The voting period for the Academy Awards is closing soon. As always, I hope that AMPAS members actually take the time to consider a variety of contenders and make informed, interesting decisions instead of just lazily filling in their ballots with whichever names they half-remember from the most aggressive studio campaigns this season. Sometimes this prayer is answered, most of the time it’s not. But on one score I have to concede my sympathy to voters who may be feeling paralyzed with indecision. Like Julie in The Worst Person in the World, the abundance of options presenting themselves are almost terrifying to narrow down and fully commit to… and this year, that’s what they’re dealing with in the category of Best Supporting Actress. It is ridiculous how many excellent supporting performances were delivered by women last year. I can’t readily recall a year in my lifetime that comes even close to 2021 in the sheer number of truly commendable acting from women in secondary roles.
There’s certainly no gainsaying Ariana DeBose’s frontrunner status, even as I admit to no small level of surprise at how quickly she cemented herself as the one-to-beat in a movie that disappointed at the box office and her unenviable position of being inevitably compared to one of the greatest performances ever to win the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in the ceremony’s 94-year history. I… personally don’t think she quite measures up to the bar Rita Moreno set in the original (who is also lovely in her role as Valentina in this version), and in fact, some of her acting choices made me realize for the first time just how oddly-written Anita’s character actually is in West Side Story, but I do appreciate that this is not a settled debate, and her kinetic energy and glowing star presence during the musical numbers are unimpeachable. She’s also been a delight in all of her promotional appearances, including her recent stint hosting Saturday Night Live, and I have no doubt she’ll be similarly wowing us in future performances as a soon-to-be-minted Oscar alumni.
Keep in mind, in the first half of the year, a lot of pundits were predicting a Latina in a movie musical to be the frontrunner for this award, but it wasn’t DeBose. It was 65 year-old Olga Merediz for her celebrated role of Abuela in In the Heights, which she originated from its inception as a Broadway musical. I have made no secret of my lack of enthusiasm for the film itself, but on Merediz, I am in complete agreement with its fans and would argue that her big showcase number is the high point of the whole movie. It’s a shame how quickly she fell off the radar even among critics who were singing her praises just a few months ago.
If Joey Magidson had his way, a different breakout performance would be winning the Best Supporting Actress award. I’ve seen some comments and @-reply tweets from the community grumble that Suzanna Son doesn’t “do” all that much besides playing a winsome nymphet, but consider the difficulty of what she had to pull off in Red Rocket and how easy she made it look. Strawberry masks herself with a precocious affectation that’s just believable enough to put an amoral delusional huckster like Mikey Saber at ease, but Son herself doesn’t just slide into the kind of “more mature for her age” fantasy girl stock character that too many male writer/directors find themselves projecting. But she also has to balance that naïveté with a clear intelligence communicating the agency she still possesses in the face of a dangerous future Mikey is pushing her into. She skillfully balances on this knife’s edge of vulnerability and budding confidence, of desire and hesitation, which is why the ambiguous ending lands so much more effectively here than Sean Baker’s last attempt at one in The Florida Project.
But what’s amazing is, if you made me pick just one supporting performance to hold up from Red Rocket… I would have a hard time settling on her or the equally-impressive Bree Elrod, having to convey her dueling impulses of the attraction she still feels for her destructive husband and unwittingly letting her walls down with him even as her memories and common sense tell her she shouldn’t. The way Baker coaches and balances this ensemble of fully-formed characters, further revealed and complicated by Mikey’s arrival, is one of the reasons the film works as well as it does.
Speaking of supporting characters who fully break out of the stock character traps that lesser movies would have boxed them into, how great is it that Aunjanue Ellis stands a good chance at a nomination for King Richard? Granted, that whole movie commendably avoids a lot of the pitfalls that usually sink a biopic like this. It’s not immediately apparent that this was primarily made as a vehicle to win Will Smith an Oscar (which it totally was), solely in reference to itself; offering a big tent generously showcasing Saniyya Sidney, Jon Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn, and… well, Demi Singleton gets kind of a short shrift as Serena, but I didn’t say the movie was perfect.
But the most memorable figure, playing off of and serving as a necessary grounding force to Smith’s domineering father, is Ellis, who remains an indelible presence whether she’s front-and-center challenging Richard or in the background aiding him in setting the girls up for success. She displays terrific judgment in what her screen partners need to push their performances in new directions, whether it’s dressing down Richard or energetically motivating Serena to keep up her commitment to bettering herself on the court in the face of disappointment. What could be a more evident sign of a truly supporting performance than the generous instincts and emotional intelligence Ellis demonstrates consistently here? And of course, when the spotlight finally is on her in what will undoubtedly be selected as her “Oscar clip,” she nails it.
She’ll likely join Caitríona Balfe in the final five as a similarly beleaguered mother in Belfast, who gave, for my money, the best overall performance of that ensemble. Even when she’s asked to do absurd things like marching her son into the middle of a violent riot in order to teach him a lesson about shoplifting, she still convincingly sells the fraying composure of a woman who so strongly values a sense of security and normalcy needed by children and coming to the sad conclusion that her hometown is no longer able to provide that for hers. I would probably be more generous to the rest of the movie if it displayed similar emotional clarity and focus.
Aaaaand of course I have to cut this piece short before I’m even halfway through the small army of women who deserve the kind of praise and recognition that a single competition slate with only five nomination spots could reasonably encompass. I’ll have to finish this up tomorrow, but rest assured, I will do my absolute best to name all of the worthy performances from actresses in supporting roles from 2021… there are a lot to get through!