Written by Kyle Buchanan
Memo to Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins and Willem Dafoe: We love you, but you’re kind of getting in the way.
All three men are considered strong contenders for a supporting-actor nomination at the Oscars in February, and they certainly do memorable work: Pitt is superb opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Hopkins is surprisingly funny up against Jonathan Pryce in the theological showdown “The Two Popes,” and not a single bit of scenery is safe from Dafoe when he tussles with Robert Pattinson in “The Lighthouse.”
It’s just that all three of those performances are co-leads, not supporting efforts. And when big roles like theirs hog Oscar’s attention, actual supporting performances will often go unrecognized.
Welcome to the award-season cottage industry known as category fraud, in which a co-lead drops down to the supporting-actor category — like last season’s winner, Mahershala Ali from “Green Book” — so as not to compete in the same race as a co-star. For Oscar strategists, this approach is all about spreading the wealth, but it has the effect of crowding out the actors who do great work precisely because they aren’t tasked with commanding most of their movie’s screen time.
Before those acting races narrow, then, here are seven of those up-and-comers and scene-stealers the academy ought to consider.
Aldis Hodge, ‘Clemency’
This death-row drama is a showcase for what Alfre Woodard can do with a long-overdue starring role to sink her teeth into, and it’s to Hodge’s credit that when “Clemency” does occasionally cut away from Woodard’s conflicted prison warden, he proves so compelling as a doomed convict that you wonder if the veteran actress has finally met her match.
Best known for roles in “Hidden Figures” and the TV series “Underground,” Hodge has soulful presence to spare, and he’s heartbreaking as a condemned inmate whose last few strands of hope are plucked from him throughout the movie. You have to believe that he can move Woodard’s implacable warden to reconsider the entire power structure she sits atop, and Hodge sells it: Any system that would snuff out the fire in his eyes has to be stopped.
Cho Yeo Jeong, ‘Parasite’
Consider the patsy. Most of the giddy first half of “Parasite” involves our heroes putting one over on Mrs. Park, whose family lives in coddled splendor in a stunning modern mansion. After an impostor is hired as a tutor for the Parks, he cleverly conspires with the rest of his destitute family to find places for them, too, sensing that Mrs. Park is the kind of easy mark he can fool into doing their bidding.
But along the way, director Bong Joon Ho will pull a fast one of his own, lulling the audience into a false sense of triumph that wouldn’t be possible without Cho Yeo Jeong’s comically precise performance as Mrs. Park. It isn’t easy to play the dupe in a film like this because you’re at the mercy of both the protagonists and the plot, but Cho delights in her character’s extremes — helpless but entitled, in charge but easily toppled — and brings Mrs. Park to vivid life as a woman who could confidently keel over at any second.
Robert Pattinson, ‘The King’
Pattinson is putting all of his award-season chips on the go-for-broke lead performance he delivered in “The Lighthouse,” but for my money, his supporting role in “The King” is just as much of a riot. Over an hour into Netflix’s medieval epic, just as Timothée Chalamet’s young Henry V is earnestly coming into his own, Pattinson saunters into the story as the Dauphin of France to engage Chalamet in a high-stakes competition of cheekbones and chutzpah.
As the film’s antagonist, Pattinson has a ball: He seems supremely unbothered by Chalamet’s declarations of war, instead insulting the younger man in a delicious French accent that Pattinson based on the Parisian fashion types who dress him at Dior. A few years ago, the “Twilight”-minted Pattinson would have been offered the leading-man role, but we’re all the better for it when he’s given the chance to show off character-actor chops.
Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Wesley Snipes, ‘Dolemite Is My Name’
“Dolemite Is My Name” is about black actors and comedians who can’t catch a break, but the movie has been cast with ringers: The likes of Eddie Murphy and Keegan Michael-Key are playing industry wannabes. At least there’s Randolph, an up-and-coming actress who takes her place in this stacked cast with such confidence that you’d assume she was every bit as famous as her co-stars. As Lady Reed, who becomes a comic partner to Murphy’s Rudy Ray Moore, Randolph is a delightful force of nature.
Snipes is hardly the same sort of discovery — during the prime of his career, he was as much a movie star as Murphy — but he still feels like a whole new man in “Dolemite,” where he plays the fey and full of himself D’Urville Martin, the actor conscripted to direct Moore’s movie. Divorced from his action-movie deadpan, Snipes is having the time of his life, and he lands every condescending punchline. There may be no funnier performance this fall.
Stephen Graham, ‘The Irishman’
Two of the supporting-actor slots this year may be taken up by Martin Scorsese’s latest crime drama, which gives Al Pacino his best role in ages as Jimmy Hoffa and successfully casts Joe Pesci against type as a soft-voiced mob boss. That probably spells doom for the third major contender from the film, the British actor Graham, who goes toe to toe with Hoffa as showboating teamster Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano.
Graham has played other roles for Scorsese in “Gangs of New York” and “Boardwalk Empire,” but this is his biggest “whoa, who’s that guy?” movie moment yet, and he makes the most of it. Whether he’s strutting into a meeting dressed like a sunbather or launching himself at Pacino in prison, Graham’s got the charisma — and the supremely needling personality — to burrow just under the audience’s skin.
Jonathan Majors, ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’
If any performance on this list comes close to being considered a colead, it’s the one Majors gives in this lovely indie gem about gentrification, since he tags along with the protagonist, played by Jimmie Fails, in nearly every scene. Still, while we know all too well what motivates Fails — the pain of losing his childhood home, and the desire to seize it back — Majors as Mont is one big mystery, with open-ended questions about his sexuality and state of mind lingering through the film.
Majors somehow crafts a deeply felt performance out of what we don’t and maybe can’t know about this character, and it all builds up to a devastating sequence when the sensitive Mont stages the play he just wrote as a tribute to a friend who has been killed. As Mont encourages the audience to share their disparate thoughts about the murdered man, Fails comes to a realization: “People aren’t one thing.” What Majors proves is that there’s great beauty in never fully knowing.
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