliction

There was clearly no front-runner in 1998 as a different actor was honored in each preceding awards show. Ed Harris took the Golden Globe for The Truman Show, Billy Bob Thornton (A Simple Plan) was victorious at the Critics Choice Awards, Robert Duvall’s role in A Civil Action was honored at SAG, and Geoffrey Rush (Elizabeth) was the BAFTA recipient. Surely one of them would win the Oscar, but it instead went to Mr. Coburn.

2. Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

In 2015, the general consensus was that Sylvester Stallone would punch out the competition in his signature role for Creed. That would have been quite a feat after Rocky took Best Picture in 1976 – nearly four decades prior. Yet it didn’t materialize when Rylance made the trip to the podium.

1. Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine

Along the same lines, Eddie Murphy was the strong favorite for his rare dramatic work in Dreamgirls. With Jennifer Hudson as a sure thing for Supporting Actress (which did happen), the musical looked safe for a supporting sweep. The Academy surprisingly went another route by honoring Arkin.

And now to the fields overall and choosing a strongest and weakest. For the least impressive of the bunch, I’m going with 2011. Here were the nominees:

Christopher Plummer, Beginners (winner)

Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn

Jonah Hill, Moneyball

Nick Nolte, Warrior

Max Von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

When it comes to best overall field, I chose 1993. This is the year that Tommy Lee Jones got the gold in The Fugitive. That’s a rare acting win for an action flick. It was deserved in my view and the other four nominees were very strong as well. They were:

Leonardo DiCaprio, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

Ralph Fiennes, Schindler’s List

John Malkovich, In the Line of Fire

Pete Postlethwaite, In the Name of the Father

Furthermore, I could keep going with other deserving actors that year, including Val Kilmer in Tombstone and Sean Penn for Carlito’s Way. 

The next trip down memory lane will be Best Actress and it will be up soon!

Selma Movie Review

Like Spielberg’s Lincoln that preceded it two years prior, Ana DuVernay’s Selma sidesteps the idea of a biopic and rather focuses on a short but integral passage of time in its subject’s life. The focus is on Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1965 Voting Rights marches in Selma, Alabama. The film provides a history lesson that takes strides to not portray its central figure purely as a saint – nor does its perspective shy away from criticism of President Lyndon B. Johnson, while also acknowledging his achievements.

The film opens with King (David Oyelowo) and wife Coretta (Carmen Ejojo) in Norway circa 1964 to accept his Nobel Peace Prize. They speak of an alternative lifestyle in the opening scene that doesn’t involve the constant threat of death and his constant search for equal rights and justice. The couple seems to know that this is only talk and it is not what he’s destined for. Back home, the recent signing of the Civil Rights Act by President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) has done little in the South to allow African Americans the right to vote. And this sets off a decision by King to organize a march in Selma that is met with Johnson’s objections, though not near to the level of Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth).

Director DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb do not shy away from showing us the brutality that took place in this era in the South. We also witness the goodness of people of many faiths and races who come to lend their support to Dr. King in his efforts. It is not one march on Selma – it’s three. The first ends in violent resistance from the police. The second time it’s halted is due to a more surprising manner of resistance. The third is history. The filmmakers also tackle the Kings marital status, including Dr. King’s infidelities.

His political skills are shown as well and they are often as powerful as his oratory abilities. The scenes with King and LBJ have been challenged by some for inaccuracy, but this is not a documentary and I won’t judge it as such. My only drawback to these sequences are Wilkinson, a fine actor that’s simply not the right choice for the 36th POTUS.

The flaws don’t stop there. The complex relationship between King and Malcolm X is touched upon so briefly that it begs for further fleshing out. Adding familiar faces like Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding Jr. for cameos threaten to take you out of the story than involve you more.

Where it delivers is its willingness to tell this important story as a real one. A human one. King is a great man, but is written as experiencing the doubts and insecurities that he must have had. Oyelowo nails the role and he excels at embodying MLK’s mannerisms and spirit.

Selma tells the story of imperfect men fighting for a more perfect union. The film is imperfect as well but it’s worthy of its important subject matter that might have occurred a half century ago, but still resonates on many levels today.

*** (out of four)

Lee Daniels’ The Butler Movie Review

Lee Daniels’ The Butler has moments of genuine power and insight dealing with our nation’s civil rights history over the past near century. Spanning over 80 years in time, The Butler takes us from the picture’s central character working in the cotton fields of Georgia as a young boy to sitting in the White House as an old man waiting to meet with the first African-American President of the United States. In between those times, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) becomes quite familiar with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, working as a butler from the Eisenhower administration through the Reagan administration.

The film is loosely based on true events and The Butler shifts its time between Cecil’s work experience and family life. For the work portion, we get a journey through several decades of political history from desegregation to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to Vietnam to the South African apartheid movement. In many cases, these events coincide with Cecil’s family as his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) gets very politically involved in civil rights issues. The irony is not lost on the audience – his father works in the center of the  U.S. government but has an occupation where being seen and not heard is the rule. Oprah Winfrey is Cecil’s wife Gloria, a well-rounded character full of imperfections but also an enduring devotion to her husband.

The Butler is really centralized on the complicated relationship between Cecil and David. It is their dynamic that provide the picture’s best moments, as well as several between Cecil and Gloria. When screenwriter Danny Strong focuses his concentration on their storylines, the film is effective and often emotionally satisfying.

It’s the scenes in the White House that often fall far short of satisfying. For starters, director Daniels’ decision to cast recognizable actors as the Presidents backfires. Much of this is due to casting. We have Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Live Schrieber as LBJ, John Cusack as Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Reagan. None of them make much of an impression and most aren’t given enough screen time to make one anyway. Their casting serves as a distraction more than anything else and we feel like we’re watching the actor, not the POTUS character they’re playing. The same cannot be said for Winfrey, who is outstanding. She reminds us that she probably would’ve had a great movie career over the last couple of decades if not for that whole building a billion dollar multimedia empire thing.

Even with casting quibbles set aside, where The Butler sometimes fails is in its journey through history that could often be described as “cliffs notes”. There simply isn’t the proper time to give these important political issues any real fleshing out. Some of these scenes showing the struggle of the civil rights movement, especially those involving Louis, are powerful. And we do get involved with the characters of Gaines family and we can thank some excellent acting from Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo a lot for that.

The Butler‘s finest moments are mixed with a lot of disappointing ones, including some unfortunate casting choices and its uneven and too episodic screenplay. It’s the writing of the Gaines family in several scenes and the first-rate performances of the actors playing them that helps out a lot.

*** (out of four)

This Day in Movie History: January 2

This day in Movie History – January 2 – Peter Jackson’s final installment in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, would top the box office for the third weekend in a row, grossing over $28 million. This gave it $290M in just three weeks and it would end its domestic run at $377M, out grossing its two predecessors. King would go on to win Best Picture and Director at the Oscars. And the more things change, the more they stay the same. Exactly a decade later, the director’s second Tolkien trilogy The Hobbit is scoring similar feats. The second installment in the series The Desolation of Smaug is currently #1 for its third weekend, though its taken in approximately $100 million less in the same time frame as King did.

As for birthdays, Tia Carrere turns 47 today. You may remember her best as Mike Myers’ love interest in 1992’s Wayne’s World and its sequel the following year. Her exposure from those hits led her to starring alongside such heavy hitters as Sean Connery in 1993’s Rising Sun and Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1994’s True Lies. And then… well she went from Connery and Arnold to Pauly Shore and Jon Lovitz. Her mid 90s filmography included Jury Duty with Shore and High School High with Lovitz. Her movie career never recovered, but she did recently last five weeks on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” (!).

Cuba Gooding Jr. is 46 today. He’s another performer to have hit it big in the 90s and then see his career fizzle. His big break came with 1991’s Boyz N The Hood and that led to roles in A Few Good Men, Judgment Night, and Outbreak. In 1996, Cuba won Supporting Actor at the Oscars for his role as Rod Tidwell in Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire. It looked good for him after that and he appeared in high profile pics including As Good As It Gets, What Dreams May Come, and Men of Honor. By the early 2000s, things had taken a turn for the worse when Gooding starred in bombs including Snow Dogs and Boat Trip. Recently, however, he’s had a decent comeback with supporting roles in movies like American Gangster, Red Tails, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

As for Six Degrees of Separation between the two:

Tia Carrere was in True Lies with Jamie Lee Curtis

Jamie Lee Curtis was in Trading Places with Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy was in Norbit with Cuba Gooding Jr.

And that’s today – January 2 – in Movie History!