Yesterday, I described how overwhelming the Best Supporting Actress competition feels right now, and how nearly unprecedented 2021 was in terms of the sheer volume of performances worthy of recognition we were graced with. As the deadline for completed Academy Award ballots closes in just a few hours, there are still plenty of exceptional women to talk about, so let’s get to it!
I left off on a bit of a “theme” last time, singling out Caitríona Balfe and especially Aunjanue Ellis going above and beyond their Supportive Mom characters, but there were quite a few memorable mothers last year. Remember Shiva Baby, a.k.a. The Most Uncomfortable Movie of 2021? And how Polly Draper’s hilariously abrasive Debbie affectingly revealed a maternal warmth and understanding just when you expect her to reach the end of her rope with Danielle? The only other mother who comes close to matching that prickly, darkly-funny impression is Vera Farmiga’s spot-on recalling of the late Nancy Marchand’s iconic callous matriarch Livia Soprano in the otherwise musty fanservice prequel The Many Saints of Newark. On the other side, Gaby Hoffmann is about as opposite a mom as one can imagine in C’mon C’mon, nearly overwhelmed with the empathy she feels obligated to give yet hesitant to receive. On top of being so touching in conveying the toll of her emotional labor, Hoffmann also establishes a rapport with Joaquin Phoenix that wholly sells you on a fraught but still loving sibling relationship within seconds of them reuniting. And of course, if we’re talking about motherhood in 2021 movies, we can’t leave off The Lost Daughter, where Olivia Colman looks poised to score another Best Lead Actress nomination but, frustratingly, Jessie Buckley less so for Best Supporting Actress, despite expertly shading in characteristics of the older version of Leda we spend most of our time with, while also displaying her own unique complexities in the relatively short time we spend with her in the past.
Speaking of which, we’ve got a surplus of very short, sometimes just one-or-two scene powerhouses as well. Like Kathryn Hunter, who thankfully still has some legs in the conversation due to a surprising but welcome Best Supporting Actress win from the New York Film Critics Circle for The Tragedy of Macbeth. In just seven minutes of screentime, her uncanny, creepy, distinctive portrayal of The Witches will be cited as the definitive take on those characters. I am confident of this, whether or not she ends up Oscar-nominated.
Not short enough for you? Observe the range of intense emotions Myriem Akheddiou shifts through in the one full scene she has in Titane – her boiling anger at the duplicity of this mutating interloper hardening itself into a sort of weary sympathy, as if finally accepting her ex-husband’s unsalvageable self-deception. Or how about Harriet Sansom Harris in Licorice Pizza? Look, I’m about as big a fan of Bradley Cooper as anyone you’ll read here, but there’s something awfully disheartening about a big-name movie star like him standing a good chance of coasting to a Best Supporting Actor nomination for a kinda funny but not very surprising impression of the infamous producer Jon Peters. Meanwhile, Harris is exactly the kind of performer these Oscars were created to recognize and leaves a funnier impression with a wider range of jarring expressions and comic energy that bounces off Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim far more effectively. And she does this in just. One. Scene.
I can’t even bring myself to gripe about the major contenders I didn’t care for, like Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog. Dunst has been passed over so many times in such an esteemed career, that at this point I don’t even care that I didn’t really buy into Rose’s seemingly overnight descent into alcoholism or her occasional histrionics in an otherwise understated psychological thriller. Almost thirty years after being continually passed over, starting with her breakout performance in Interview with the Vampire, she’s entitled to more than a few freebies.
Argh, I’m nearly 1,000 words in and I haven’t even mentioned Charlotte Rampling’s devout but calculating Abbess in Benedetta or Aitana Sánchez-Gijón’s riveting portrait of all-consuming narcissism in Parallel Mothers or Marlee Matlin heroically wrangling something affecting from a badly-written character in CODA or Rebecca Ferguson’s full-throated commitment to the operatic excess of Duneor Alicia Vikander’s sly playing of dual roles in The Green Knight or Amy Seimetz’s scene-stealing work in No Sudden Move or Park Yoo-rim silently anchoring the best single scene of any movie last year in Drive My Car!
Just so many excellent supporting performances from women to choose from, you’d assume I would be at a loss to single out just one to declare the best. You’d think I’d beg the Academy to find some way to declare a three-or-four-way tie because there’s just no way I confidently state that any one of these extraordinary women is the most deserving… right?
And yet, somehow, against all odds, among the insane level of competition last year provided, Ruth Negga in Passing is comfortably my pick for the best performance by an actress in a supporting role in 2021. In fact, if you asked me to name the best supporting actress performance of the 21st century… I’d seriously consider her.
One of the things I’ve noted before about Negga as a star is how out-of-time she feels. She’s been in period pieces, modern day-set productions, and settings in the distant future, but always feels like she stepped straight out of the Jazz Age. Her look and presence are very “classic.” But even I could not have imagined the ease with which she could adopt the theatricality of early talkies acting, and convey the fragility of this artifice just on the verge of slipping, revealing the “real” Clare as someone lost and palpably needing more than her self-made gilded cage.
Rebecca Hall’s precise direction and Edu Grau’s careful use of framing, space, and light to communicate ideas and feelings are crucial to Passing’s success, but even with such considered craftsmanship, the film would not have worked if Clare fully tilted to an unknowable cipher or a fully “grounded” person whose motivations can be sussed out in just one viewing. What a small miracle, then, that Negga draws out such sharp edges of desire, loneliness, fear, warmth, and sensuality to pierce through her arch displays of outward luminosity. Such a contrast between herself and our point-of-view protagonist Irene would tempt most filmmakers into clearly-delineated ideological “sides” for us to slot them into, but Hall’s writing avoids this. The tensions and unspoken jealousies are embedded through the actresses’ careful blocking and recitation of dialogue that, on paper, might not even read as conflict-laden at all. And so too does their unspoken attraction emanate through the slightest glances and touches without coming off as cheap or unearned.
Negga and Tessa Thompson navigate this sprawling emotional labyrinth flawlessly, while never breaking the heightened period reality Passing conjures. The paradoxes of Clare that Negga unhesitatingly inhabits deepen the central relationship of the film, so that her presence lingers during long stretches of the movie when she’s completely absent. Thompson’s struggle to understand how she exactly feels about this woman she loves but maybe also resents and is a little terrified of or perhaps scared for would not work if their chemistry wasn’t so apparent from the moment they reunite, nor would it make any sense if Negga didn’t project the kind of irresistible outward magnetism that’s impossible to take your eyes off of.
And yet, after a painful admission just over an hour into the movie, you see a crack in her façade; something about her demeanor changes permanently. And in the third act, she starts to shade her charisma with deeper wells of sadness, as if Clare has given up on the choice of divesting herself of privilege or turning away from the belonging she yearns for in Harlem. So when we reach our much-debated ending, it’s not really a matter of how exactly she dies, because in the end, that’s not the real question. The final shot of her face, looking right at us with despairing eyes, instead leaves us with the question of how she saw herself, who she really felt she was, in her last moments.
Negga inhabits all of these mysteries in exactly the right ways, provoking the thorny questions raised by the story but with a humanity that never abandons the emotions underlining them. It is the finest performance I saw by anyone, man or woman, lead or supporting, in 2021.
So did I cover them all? Did I miss anyone? If there’s a time and a place for the Awards Radar community to wax poetic about their favorite supporting actress performances of last year, this is it!