Numlock Awards: Who's got the momentum in Best Supporting Actress?
Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter, and it’s back! Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Michael.
This week I wanted to dive into Best Supporting Actress — we have a few interesting narratives emerging, so let’s dive into what the big stories are going into Oscar nomination morning on February 8.
Last week, I made a list of the main contenders in some of the top categories, which included 10 women in the mix for Best Supporting Actress.
Of these, we have two tiers of performers — one tier with people who have shown up on most shortlists and/or won awards, and the second tier of people who may surprise us with a nomination. Here are the tiers as I see them:
Tier One — Nomination More Likely
Caitriona Balfe, Belfast (rent it on Amazon)
Ariana DeBose, West Side Story (exclusively in theaters)
Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog (streaming on Netflix)
Ruth Negga, Passing (streaming on Netflix)
Tier Two — Nomination Less Likely
Cate Blanchett, Nightmare Alley (exclusively in theaters)
Judi Dench, Belfast (rent it on Amazon)
Ann Dowd, Mass (rent it on Amazon)
Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard (rent it on Amazon)
Kathryn Hunter, The Tragedy of Macbeth (streaming on Apple TV+)
Rita Moreno, West Side Story (exclusively in theaters)
We have five spots open, so assuming the other four women are locks, one woman will make it into the final spot. My money is currently on Aunjanue Ellis, but a miss at SAG makes her standing more precarious.
I’ve been cooking up a new theory in the lab called: Anita In ‘West Side Story’ Is ‘The Joker’ For Women. Hear me out.
There are certain roles that seem to attract awards attention. When Heath Ledger won an Oscar (and basically every other award) for playing The Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight, it represented a shift. While Jared Leto tried to bring the same sort of prestige to his portrayal of The Joker in 2016’s Suicide Squad, that movie was a huge critical disappointment (and despite his posturing, Leto’s portrayal was widely panned).
Still, Joaquin Phoenix turned it around with 2019’s Joker, for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor. It’s only the second male role in Academy history that has won multiple men Oscars (the other is Vito Corleone).
Anita in West Side Story is a similar phenomenon. Let’s take a look at its history on stage and screen:
Rita Moreno plays Anita, wins an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for 1961’s West Side Story
Debbie Allen plays Anita, wins a Drama Desk Award and gets a Tony nomination for 1980’s West Side Story revival
Karen Olivo plays Anita, wins a Tony Award for 2009’s West Side Story revival
Ariana DeBose plays Anita, wins a Golden Globe for 2021’s West Side Story
Anita is clearly the best part in West Side Story — in the first act, she’s a bit of comic relief and has a show-stopping number with “America,” and in act two, she provides a lot of pathos and is one of the few characters that changes from beginning to end. (If you have a kid doing theater at school, tell them to audition for Anita instead of Maria.)
The Joker, meanwhile, is just designed to be the biggest, most flamboyant part of any Batman project. You get to laugh when doing evil things, don funny outfits, and prance around as you tell jokes. (I haven’t seen The Dark Knight in a minute but I feel like I’ve roughly approximated the essence of the character.)
This isn’t to take away from Ariana DeBose or Heath Ledger or whoever else has inhabited these characters — it’s just to say that certain roles are historically prone to serious awards attention.
This is one of my favorite emerging narratives of this awards season, and it basically boils down to: This Famous Actor from Many Big Projects is Finally in the Awards Conversation. (OK, the lab isn’t good at names.)
Putting my cards on the table, I’m a huge Kirsten Dunst fan and think that she’s one of the best performers of her generation — The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, Melancholia, The Beguiled… She is one of the few actors whose presence in a movie increases the likelihood I will 1) watch that movie and 2) like that movie.
But! Most people probably know Kirsten Dunst for films like the vintage Spiders-Man (Spider-Men?), Bring It On, and Interview with the Vampire. Popcorn movies where your acting is usually overshadowed by special effects or quippy one-liners or an immortal Brad Pitt.
This is Kirsten Dunst’s first major foray into individual awards consideration for a film (though she did receive an Emmy nom for a season of Fargo). A close comparison is Matthew McConaughey. One day in the early 2010s you woke up and McConaughey was no longer that guy from the rom-coms — instead, we were in the middle of the McConaissance after appearances in things like Magic Mike, Mud, Dallas Buyers Club (for which he won an Oscar), True Detective, and Interstellar. Critical re-evaluations happened.
You see the same thing happening with Kirsten Dunst right now. Here are some recent headlines she’s garnered:
Kirsten Dunst’s Feminine Urges: For three decades, Dunst has been one of our preëminent performers of conflicted womanhood. With The Power of the Dog, she might be finally getting her due. — The New Yorker
There’s Always Been More to Kirsten Dunst: A former child star and ingénue, she has come into her own as a chronicler of despair. Will The Power of the Dog cap her career reinvention? — The New York Times
Kirsten Dunst Doesn’t Need Your Oscars: The actress is back in her biggest role yet — which isn’t a knock on her resume. It’s a testament to her talent. — New York Magazine
She even got the most coveted of all: a nice featurette in Architectural Digest.
McConaughey and Dunst — and others who have followed a similar narrative, like Anne Hathaway or Emma Stone or Jonah Hill — were, of course, always talented, but sometimes it takes a while for the perception to catch up to reality.
The Rest of the Category
The other women are in an interesting spot. Ruth Negga has been pretty low-key — it was her co-star, Tessa Thompson, who showed up at THR’s annual Actress Roundtable. Caitriona Balfe is probably best known for her work on Outlander, but she’s hardly a household name the way Dunst or McConnaughey are, so her transition into serious films will naturally garner less press. Aunjanue Ellis also has the fortune and misfortune of having a much more famous co-star who’s been on an absolute media blitz (he even released a memoir in November!), so it’s been hard for her to break out.
It’s still early — nominations aren’t even out yet, and with the wonky way 2022 has unfolded so far, I’m sure surprises await. But for now, I think Dunst and DeBose have been making the biggest waves and are our two frontrunners.