I like Octavia Spencer. An Oscar for “The Help,” great; an Oscar nomination for “Hidden Figures,” cool. But an Oscar nomination for playing Sally Hawkins’s buddy at work, not so much. “The Shape of Water” is the year’s Best Picture, but Octavia Spencer’s character is the least special role.
With Mary J. Blige, it’s sort of the other way ‘round. There’s no wave to ride. “Mudbound,” a Mississippi tale, hasn’t had much limelight. Be prodded to immerse yourself in Blige’s earthy portrayal (plus director Dee Rees receiving a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination). It’s a telling American story about two soldiers, one Black, one White, returning home from World War II.
Blige plays an everywoman, a suffering, Black family woman in the poverty of the deep South. Last year, Naomie Harris, as a poor Black mom in “Moonlight” lost to Viola Davis, playing a lower middle-class Black family woman in “Fences.” For Best Supporting Actress consideration, those roles offered more acting dimension than Blige’s role. Those performances took their films to a higher level.
Laurie Metcalf has the biggest supporting actress role of the nominees, ripe with nomination-worthy facets. As the contentious, loving mom, she’s critical to the emotional journey of her teenaged daughter, “Lady Bird.”
Metcalf would win if this year’s voting slanted conventional. While Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird feels refreshingly different yet familiar in an intriguing way, Metcalf feels a bit like a standard film-plot mom.
When it comes to the supporting- actress dynamics, Lesley Manville might be considered the one shoved unfairly away from an Oscar win. In “Phantom Thread” Daniel Day-Lewis plays, to say the least, an eccentric. His fashion-designer realm only functions because of his sister, played with intense reserve by Manville. The supporting actress resonance deepens when the sister must deal with her brother’s marriage.
Alas, this stylized period piece (even though the story’s time frame is the 1950s) doesn’t seduce you the way Merchant-Ivory films such as “A Room with a View” and “Howard’s End” do. Manville’s Oscar chances suffer from the oddness that makes this prim film worthy of much respect.
The slap-your-knee Best Supporting Actress winner is Allison Janney in “I, Tonya.” Here, oddness finds a strange form of endearing. Well, she’s endearing in a figure skating version of trailer-trash tiger-mom. She’s shines brighter because of how different she plays from her long TV runs on “West Wing” and more recently “Mom.”
“I, Tonya” is about Tonya Harding, an Olympics-level figure skater most famous for her connection to a brutal attack on a rival skater, Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya is hard to like. Her husband and his best friend are readily dislikeable. Janney, as Tonya’s mom, helps assure the savvy comedic choices made in turning this serious cubby hole of history into a deft kind of serious filmmaking.