The Academy did a nice job with its nominations in preparation for the 89th awards presentation Feb. 26. The Oscars have the African American representation it lacked over the past two years with Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Fences; Mel Gibson’s return to prominence and Meryl Streep … again. But if you look hard enough, there’s always room to nitpick.
This year’s head scratchers came in acting categories in battles between stars in the same movies. A few times I left the theater thinking ‘Wow, he/she will definitely get a nomination.’ Then the nominees came out, and they were left off the list while their co-stars gained the glory.
The most egregious mistake of this kind came during the 85th Academy Awards when Christoph Waltz earned not just a nomination, but the win for best supporting actor for his performance in Django Unchained. Waltz is a great actor, who put forth one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen in Inglourious Basterds, but he was easily the third best actor in Django Unchained behind Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. DiCaprio has a scene where glass breaks in his hand for real and he continues the scene without missing a beat. But no nomination. No Academy Award. DiCaprio would later find out the lengths he needed to go to for his first win when he fought a bear and was stranded in the wilderness in The Revenant. The thing is … he should have already had a golden statue.
How does this happen? Let’s take a look at two of the Academy’s mistakes in 2017.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Jeff Bridges vs. Ben Foster — Hell or High Water
I never understood why people thought Ben Foster was a good actor. Then again, I had only seen him in movies where he didn’t have an opportunity to shine, such as X-Men: The Last Stand, Contraband and Warcraft: The Beginning. That all changed when I saw Hell or High Water. What a great performance as the crazy but loving brother who often went over the top during bank robberies. He gave the character depth by balancing the insanity with unconditional love for his brother. Foster put me on edge, while also making me worried about his fate. He feels like a real person, and he drives the movie as the most engaging character.
However, the Oscar nomination went to Jeff Bridges in the best supporting actor category. He had a great performance as a Texas Ranger trying to hunt down the bank-robbing brothers, portrayed by Foster and Chris Pine, but it was nothing new. He basically played Rooster Cogburn in True Grit again, which he earned a nomination for in 2011. I don’t have a complaint about the performance even though Bridges’ past roles influenced this one, but when stacked up against Foster in the same movie, the nominee is clear. Not sure how the Academy missed it.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Octavia Spencer vs. Janelle Monae — Hidden Figures
Janelle Monae brought the personality to Hidden Figures, and shined brightest in a film that earned the Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble cast. Taraji P. Henson also had a great performance in the leading role, but Monae clearly stole the show. Her chemistry with her co-stars was on point, and she gave the movie a perfect change of pace from the main story. Her subplot worked because she made you care about her. I found Monae’s story much more engaging than Octavia Spencer’s because of what Monae brought to the table.
Spencer gave at most the third best performance in the film, but come Oscar night her name will be called alongside the other nominees for best supporting actress. There wasn’t much that pulled me in to her character. It was a good performance, but worthy of an Oscar nomination? Not a chance. At least I thought. It just seemed like she was there and not bringing the character to the next level. Not doing anything fancy. Just staying in the pocket. I love subtle acting, but there’s a difference between subtle and just playing a role in your wheelhouse. The difference is engagement. I’m not looking for flashy. I’m looking for real. Monae seemed real. Spencer seemed like a capable actress who played a necessary but unmemorable character.
I’m not trying to bash Spencer. I just feel Monae’s year deserves some recognition, as she also played a supporting role in the Oscar nominated Moonlight, where she served as a believable motherly figure. I could have believed the actors in the film were her real-life sons. And yes I said actors because what’s more incredible is two actors played the same character just different ages as the character grew up and she didn’t miss a beat. The chemistry was remarkable. But I digress.
THE BOTTOM LINE: I realize it’s hard to compare performances by actors or actresses in different movies across different genres, but there’s no excuse to miss something that’s staring you right in the face.