Remember when Michelle Williams seemed to be a shoo-in for best supporting actress? Her performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s tragic drama “Manchester by the Sea” won the New York Film Critics Circle, which honored Williams for her small but mighty role.
That was just a month ago, but the final weeks of Oscar season have their own laws of relativity. Now the best supporting actress statue seems to be “Fences” star Viola Davis’ to lose, followed by Octavia Spencer of “Hidden Figures.”
Here’s how I see the breakdown of the race, by nominee.
Williams might have stayed the Oscar frontrunner if Paramount hadn’t placed “Fences” Tony-winner Viola Davis in the Supporting Actress race instead of the more crowded Best Actress field. She kills it, and gives Williams serious competition. Both landed Critics Choice, Globe, SAG, and BAFTA Award nominations, and Davis took home the Critics Choice, Golden Globe, and SAG Awards. (The BAFTAs are Sunday.)
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Anyone who has seen the August Wilson play (which won Tonys in 2010 for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor for Washington and Best Actress for Davis) knows that the popular “How to Get Away with Murder” star, who has been Oscar-nominated twice (“Doubt,” “The Help”) more than stands up to Washington’s unhappy, angry husband.
At a Guild screening of “Fences,” Davis said that Washington told her two things on set: “Don’t forget the love” and “Trust me.” Said Davis, “And we did,” insisting that the truism of toning things down in front of the camera didn’t apply here. During rehearsals, she and Washington discovered authenticity was key for these characters they already knew so well. He told her to go big and she did, letting him have it when he tells his wife of 18 years that he has been unfaithful. “When the stakes are that high, it’s not small anymore,” she said. “Tragedies are high stakes.”
“There’s no such thing as film acting,” Washington responded. “The truth is the truth. You have to be honest. The camera will catch you lying.”
Davis has huge respect from the Actors Branch (and scored the most applause at the Academy Nominees Lunch) and had a shot at winning Best Actress for her explosive performance in “Fences.” But she opted to make this choice — partly so she wouldn’t have to campaign so hard.
But Davis has more competition now, from the late-breaking and popular “Hidden Figures,” which emerged with an ensemble win at the National Board of Review and SAG. While Taraji P. Henson couldn’t break into the most intense Best Actress race in years, Octavia Spencer did land her second Supporting Actress slot for her role as a gifted NASA mathematician.
Alongside the incredible stories of Katherine Johnson (Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Spencer shines as self-made woman Dorothy Vaughan, who defied expectations and limitations. She figures out that IBM computers will need support and outsmarts the men who don’t know how to use them. “Because I’d never heard the story, I assumed that it was historical fiction,” she told IndieWire in December. Then she found out the story was true, “which made me want to do it even more. How often do we get to be a part of original stories in our industry?”
Spencer nabbed both Globe and SAG nominations. Aspirational crowd-pleaser “Hidden Figures” is coming on strong as a box-office breakout ($120 million domestic so far) with momentum heading into Oscar voting. With only three nominations (Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Supporting Actress), voters may want to give this surging contender a win. But if Spencer hadn’t already beat her “The Help” costar Davis for the Oscar in 2011, she’d have a better shot at overtaking her now.
The actress spent time in Manchester researching her look and sound and the male-female dynamics of the place. “It is so hard to find a good part,” Williams told me. “When you do find a great part and great writing, the task is not difficult, not arduous, it’s just hard to live up to being as good as the part is.”
As soon as she started working on the movie, Williams obsessed on the scene that sets grown men sobbing when Randi (Williams) attempts a reconciliation with her ex-husband Lee (Casey Affleck). She’d stand in grocery lines mulling over the encounter, which didn’t shoot until the end of filming. The scene seems simple enough: back in Manchester after his brother’s funeral, the estranged couple runs into each other on the sidewalk. She wants Lee to get together with her for a talk. He says he can’t.
“A friend said to me once about acting, ‘If you do something really truthfully, it doesn’t matter what it is, it’s going to be interesting,’” said Lonergan. “And I believe that that’s true. I found a long time ago that real life — as best I can transcribe it — the details are always richer than leaving them out.” Lonergan was pleased with the end result: “I love watching it. It’s painful to watch, but I love it. It’s very satisfying.”
Scoring with critics and audiences in Toronto was Nicole Kidman as Dev Patel’s adoptive Australian mother in “Lion.” When director Garth Davis met with her real-life character Sue Brierley, he kept seeing Kidman. It turned out she had already read the script and was eager to meet him. “When I caught up with her in New York,” he told IndieWire, “she understood adoption, and could relate to what Sue had been through.” He told Kidman of her character, “You’re a dag.” (Not stylish, out of fashion, not cool.)
Kidman believed that Davis would “elevate it into a cinematic experience,” she said. “He’s all heart. He’s not cynical, not sentimental, just very pure. He’s radiant, that’s what this film needed, a radiance.”
After Kidman met with Brierley, the actress transformed herself into a suburban housewife, putting on an altered physicality and accent like an old sweater. She understood Sue: “These women are quiet, they don’t complain, don’t speak out, they’re not overly affectionate. They just get on with it, keep the family strong and together and survive.”
Kidman, who won the Oscar for “The Hours” in 2003, scored her fourth Oscar nomination, along with Critics Choice, Globe and SAG nods.
Breaking out at the fall festivals was National Board of Review winner Naomie Harris as the crack-addict mother in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.” The British actress scored raves for not playing into cliches with her sympathetic performance.
Although the classically trained actress did a two-film turn as James Bond’s right-hand gal Moneypenny as well as a recurring role in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise and a lauded performance as Winnie Mandela in the 2013 biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” there were certain things Harris just wouldn’t do — and that included playing a crack addict.
“Moonlight” writer-director Barry Jenkins put her fears to rest, telling her: “The reality is that this is my mom’s story. This is Tyrell’s mom’s story. Do we just pretend that this didn’t happen? Do we ignore huge swathes of society that are suffering from addiction? We have to tell their story and to tell it compassionately and truthfully.”
Finally, Harris agreed to find the reality and truth at the heart of the role. And landed her first Critics Choice, Globe, SAG and Oscar nominations.
IndieWire’s Kate Erbland contributed to this article.
1. Viola Davis (“Fences”)
2. Octavia Spencer (“Hidden Figures”)
3. Michelle Williams (“Manchester By the Sea”)
4. Nicole Kidman (“Lion”)
5. Naomie Harris (“Moonlight”)