OSCAR BREAKDOWN: BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams, DOUBT
If Adams' nomination is any proof, Doubt was THE actor's movie of the year. Adams possesses one of the four acting nominations the film received. Sure, in terms of buzz, Adams was the one who was most vulnerable--particularly since her main competition was co-star Viola Davis. But let's just get this straight: there is nothing not to like about Amy Adams. Ever since the first time I saw her as the sweet, virginal Brenda in the highly-underrated Catch Me If You Can, I knew she was tremendous. From that to her astounding Oscar-nominated performance in Junebug, Adams has built a substantial career in just a few years. Oh, by the way, did I forget to mention the incredible job she did with the unbelievably light material in Enchanted?
Within Doubt, Adams plays Sister James, a woman who even in a nunnery seems overtly pious. She is the one who first makes the rumbling accusation of Father Flynn, only to wish she'd never made it moments later. For Adams, it's not necessarily a tough performance in terms of her range--she has played sweet and weepy before. It's the job she does providing this usually glum film with an unusually bright character. For the first two-thirds of the film, we really see the movie from her point-of-view. Do we follow the light in our hearts that suspends suspicion or do we listen to the logical answers? Her moral imbalance represents our imbalance in the entire Father Flynn whodunit.
Penélope Cruz, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
Was Woody Allen's newest film a real hum-drum, drawn-out piece of filmmaking that didn't really explore anything other than the same themes we've seen over and over again in his films? Well, I certainly think so. But there are certain things that Woody never loses, and that's his gift in dealing with actors. It's true in particular when talking about the Best Supporting Actress category, where he's won it for Dianne Wiest twice and also for Mira Sorvino (forgot about that, didn't you?). This year, it's Penélope Cruz who ends up being the beneficiary of the Woody Factor. Simply appearing in Allen's film assures critical attention, and glory be to those who take their opportunity and run with it; and boy, does Cruz run with it.
Sure, Cruz had a much better, and more stunning performance in another film from 2008, Elegy, but Cruz's work here leaves heads rattled. It's amazing how one film--Volver--has turned Cruz from an American movie dish rag to a very much-respected actress in no time. With Vicky Cristina, Cruz embodies one of the usual Woody female archetypes: the woman so far off balance mentally that men can't help but fall in love with her. Cruz's Maria Elena is funny, suicidal, homicidal, and at her best sexy. Never really knowing what she's after, Maria Elena seems to only attract one thing consistently and that's chaos and mental torment. Cruz surely lives up to a "fiery Latina" stereotype, but not without first giving the character a soul and a vibrancy few other actresses could have pulled off.
Viola Davis, DOUBT
I think most everybody knew that Viola would end up here for some time--at least I did. Supporting acting categories are interesting, because it is completely relative from case to case what is "supporting" and what is a lead. Davis' co-star, Amy Adams, was nominated in this category as well, despite spending a good percentage of her time on screen battling for a lead role. Where as, with Viola Davis, she's only given a handful of minutes and scenes to accomplish what she needs--and she hits a home run. Playing the son of the possibly molested boy, Mrs. Miller, Viola Davis is a complete powder-keg of emotion, grasping every line, sniffle, and snot bubble till it creates what is probably the greatest single-scene performance of 2008.
Outside of her stage work, Davis is not really a star, even if she does work frequently, but this role may change that. Despite it's Tony-winning pedigree, Doubt really stays in one solid direction in terms of its storytelling, that is, until Mrs. Miller emerges. When Sr. Aloyious (Meryl Streep) takes her to have a talk, only a sane person would conclude that La Streep would wipe the floor with a lightweight such as Davis, but not so. Not only does Davis steal the scene that she's in, it's almost as if Streep isn't even there. Streep, herself, will tell you that that is high praise indeed. It's a tough role to pull off, surely, but Davis does it so naturally, never going too haywire on the waterworks, and always allowing the emotions of the scene as a whole take center stage.
Taraji P. Henson, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
There are few things in Benjamin Button that aren't chilly and distant. The film itself is an exercise in alienating its audience with a story that is preposterous for the sake of being preposterous. Only one member of the film's cast was able to break through the movie's hard cast shell, and that was Henson. Henson, known before mostly for her impressive work in the film Hustle & Flow, is known mostly for her incredible blend of heart and soul. Of coarse, there are moments when her Benjamin Button character--a New Orleans rest home attendant--falls into parody, but since its all in the name of humor, it doesn't come off as offensive.
Benjamin Button's warmest moments are when Henson is on the screen. Playing Queenie, the woman who finds and raises Benjamin, she fully embraces the role of the film's source of wisdom, while also being the only character that makes sense of the film's "life and death doesn't matter when you live" premise. There are a lot of things that happen in Benjamin Button that is unearned--that "Fate" sequence?; old Cate Blanchett?--but for sure, Henson earns every minute that she's on the screen. She doesn't earn her sincerity cheaply, through plot and script contrivance, but by doing something that few others in that cast were able to do: play into the subtle aspects of their character.
Marisa Tomei, THE WRESTLER
Its hardly difficult to remember the few years after Marisa Tomei won an Academy Award for her memorable, but low-brow role in My Cousin Vinny. She had gotten the curse. You know the one: where young beautiful actresses are thrown Oscars at an incredibly impressionable age, and they are not able to really build a consistent career after that. Geena Davis, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mira Sorvino and more recently Jennifer Hudson* are all trying to recover from this curse. Of coarse, Tomei didn't truly break the curse until 2001, nine years after her win, when she had the heart-breaking role in the film In The Bedroom. It won her a nomination, and she was no longer just a wasted Oscar win, but a substantial acting force.
Now, at forty-four, I don't think anybody really questions Tomei's ability as an actress, and now she has just received her third Oscar nomination. Some can say that her performance in The Wrestler is the best work of her career--I certainly would--but that is not exactly what sticks out about the role. Put back to back with her equally lusty role in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead last year, Tomei has turned herself in the most transparent actresses out now. Few actresses put themselves in such vulnerable positions and are still able to perform so brilliantly (to name a couple, Kate Winslet and Julianne Moore are masters at this). Across from a career-topping performance from Mickey Rourke, Tomei compliments him perfectly and gives The Wrestler a much-needed heart.