They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
Directing and Supporting Acting Races
By J. Don Birnam
February 16, 2017

Look! The saints are marching in!

Oscar voters have had their ballots since Monday, and the Oscar race is in its last ten days. Today we look at the Supporting Actor and Actress races, as well as the singularly uninteresting Best Director race.

Let me know if you have differing thoughts on these three races: Twitter and Instagram.

Best Director: Boring

Best Director has become a very uninteresting race since the Best Picture expansion in 2009 simply because the winner of the Director’s Guild Awards has been the winner of the Oscar each and every single time, except the year that Ben Affleck won, when he was not nominated for the Oscar. That is how powerful their predictive power is, and I do not expect this to be the year that this statistic is broken, not even close.

This year the nominees are Damien Chazelle for La La Land, Denis Villeneuve for Arrival, Barry Jenkins for Moonlight, Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea, and surprisingly, Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge.

We can discard Mel first, as he did not receive notices from almost anyone else, with the DGA preferring Lion’s Garth Davis and the Globes Nocturnal Animal’s Tom Ford. The comeback story for Gibson is interesting, and the branch has always loved to welcome former actors here. But he will not win.

Really, you card easily discard the other three. Although the trio has shown up in essentially every race this year, none have been able to break through. For Villeneuve, it is a quick ascension to the top, after lauded work in Sicario. The swift rise is perhaps matched only by that of the eventual and young winner. For Lonergan and Jenkins, meanwhile, it is great recognition for brilliant filmmakers who do not work often and that bring their signature styles to their films - the projects they led this year are both very much creatures of their imagination in many ways, and benefit tremendously from their guiding hands.

But, you can say the same thing for the young man who will actually win this award. As you know, La La Land’s Damien Chazelle won the DGA, so that stat alone should be enough to tell you what is going to happen here. But consider also the “Oscar story” that makes him an irresistible winner. Chazelle wanted to make this movie for a long time, and could not get it financed. So he did, what else?, Whiplash, a wildly successful movie that out of nowhere won three Academy Awards.

Clearly the young director, whose vision and creativity made this movie possible, has a lot of good will in Hollywood. There is no way anyone upsets him.

Check out our updated Best Director Power Rankings, which will not change until the big night.

Will Win: Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Could Win: N/A

Best Supporting Actor: Confusing Again

The male acting races are the two most confusing ones this year, starting at least with Best Supporting Actor. The race has been in flux most of the year, with the Critics’ Choice going for Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali, leading most to assume that he is going to win. But then the Globes randomly went for Nocturnal Animals’ Aaron Taylor Johnson, and we were off to the races.

The nominees, aside from Ali, are Jeff Bridges from Hell or High Water, Dev Patel for Lion, Lucas Hedges from Manchester by the Sea, and, surprisingly, not Johnson, but Michael Shannon from Nocturnal Animals, in that movie’s lone nomination. As you recall, the surprise Oscar nominations morning here was that Hugh Grant missed out a career nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins.

So who has it here? It seems hard to do this by process of elimination, at least if you think that Mahershala does not have it locked. If so, then really anyone can win, particularly after Patel’s somewhat surprising BAFTA win earlier this week. But let’s do ourselves a favor and take out Michael Shannon simply because no one else has given him notice, a sure sign of weakness. If he triumphs despite this, you can hardly blame yourself for missing it.

So what gives? Is Mahershala really the frontrunner? You will recall that last year I saw what few pundits did not in this category, which is that the entire Sylvester Stallone idea had been invented by the Oscar intelligentsia out of nowhere, with little evidence. Yes, Stallone won at SAG that year, but seeing as how broad the voting group is there, it is not really surprising that he won essentially a popularity contest. Rylance then won BAFTA and the Oscar.

So that cuts in favor of Dev this year, no? Not so fast. For one, Ali is not an age-old actor that the blogosphere had an incentive to root for and make up a race for. The critics genuinely like him, as his BFCA win shows. On the other hand, inklings of last year’s race are in the making. When confused, they simply went for the veteran, and that does help Jeff Bridges. The fact that he has won already does not necessarily stop him, as Christoph Waltz will tell you (though, his year, all five had already won before!).

I suppose they could go for the best performance (always a good fallback rule), which in my view is clearly Lucas Hedges this year, and this may be the only space for that movie to win if it loses screenplay. They can also go for Patel, I suppose, if Lion is as beloved as it appears to be (and it does have Weinstein) here. To be honest, I’m flummoxed by this one. It does not help that Ali does not have, in my opinion, the best of the performances of his film, let alone the category.

When Rylance won, he clearly was the epicenter, at least the supporting epicenter, of his movie. He carried the movie. The same cannot be said of Ali, even if it can of Patel, Hedges, or Bridges.

Here are the current Best Supporting Actor Power Rankings, but expect updates and handwringing for two weeks.

Will win: Mahershal Ali, Moonlight
Could win: Dev Patel, Lion

Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis Gets Her Due

For all the excitement that Best Supporting Actor has, you can rest easily that your prediction will be safely correct in the sister award, Best Supporting Actress. This year the race features a diverse array of two past winners, one first timer, and two repeat nominees with overdue attached to their names. Most interesting here is that this race has seem locked for a long time, with the five nominees reappearing at the Globes, the SAG, nearly at BAFTA, and then again here. So it’s not really surprising that we know the ultimate outcome of that race as well.

First off, and least likely to win, is Lion’s Nicole Kidman, who won years ago in the lead race. Her performance is good as far as it goes, but it is small and muted, and almost an afterthought - particularly given that lead roles have been winning here more and more, you can count her out.

The same goes for Hidden Figures’ Octavia Spencer, who won a few years back in this race for a movie with a similar Oscar story, The Help. Had the movie peaked a bit earlier, Spencer may have lost this spot out to her costar Janelle Monae, but since it was released rather later, name recognition likely got her here. And while I do think that Hidden Figures is very well liked by the industry and they’ll want it to win something, I have a hard time thinking it will be this category.

Turning now to the newcomer, Moonlight’s Naomie Harris arguably gives the best performance in the category, at least among those that are actually supporting. Before Davis was declared supporting instead of lead for Fences, Harris probably had this wrapped up. If the British star could not even defeat Davis with her compatriots, don’t expect her to do so stateside. But her time may yet come.

At least that is what Michelle Williams thought when she delivered yet another powerhouse performance as the grieving mother in Manchester by the Sea. The star has had several nominations since she became a more serious actress, but somehow seems to be getting more unlikely every time. If she had any chance of an upset, she would have shown up by now, and she has not.

And she will not, because the night most clearly belongs to the much beloved, much deserving, and much overdue Viola Davis, for reprising her Tony-winning role in the Best Picture nominees Fences. Davis, who was upset by Meryl Streep’s third Oscar a few years back, has been amassing nothing but good will ever since. Arguably, her next nomination was going to be a lock for a win since that day, and here you have it. She own the Critics’ Choice, the Globe, the SAG, and the BAFTA. It’s been a while since someone wins all four of those and not the Oscar, and do not expect it to happen this time around.

Here are the updated Best Supporting Actress Power Rankings, which, like Director, won’t change much from here to the Oscars.

Will win: Viola Davis, Fences
Could win: N/A

Next Up: Screenplay and Main Acting Races