Oscar Deep Dive: Actor in a Supporting Role

NOMINEES: Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino


The Short Take

There tend to be two types of years in the Best Actor in a Supporting Role category: those where a few newcomers rub elbows with heavyweights, and those when every nominee is a marquee name. 2020 is of the latter sort, which one could imagine would make the race unpredictable down to last moment. However, if preceding awards and general goodwill is to be trusted, this award is one man’s to lose, and that man is Brad Pitt

Brad Pitt has long been taken for granted as an actor, often sidelined in conversations about the talented performers of his generation for the sin of being so damn handsome. However, simplifying his appeal down his appearance misses the point altogether; Pitt is a phenomenal actor. As Alison Willmore wrote for BuzzFeed News, Pitt is “a scene-stealer, sure, but he’s the kind of supporting character who illuminates the rest of the film.” She was writing about his whole career, but most intently about his work this year in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019) as stuntman and all-around-enigma Cliff Both, for which he has scored this nomination. It’s undeniable that his work as the soft-spoken but swaggering Booth is the heart of the movie, giving credence to Leonardo DiCaprio’s serio-pathetic Rick Dalton. We know just enough about Booth to like him while also questioning why we do. Pitt sells him to us through a powerful mix of skill and charisma, and with a string of electric awards speeches so far this year, my money is on him bringing home his first ever acting Oscar this year. 

If anyone is going to swoop in and pull an Olivia-Colman-sized-upset, I imagine the only potential comes in the form of Joe Pesci. I’ll elaborate more on Pesci’s work later on, but with the narrative surrounding his reemergence from retirement paired with his gloriously understated work in The Irishman (2019), he has secured his place as the award’s dark horse. His general distaste for awards campaigning and the fact that the Oscars don’t often award understatement will probably be the stumbling blocks that take him out in the end, but I wouldn’t entirely rule out the possibility that he shocks everyone on Oscar night. Never mind the fact that the best supporting performance from the year wasn’t even nominated for an award (more on that below). 


The Long Take

This year’s crop of nominees for Best Actor in a Supporting Role are absurdly over-qualified in the acting department. Their long standing combined Oscars history, and overall celebrity presence makes the category rife with storylines gestating for decades. Therefore, I feel it’s worthwhile to take a moment to put forth a few important details. Altogether, Tom Hanks, Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt, and Joe Pesci have been nominated for 30 Academy Awards. Of those, each has won at least one, with Hanks being the sole nominee with two Oscar wins. Beyond awards, eight movies these men have appeared in are included in the American Film Institute’s list “The 100 Greatest American Films of All Time.” Those films are: The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), Raging Bull (1980), Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Forrest Gump (1994), Toy Story (1995) and Goodfellas (1990). Only Pitt lacks a movie from that list, while Hanks appears in three. I include all of this because I think it provides two important insights into the nominees. First, these five men are incredible actors who have all already been recognized in some manner for their towering contributions to filmmaking. Second, they each possess outsize reputations that have no doubt propelled them to these nominations even if in some cases the performance does not actually merit recognition. 

Stemming from that second point, I want to deviate from the Academy’s chosen nominees to address a performance they have passed over, and that is arguably the most vital supporting performance from American film this year. That is Jamie Foxx’s performance as Walter “Johnny D” Macmillan in Just Mercy (2019). Adapted from Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name, Just Mercy recounts the way that Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and Macmillan fought for Macmillan’s release from his Death Row sentence. Macmillian was arrested for a murder he did not committ, and spent years behind bars because of the color of his skin. Now, Just Mercy is at times a paint-by-numbers courtroom drama, a comment on the screenplay and directing as opposed to its central story, but it is the moments when Foxx comes on screen that the movie crackles to life. Whether this is during his time in prison where he talks with his fellow inmates, recounting his story to Stevenson, or simply sitting in court proceedings, Foxx balances sorrow with humor, and imbues Macmillian with a physicality that conveys the weight of his imprisonment. It is captivating work, and it should have been included among this batch of all-white nominees. More so, Foxx should win this Oscar, and it’s infuriating that he has been kept out of the running. 

Turning to the actual nominees, I’m combining Al Pacino’s work in The Irishman and Anthony Hopkins’ work in The Two Popes (2019) into one paragraph. Why? Simply because both men are legendary actors who gave memorable if not remarkable performances. Starting with Pacino, his performance as Jimmy Hoffa is impressive. As my Dad put it, Pacino made him “like Jimmy Hoffa for once, which is an achievement.” Pacino makes Hoffa a commanding politician prone to violent outbursts, intoxicated with his own power. It is good acting, and I make no bones about the performance. However, I often found myself thinking that Pacino was just playing himself. What he did on screen never quite transferred over into captivating for me in the way that other performances in the movie did, which ended up leaving me with a vaguely unsatisfied pit in my stomach. Part of this may be due to the fact that I measure Pacino against his previous accomplishments, which are at the top of the craft, but the reality is that in my eyes Pacino is here because the Academy likes him, and he did a good job in a great movie. Similarly, Hopkins’ portrayal of Pope Benedict XVI is a fine piece of acting. He walks the line between Benedict’s self-obsession and struggling faith to turn the abdication into an engrossing character study. Yet, I found it to be a little too mushy about a man who caused many people a lot of pain, and while that may be more a function of the script than of Hopkins’ performance, it leads to a breaking of the spell, and the performance was not powerful enough to counteract that. At the end of the day, Hopkins and Pacino are here because they are legends, but they won’t win, nor should they. 

Tom Hanks, while as towering a cinematic figure as Hopkins and Pacino, presents a wholly different circumstance altogether. In portraying Fred Rogers in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), Hanks merges his everyman/America’s father persona with that of the only other figure in recent American culture to be such a uniting force of positivity. When news of the casting initially hit, I thought it was a touch too on the nose. Leave it to Hanks to take the obvious and turn it into a stirring performance that moves beyond rote impression into that hallowed space of capturing a person’s true essence. Hanks mastered Rogers’ many verbal idiosyncrasies and physical tendencies, but more importantly, he somehow tapped into that feeling of peace that one finds upon watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Furthermore, as a supporting character in a movie that is ostensibly about said character’s legacy, Hanks does a lovely job of being ever present without becoming cloying or distracting. It is a tightrope of a performance that he executes quite well. Is it his most impressive work? No. Is it the best in the category? No again. Hanks won’t make it to the podium, but the nomination is a great reminder that we should never take his talent for granted. 

This brings us to the night’s likely winner, the incomparable Brad Pitt for his performance as Cliff Booth. Following up on blockbuster previous work with Tarantino as Lt. Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds (2009), their return to collaboration is just as fruitful. Leonardo DiCaprio may be the de-facto lead in the movie, but his performance as Rick Dalton on the verge of a full mental breakdown only works because of Pitt’s soft-spoken but swaggering take on Booth. The men’s friendship and professional partnership is the core of the film, and it is their commitment to one another that makes Dalton’s attempt for a comeback feel all the more pressing; he is the face of both of their careers, and if he’s not working, neither of them are. What Pitt does so well is take a character who may or may not have killed his wife, and who gets a little too friendly with a young girl, and makes him disarmingly charismatic. He captures the workmanlike spirit of the stuntman and crosses it with his particular bent of charming character performance. It is some of the best acting of his career, and it will no doubt score him his first acting Oscar. He’s won the qualifying awards, he’s campaigned hard, and this is quite close to a sure bet, which honestly, considering where we ended up in terms of nominees, I’m content with. 

Nonetheless, the only person that I think could honestly upset the Pitt win, and truly the only nominee I think to equal him in terms of quality of performance, is Joe Pesci. Pesci plays real life mobster Russell Buffalino. Knowing little about Buffalino going in, but knowing Pesci’s past work with Scorsese, particularly  in Goodfellas and Casino (1995), I was primed for another loud, crude, and darkly comic performance. Instead, Pesci turns every expectation on its head and plays Buffalino as a carefully controlled and even-keeled mastermind. It was, admittedly, a little distracting for the first 30 minutes of the movie to see so much Pesci without the decibel reading sky-rocketing. Lucky for us there was another three hours to go. Joking aside, once you get over the initial surprise that comes from our cultural perception of Pesci as the loud man, you are treated to the discovery that he is equally as enthralling as a self-reflective character. Buffalino commands so much power and respect, and Pesci is instantly believable in that role, no longer the side-guy to Robert De Niro’s more central characters in the likes of Raging Bull and Goodfellas. In one particular sequence, we see Buffalino walking through his fabric store, handling one request for protection or a hit after another. It may not look the same, but it has the same weight as Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) holding court in his office, and Pesci evokes all that history without miming Brando. Later in the film, aided by make-up and CGI, Pesci captures the sadness of a man who has lost his power due to his hubris but never atones for that fact. He simply holds on to his memories until the bitter end. It is career-best work from Pesci, and if it were up to me, he would get his second Oscar. As it stands, my money is still on Pitt, but the Academy’s love for the The Irishman and Pesci’s long-standing collaboration with Scorsese could push him over the line. 


The Bottom Line

WILL WIN: Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

SHOULD WIN: Jamie Foxx – Just Mercy / Joe Pesci – The Irishman


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