Oscars Lowdown 2014: Best Supporting Actress – Nyong’o vs. Lawrence in a tale of two ingenues

02.24.14 4 years ago 34 Comments

In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!

Of all the acting categories, Best Supporting Actress is generally regarded as the most accommodating to bright young things — and following on from last year’s Anne Hathaway cakewalk, this year’s race isn’t doing much to change that perception. Two glamorous twentysomethings are slugging it out for the Oscar in a contest that has seen some interesting shifts in momentum (not the least of which saw a once-hyped “frontrunner” omitted at the nomination stage), but the twist is that they’re hardly at equivalent stages in their careers. Is the Academy looking to add further glitter to a reigning champ’s tiara, or crown a new princess entirely?

The nominees are…

Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”
It seemed to be that Sally Hawkins was being underestimated by pundits all the way up to nomination day — there’s a long history of actresses being recognized for Woody Allen films, and the likable Brit’s warm, weathered work as the title character’s long-suffering sister was just the performance to continue that tradition. Perhaps Cate Blanchett’s leading turn was so dazzling that her co-stars receded a little by comparison for some awards-watchers (and SAG voters), but not for BAFTA and the Golden Globes, who gave her campaign a perfectly timed boost. Hawkins, meanwhile, held a hefty IOU from the Academy, who omitted her delightful work in “Happy-Go-Lucky” from the 2008 Best Actress llneup despite a Globe and a sweep of the major critics’ awards. So this is some sweet payback for the actress, even if she has scant chance of victory.

Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
Only five actors (most recently, Tom Hanks in 1993-4) have won consecutive Oscars; no one, meanwhile, has ever managed to do so across lead and supporting categories. If anyone can, however, it’s the industry’s new, 23-year-old golden girl Lawrence, who followed up last year’s firecracker turn in David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” with a comic performance of a different hue in Russell’s “American Hustle.” As a neglected New Jersey trophy wife, she channels the manic farcical energy of a Carole Lombard before turning on a dime to desolate dramatic victim-or-manipulator in the film’s latter stages. As grandly entertaining as her “science oven” routine is, it’s the transition from that energy to her her tear-streaked act of lunchtime betrayal that should turn voters’ heads. To a large extent, it has: beginning the season with a New York critics’ win, she’s since added the Globe and, unexpectedly, a BAFTA — the latter two a combination that recently worked out well for Meryl Streep and Christoph Waltz, even without SAG wins.

Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
The woman who beat Lawrence to the SAG Award, of course, was an even fresher (albeit slightly older) ingenue: 29-year-old Kenyan debutante Nyong’o, whose shattering turn as Michael Fassbender’s slave and reluctant mistress Patsey in the Best Picture heavyweight has also earned her the lion’s share of critics’ awards, including wins from the Los Angeles, Boston and London circles. It’s a performance strong enough to represent itself in the race, but Nyong’o has also been an energetic and beguiling campaigner, winning an admiring following with her eloquent acceptance speeches, warm interviews and striking fashion sense. Meanwhile, with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender both having run low-key campaigns due to filming commitments, Nyong’o has been “Slave’s” most visible cast member on the circuit, as well as its best shot at an acting win.

Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”
The second of two former winners in this category was last in the Oscar race when Jennifer Lawrence was in the fourth grade. Back then, she was a runaway train for “Erin Brockovich”; this time, she’s very much an also-ran. That’s no slight on her ferocious turn as queen-bee daughter Barb in the all-star filmization of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning play, which is among the most flavorful and surprising of her career. Indeed, it’s the one performance here that’s blatantly in the wrong category: she’s more than a match for Meryl Streep in a co-lead role that was classified as such at the Tonys. But “August,” once predicted as a heavyweight Oscar contender, was scuppered by John Wells’ tepid direction and critics’ accordingly tepid reviews; a pair of acting nominees are all that remain of its Oscar dreams, and both are probably running fifth in their category.

June Squibb, “Nebraska”
Any voters who feel that the category’s two frontrunners are too wet behind the ears to merit consideration have a feisty alternative in June Squibb, the 84-year-old character actress (and first-time nominee) whose salty-tongued turn as a loving but unapologetically candid matriarch is certainly the liveliest in Alexander Payne’s otherwise mellow, melancholy Best Picture nominee. It’s a performance that divides viewers: some are thoroughly tickled by her crotch-flashing antics, others find the broad a bit too, well, broad. But most would agree that she’s been a thoroughly good sport on the campaign trail, charming in interviews and hilarious in a self=deprecating Jimmy Kimmel Live skit that went viral last week — handy timing for any undecided voters. It probably won’t be enough, but she’s given it her all.

Will win: Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
Could win: Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
Should win: Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
Should have been here: Kristin Scott Thomas, “Only God Forgives”

This is the acting category where I’ve had the hardest time deciding on both my “will win” and “should win” choices. It’s appropriate that it’s still a competitive race, since it remained in flux throughout the season. Early on, many pundits rather rashly declared Oprah Winfrey the one to beat. She’s the most prominent absentee, but hardly, for my money, the most deserving: how I wish Mickey Sumner (“Frances Ha”), Joanna Scanlan (“The Invisible Woman”), Amy Adams (“Her”), Scarlett Johansson (“Don Jon”) and the redoubtable Kristin Scott Thomas had been in the conversation to begin with.

Who do you think deserves to win Best Supporting Actress this year? Vote in our poll below.

How do you think this race will pan out? And which contender do you wish were here? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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