* Alan Arkin, Argo
* Robert De Niro, The Silver Linings Playbook
* Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
* Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
* Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
For the first time in Oscar history, all five nominees in an acting category are former winners. I'll confess, as much as I play the "vote only for the best performance" card, if all things are equal, I'll lean towards a person who has been nominated a bunch of times but never won. This isn't necessarily an incorrect way of thinking, as one could rightly point out that voting between very different and usually mostly excellent performances is apples and oranges anyway, so you might as well spread the Oscar wealth. Double stars, everybody wins!
As such, since everyone here has an Academy Award already, this supporting actor race lacks a bit of horse-race pizazz. You can't really even argue that any of these five "should have" more than one Oscar, or two in De Niro's case --- even with De Niro, he's previously won for Raging Bull and Godfather Part II, and probably his best non-winning performance was in Taxi Driver (but he lost to a worthy winner in Peter Finch).
The other reason I'm a bit cold on this race is because while all of the nominated performances were good, I'm not sure any were particularly 'great.' As others have pointed out, all five actors have played variations on these same performances in the past, with Arkin and maybe Jones even essentially "playing themselves." If I had a vote, I'd vote for Hoffman, even though his role in The Master is definitely a co-lead and not a real "supporting" performance. On my Markademy Awards ballot (coming between now and Oscar night!), I actually have Hoffman on my short list for Best Actor. I try to avoid category-confusing cases like this but perhaps it's fitting for this year's unusual slate of nominees.
It is anyone's guess as to who will actually win, by the way. This is one of the harder races to predict in recent years, perhaps because it lacks that compelling "horse race" storyline. I'll break down the pros and cons for each man.
* Arkin…fourth nomination (two Best Actor, two Supporting Actor)
The weakest of the five performances, and something of a surprise nominee who got in since really, who doesn't love Alan Arkin? I think he's the only one of the five who victory on Oscar Night would be a legit surprise, though with the way that Argo seems to have all the momentum and is headed towards a Best Picture win, maybe Arkin would get carried along in its wake. Arkin won Supporting Actor just six years ago for Little Miss Sunshine, sort of a career achievement Oscar that came in part because favourite Eddie Murphy's chances were ruined because a) he's kind of a jerk and b) because after seeing a flood of commercials for Norbit during the voting period, Academy members weren't keen to give that lousy movie's star an Oscar. From a historical perspective, Arkin wouldn't be out of place at all in the Two Oscar Club, but it seems too soon since his last victory.
* De Niro….seventh nomination (five Best Actor, two Supporting Actor)
Speaking of clubs, the "Three Oscar Club" had four members for years before Meryl Streep finally won her third last year. It's unlikely, but the 3OC could increase by as many as three new members this year, as De Niro, Sally Field and one of Daniel Day-Lewis or Denzel Washington could win their third Academy Award. Field is going to lose to Anne Hathaway, Day-Lewis is the big favourite to win Best Actor and De Niro's chances are up in the air. As per a Harvey Weinstein Oscar campaign, the Silver Linings stars have been all over the place promoting the movie and getting their faces out there, and the fact that a usually-quiet actor like De Niro is making the rounds could be perceived as indicative of how much he wants it. Obviously few actors are as respected as Bobby D and certainly has the "Three Oscar Club" credentials, plus this role was a real return to form for him after about 15 years of crappy movies. That said, those 15 years of crap may work against him as well, but the Academy liked his movie, it obviously likes him, and at this juncture De Niro might be a favourite.
* Hoffman….fourth nomination (one Best Actor, three Supporting Actor)
As noted, he'd be my choice, but the Academy did not care for The Master overall despite giving it three high-profile acting nominations. PSH is more than qualified as a "two-Oscar" guy; he's one of the best actors going today and seems likely to rack up several more nominations before he's through. That said, voters might also take that into consideration and figure they'll have plenty of opportunity to recognize Hoffman again later, whereas Arkin, De Niro and Jones are all nearing the end of their careers. It's hard to tell where he stands in terms of momentum but in the critics' eyes, at least, he gave the best performance. That might be all it takes in this hard-to-figure year. And yes, I realize how goofy it is that "quality of performance" is maybe the fourth or fifth most important factor in Oscar voting.
* Jones….fourth nomination (one Best Actor, three Supporting Actor)
It seemed like TLJ was the early favourite and he has a SAG award, but his heat seems to have died off just as Lincoln's momentum in general has stalled. The only thing Jones has done of note in the last few months was become a meme following his grumpy-faced reactions at the Golden Globes. That said, that SAG award is usually a good indicator of the Oscar result so I'd say Jones still has a good shot for the win.
* Waltz….second nomination (one Supporting Actor)
For months, Oscar prognosticators were looking at Leonardo DiCaprio as a late-breaking supporting candidate for Django Unchained. Then, when the movie was actually released, attention turned to Samuel L. Jackson's stunning role. As it turned out, the only supporting performance from Django that got nominated was Waltz's turn as Dr. King Schultz. I'll be honest, I don't want to see Waltz win. He's maybe the third most notable supporting performance in his movie alone and, as the nominee with the least-lengthy resume of the bunch, he's the only one who would stand out as a "really?" entry in the Two Oscar Club. Also, I can't be the only one who thought King Schultz was sort of a poor man's Hans Landa. As much as I loved the Landa character (and as much as Waltz 1000 percent deserved that Oscar), I don't think Waltz deserves a second Oscar for the Diet Coke version of his greatest role. All that said, it seems like he might have the most momentum of anyone, given Django's late release, his Golden Globes win and the fact that it's a very talky, monologue-driven performance that naturally draws attention to itself.
So that's the field. I'll save my official alternate ballot for the Markademy Awards post, but I'd like to list a few of the other notables from this very strong year for supporting performances…
Eddie Redmayne, Les Miserables
If you've ever seen Les Mis on stage, you'll know that the role of Marius is pretty underwritten and thankless, given how he ends up with with a majorly happy ending despite doing essentially nothing to deserve it. When we last saw Redmayne, he was the inanimate block of wood that Michelle Williams had to act circles around in My Week With Marilyn. As math as taught us, however, two negatives make a positive and Redmayne did a hell of a job in turning Marius into a strong, sympathetic figure. I'll confess, a few months ago I really thought Les Mis was going to absolutely sweep the Oscars. I'm talking 15-16 nominations across the board, maybe six or seven acting noms and an easy Best Picture win, and this was all based on the fact that I heard Redmayne was getting raves for his performance. I was all, "Man, if even the guy playing Marius is amazing, then everything else must be through the roof."
Michael Caine, The Dark Knight Rises
It must be awesome to be Christopher Nolan, who can just call up Michael Caine, have him show up and deliver a few incredible monologues that drive the heart of your movies. Caine had maybe 10 minutes of total screen time in TDKR but man, did he make them count. Michael Caine is the friggin' man.
Sam Rockwell, Seven Psychopaths
Rockwell is high on my list of best actors without an Oscar nomination, and while this movie was a little too odd to get the Academy's attention, Rockwell absolutely carries its patched-together plot with his manic performance.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
I'll say this for Leo, he may have been the victim of expectations. There is such a long tradition of great supporting roles in Tarantino movies that everyone was expecting a home run from DiCaprio. When he only hit a double and advanced to third on the throw, it was still a letdown despite the fact that on its own merits, it's a very good performance. More interesting than Waltz's, I'd reckon, and Waltz might end up with an Oscar. Maybe DiCaprio will score an Oscar nom this year for Great Gatsby HA HA HA HA NO, that movie looks like a pile of garbage.
Ezra Miller, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
This is back-to-back notable performances for Miller, who was on the radar last year for We Need To Talk About Kevin and is now back playing a completely different role in Perks. That's a hell of a lot of range for a teenage actor. His future is definitely worth a few imaginary dollars on the ol' Hollywood Stock Exchange.
Javier Bardem, Skyfall
It's kind of amazing that a Bond villain has never nabbed a supporting nomination. If past Academy voters were as more open to "popcorn" performances from mainstream blockbusters in past decades as they generally are today, I'd reckon that at least a couple (maybe Christopher Lee or Gert "Goldfinger" Frobe) would've made the cut. Then again, if an Oscar favourite like Bardem couldn't do it, maybe nobody can. I thought he had a chance just based on his introductory monologue alone.
Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises
Look at the balls on this guy. Hardy is tasked with following one of the most iconic villainous performances in movie history. He's wearing a mask for the entire film that basically restricts him to just acting with his eyes and with body language at all times, since his dialogue will sound muffled even after it's re-dubbed in post-production. So with all of this pressure, Hardy says fuck it, I'll make things even more interesting by delivering my lines in a weird, sing-songy accent that still sounds intimidating. Respect.
Michael Fassbender, Prometheus
Like being a Bond villain or a Batman villain, you've got big shoes to fill when you're playing an android in an Alien film. M. F. Assbender lived up to the legacy of Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen but I couldn't help think that Fassbender played his character as little too much like an adult Haley Joel Osment from A.I. They're both even named 'David,' for crying out loud.
Jim Broadbent/Hugo Weaving/Ben Whishaw, Cloud Atlas
The time-hopping, multi-performance format of Cloud Atlas lends itself to a variety of showy performances, and these three stood out the most. Weaving played the most notable roles as villains in each of the film's stories but he never had a singular 'lead' like Whishaw did as the young composer or Broadbent as the unwilling nursing home patient.
Tom Hiddleston/The Deep Blue Sea
Academy rules prohibit actors from being nominated for multiple roles, though unofficially, lots of actors are nominated for one role when they're really being recognized for their whole body of work in a year. Jim Broadbent's Oscar in 2001, for instance, was probably as much for his performance in Iris as it was for his un-nominated turn in Moulin Rouge. However, since this isn't a real Oscar ballot, I can recognize people for multiple quality performances. Hiddleston was good in two very different roles as Rachel Weisz's flighty lover and as the power-hungry Loki. The latter is interesting since Hiddleston was only okay as Loki in the first Thor movie, but look at that, with Joss Whedon's direction and script behind him, suddenly became a threat worthy of the entire Avengers roster.
Christopher Walken, A Late Quartet
Christopher Walken, Seven Psychopaths
A good 'two sides of Walken' showing here. He delivers one of his signature quirky performances in Seven Psychopaths and gives that movie his charm, yet Walken is so known for these kinds of roles that it's easy to overlook the fact that he excels just as much in quieter, more cerebral roles. He is the heart of A Late Quartet, the beloved calm centre amidst the storm brewing amidst his fellow musicians, and only grownup amidst this group of adults. I would've watched an entire movie of his character telling music anecdotes to his students, which I guess is somewhat faint praise since I'd watch an entire movie of Christopher Walken doing almost anything.
None of these guys would've been my actual winner of the Supporting Actor Oscar, however. I'll save that for the Markademy Awards. Stay tuned!