With the Oscar nominations out, and the SAGs and Golden Globes a few weeks in the past, we’re entering something of a quiet phase in awards season, with the Academy not even due to begin voting for a few weeks yet. So it seems like a good time to look back.
The acting nominees are a diverse bunch this year, ranging from first-time actors to people who’ve been nominated many, many times. But in few cases did their awards-nominated performance prove to be the first time that they turned heads. So, as we creep towards the Oscar ceremony (a little more than a month to go, kids), we wanted to pick out some of the turns that, while they went unrewarded at the time, help pave the way to the Dolby Theater for all these actors. This week, we’re taking a look at the Supporting categories, next week we’ll examine Best Actor and Actress.
Bradley Cooper – “Kitchen Confidential” (2005)
It took Bradley Cooper a little time to break away, in the public perception, from the smarmy persona from which he became known in “Wedding Crashers,” and then brought to a bigger audience with “The Hangover” — the winning texture of last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” or the wired character turn of his nominated performance in “American Hustle” this time around, both showed new sides to his talent. But not entirely new, as anyone who saw the very short-lived 2005 Fox series “Kitchen Confidential” knows. A (very) loose adaptation of Anthony Bourdain‘s seminal culinary memoirs, from “Sex & The City” creator Darren Star, it saw Cooper, soon after leaving “Alias,” play the Bourdain surrogate Jack, a chef with a bad-boy reputation now recovering from addiction, who’s given the opportunity to run a top-flight restaurant. The show itself (which also starred Frank Langella, John Francis Daley, Nicholas Brendon, Jaime King and John Cho) is decent, and could have grown into something more confident, though it’s pretty uneven in the thirteen episodes that aired, caught between the bawdiness of its source material and the demands of a network TV sitcom. But Cooper’s very strong in the lead role, displaying comic chops, legitimate charm, and even some real pain that he’d undoubtedly have made more of if it was a cable show (as you suspect everyone involved, including the audience, seem to wish it was). The series was cancelled after only four episodes, but you can’t imagine that Cooper, a two-time Oscar nominee less than ten years on, has many regrets…
Michael Fassbender – “The Devil’s Whore” (2008)
The Irish-German star’s first nomination has been a while coming — many thought he was robbed of a nod two years ago for “Shame,” and he’s been acting for over a decade. Indeed, there’s so much unsung Fassbender out there that we recently ran a piece on five of his lesser-known early features. As such, we thought we’d shy away from the likes of “Hunger” and “Fish Tank,” which you’ve hopefully heard more than enough about, and focus on a small-screen role that came along just before he started to really make his name. The four-part English Civil War miniseries “The Devil’s Whore” (known, disappointingly, as “The Devil’s Mistress” in the U.S), from “Our Friends In The North” writer Peter Flannery, tells the story of the conflict through the eyes of the fictional Angelica Fanshawe, played by Andrea Riseborough, who heads up a superb cast that also includes Dominic West, John Simm and Peter Capaldi. Fassbender doesn’t have the showiest of the roles — he plays Thomas Rainsborough, an MP and senior figure among the Levellers, who romances Riseborough’s character before being killed by West’s Oliver Cromwell — but he’s attention-grabbing in the role, with a dashing charm and malevolent glint that’s reminiscent of Errol Flynn. With “Hunger” and “Inglourious Basterds” following on the year later, Fassbender would start edging towards being the household name he deserved to be.
Jonah Hill – “Cyrus” (2010)
Given that he built his career on dick jokes, there’ll always be some who are pissy that Jonah Hill has not one, but two Oscar nominations. But that overlooks not just how good his work is in the films that won him nods, “Moneyball” and “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” but also the one that paved the way towards them, Jay and Mark Duplass‘ woefully undervalued 2010 film “Cyrus.” Hill plays the title character, the aspring-musician son of Marisa Tomei‘s Molly, who doesn’t take kindly to her new relationship with John C. Reilly‘s John, the first time he’s had to see his mother with another man. It’s got the kind of high-concept premise of the sort of movie that Hill had been making before, but for all the comic highs, the performers, not least Hill, are committed to finding the underlying truth of the idea. Cyrus is a little weird — antisocial, uncomfortably close to his mom, with a offbeat, discombobulating rhythm — but Hill can capture both the darkness and the empathy of the character, letting you see why he is the way he is, and even feel for him a little. In fact, the movie’s conclusion probably remains the most heartbreaking and powerful piece of acting of Hill’s career. The film was too minor-key to get much awards attention, but a nomination pre-“Moneyball” wouldn’t have been undeserved at all.
Jared Leto – “Panic Room” (2002)
Perhaps because he’s been less than prolific of late, focusing on terrible emo band 30 Seconds To Mars rather than acting (he’s only made five films in the last decade, most of which were barely seen), it’s easy to underrate Jared Leto as an actor. But from his breakthrough as Jordan Catalano in “My So-Called Life” to Andrew Niccol‘s “Lord Of War” by way of “Prefontaine” and “Fight Club,” Leto has consistently impressed on screen. We could have picked a number of his performances here, but if we assume that his very strong turn in Terrence Malick‘s “The Thin Red Line” and hugely powerful work in Darren Aronofsky‘s “Requiem For A Dream” are among his better known turns, we wanted to shine a light on a performance that’s easy to overlook — as Junior, one of the trio of burglars in David Fincher‘s “Panic Room.” The entitled, douchey, cornrowed grandson of the former owner of the house that Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart have just moved into, Leto manages to do give a lot of texture to a character who could have just been an out-and-out villain. In particular, he’s great at something that a lot of actors shy away from: playing weakness, not being afraid to make Junior the wanna-be-alpha omega among the trio of housebreakers. When he exits the movie halfway through, the thriller never quite feels the same.
Sally Hawkins – “An Education” (2009) and “Never Let Me Go” (2010)
Nearly five years on, the Academy finally corrected one of their most egregious errors in the last few years by giving Sally Hawkins her first nomination, for “Blue Jasmine,” after she missed out for Mike Leigh‘s “Happy-Go-Lucky” back in 2009 (she’s one of only a handful of actresses to win a Golden Globe without being nominated for an Oscar). But the Leigh film would be rather an obvious pick here, especially for an actress who’s pretty much fantastic in everything she does. So instead, we’ve gone for a pair of, essentially, cameos in two British films that prove that, even when she has only a few minutes of screen time, Hawkins can make an indelible impression. She only turns up in “An Education” in the closing minutes of Lone Scherfig‘s film, as the heretofore-unrevealed wife of Peter Sarsgaard‘s character, and her quiet fury at Carey Mulligan‘s Jenny induces more coming-of-age in the character than in the rest of the movie put together. She’s a little more present in Mark Romanek‘s “Never Let Me Go,” in which she plays the conscience-stricken teacher who tells young Kathy, Tommy and Ruth that they’re clones designed for the sole purpose of organ donation. It’s a rare early glimpse of the outside world in a film that’s mostly contained and chilly, and though she has only a handful of scenes, Hawkins’ performance resonates through the rest of the movie.
Jennifer Lawrence – “X-Men First Class” (2011)
It’s a measure of the extraordinary talents of Jennifer Lawrence that, at the age of 23, even aside from the three movies that she’s been Oscar-nominated for, even aside from “The Hunger Games” series, and even aside from “The Burning Plain” (about which we wrote in a similar feature last year), there’s still a number of roles that were contenders here. She’s very strong in the otherwise dodgy horror film “The House At The End Of The Street,” and shines with thankless characters in Jodie Foster‘s “The Beaver” and Drake Doremus‘ “Like Crazy.” But it’s actually her non-Katniss foray into blockbuster fare that we wanted to focus on here. “X-Men First Class” is by no way shape or means a good movie (except perhaps in comparison to some of the other latter-day X-movies), but it is held up by the performances of its leads, with James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender (albeit hampered by a wonky accent) and Nicholas Hoult all doing strong work. But Lawrence might be the best of the three. Despite being hampered for much of the film by a heavy prosthetic make-up job, Lawrence does more to build a fully-dimensional character here than Rebecca Romijn did in three previous movies as the older version of the character: her Raven/Mystique is a sweet, lost kid with a sexuality that’s about ready to explode, and a darkness inside her that Fassbender’s Magneto gradually starts to exploit. For all its flaws, Lawrence brings a humanity to the movie that’s rare for the genre, and while sequel “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” looks like a hot mess, we’ll be checking it out just to see her reprise this role.
Julia Roberts – “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (1997)
Given that romantic comedy was her bread-and-butter for so many years, it’s not entirely surprising that it was only with inspirational biopic “Erin Brockovich” that Julia Roberts won an Oscar (though she was nominated for “Steel Magnolias” and “Pretty Woman“) — romantic comedy hasn’t been an Academy favorite since “Annie Hall.” But it also means that some of the actress’s best, most effortless work has gone unrecognized, not least “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” which even above “Pretty Woman,” might be her finest achievement in the genre. Coming off a run of flops, this returned Roberts to her comfort zone — except, that in some ways, it didn’t. Sure, Roberts is charming and displays impeccable comic timing (Lucille Ball is namechecked at one point, and it’s not an unfair comparison), but her character, Julianne, is a darker sort. Sure, she’s trying to win over the man of her dreams, but she’s doing it through manipulation, and by attempting to wreck another relationship. It’s a delicate balancing act to pull off, but Roberts walks that tightrope like she’s been doing it forever — you’re a little appalled by Julianne’s behavior, but she’s so likable and charismatic that you’re sort of rooting for her nevertheless. Sadly, the romantic comedy has become so bowdlerized as a genre that she’s rarely had a part of this quality in subsequent ventures, but it’s a deceptively brilliant performance nevertheless.
June Squibb – “Getting On” (2013)
Even among the first-time actors in the supporting category, June Squibb is something of an outlier: she was a successful stage actress, without every appearing on screen, for thirty years. Even when she finally made her movie debut, aged 61 (as the assistant/nanny of the title character in Woody Allen‘s 1990 film “Alice“), it was in a small role, and while she’s racked up impressive credits — “The Age Of Innocence,” “Scent Of A Woman,” “In & Out,” “Far From Heaven” — they were pretty much day-player parts, with only a handful of lines, and not much chance to make an impression. Even in her earlier film with Alexander Payne, “About Schmidt,” she’s only in the movie for a few minutes before she pops her clogs. TV parts have been more substantial though (she played Larry David‘s real mother in “Curb Your Enthusiasm“), and there look to be more of those to come post-“Nebraska” as she’ll play Lena Dunham‘s grandmother in an upcoming episode of “Girls.” But the one we cherish (and, we’d argue, a performance better than the one she’s Oscar-nominated for) is the one in the second episode of underwatched HBO nursing comedy “Getting On.” It’s in the same kind of vein as the “Nebraska” turn, in that she’s a filter-free elderly person, but even more so: her character, Varla, a particularly difficult head-injury patient, is racist, homophobic, insists on smoking in the hospital, and makes passes at male patients before hissing “fuck you!” at them when they fail to respond. It’s a gloriously funny and vanity-free performance (throwing up on herself like she’s in “The Exorcist“), and awards worthy in and of itself.
Lupita Nyong’o & Barkhad Abdi – “12 Years A Slave” & “Captain Phillips” (2013)
Though their performances are wildly different, Lupita Nyong’o and Barkhad Abdi have one thing in common: their nominated turns, in “12 Years A Slave” and “Captain Phillips,” are their first-ever pieces of screen acting. Nyong’o is a Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised Yale grad, who’ll next be seen in Liam Neeson actioner “Non-Stop,” while the Somalian-born, Minneapolis-based Abdi had been working as a chaffeur until he landed the role in Paul Greengrass’ film. As such, they’re not terribly good fit for this particular feature. But it’s always worth shining a light on their current performances, given that Nyong’o is a wrenching force of nature as despairing slave Patsey, while Abdi is by turns terrifying and empathetic as the young leader of the pirates who take the Maersk Alabama. Regardless of whether they win on Oscar night, they’ll hopefully have many more performances to come.
Check back next week for the underrated performances of the Best Actor and Best Actress nominees, and let us know your thoughts on these choices below.