The Academy Award nominations have been announced, and those up for an award are in for an old-fashioned slugfest. The nods are divided pretty event between frontrunners American Hustle, Gravity and 12 Years A Slave in the Best Picture category, fracturing the other awards into unpredictable clusters. Furthermore, there are a load of fresh faces in several of this year’s nomination brackets, ensuring a minimum of overly-political "he’s due" awards.

Today we feature Best Supporting Actor. This is a thornier pack than last year, when all the nominees were previous winners, limiting the amount of actual competition between participants (Christoph Waltz ultimately won). This year there are no previous winners, three first-time nominees, and two second-time honorees. What’s more, it can be argued that each of the members of this particular nominated class are working in the shadow of a bigger standout leading man. Usually there’s a big supporting cut-up, or a scenery-chewing ham who upstages everyone. Here, at last, we have five legit Supporting Actor performances. The nominees…

Captain Phillips
DARK HORSES: Barkhad Abdi and Bradley Cooper
Every year, a little-known actor emerges from relative obscurity to join the other nominees, and everyone politely smiles and pats themselves on the back for not honoring some old warhorse giving the same acclaimed performance a billion times over. It’s rarely about how good he is, and in Barkhad Abdi’s case, it feels overly political: honoring his work has been one of the defensive strategies employed by fans of Captain Phillips who bat back accusations of the film’s simplistic racial dynamics.

Abdi’s great, of course, a palpable menace who reveals himself as psychologically complex and principled in the film’s quieter moments. But, like everything in Paul Greengrass’ thriller, it’s about context. Greengrass’ docu-style shooting method reduces everything to "process," whether it’s a chase, a brawl, or a negotiation. It’s a credit to Greengrass’ intelligence (and/or commercial interests) that the not-nominated Tom Hanks is so good in the title role, but it’s a credit to the studios for getting Abdi out there, making his name known while promoting the film, because his character certainly feels less concrete and more elemental than his opposition.

Bradley Cooper is a surprise honoree, given that he wasn’t receiving awards attention from other voting bodies. Generally, you’re not going to receive a lot of Oscar heat if you were better in another recent Oscar-nominated role, and yet here’s Cooper, a year after his Leading Actor nod in Silver Linings Playbook, offering some alpha male comic relief to David O. Russell’s manic crime caper. His attention in this category likely has to do with the Academy’s love of the film more than an appreciation of the work. Also, consider it a silent vote to bring back perms.
The Wolf of Wall Street
CONTENDERS: Jonah Hill and Michael Fassbender
Could anyone have expected that the hefty kid buying fishbowl shoes in The 40 Year Old Virgin would end up being a two-time Oscar nominee? Jonah Hill is a hot mess in Wolf of Wall Street, and his gonzo turn, equal parts Joe Pesci and sputtering early eighties Eric Roberts, powers some of the film’s manic set pieces. It’s a comedic performance, which may hurt him: Hill has very few moments to actually provide a conscience to his devil-may-care deal broker. As such, he probably suffers from not having that show-stopping moment where he realizes the error of his ways.

Everyone seems ready to anoint Michael Fassbender as the next massive star, and an Oscar sure would speed up that coronation. It’s not unmerited: Fassbender is sulfurous in 12 Years A Slave, bristling with the frustrating rage of impotence. Steve McQueen’s direction makes Fassbender’s anger seem bigger, almost emblematic of the rage that voters would like to believe existed within the ignorance of those who willingly participated in the slave trade. It’s ugly, villainous work, and there’s the sense Fassbender is so good that he’ll be even better someday, in a more dynamic part. A win for him is possible, but he’s a Leading Man, and that’s something that will be in voter’s minds when they think about awarding him for a supporting ensemble part.
Dallas Buyers Club
FRONTRUNNER: Jared Leto
There’s a truckload of problematic elements to both Leto’s performance and his character in Dallas Buyers Club. Clearly, that’s been lost on the voting bloc, who nominated both Matthew McConaughey for Best Actor and the film for Best Picture. It’s the year’s prominent "issue" film, and Leto’s presence in the narrative is meant to satisfy those troubled that a significant LGBT story is seen through the eyes of another straight man. Judging by Leto’s many award wins, the strategy worked.

Leto’s actually pretty decent in the part as Ron Woodroof’s sassy sparring partner. Initially, it seems like something of a comic relief part, but Leto infuses the role with good humor and an indomitable spirit. Plus, the Academy loves their LGBT characters as long as they’re doomed, and Leto’s Rayon has her ticket stamped long before we’ve really gotten to know her. There’s a natural chemistry between Leto and McConaughey as well, ultimately the key to both receiving equal praise.

It’s no secret that, among these actors, Leto has been the most forthcoming with others also in the voting body. Despite his youthful looks, he’s the veteran of the bunch, and he’s toiled away in enough forgettable roles that his recent semi-retirement comes off as something of a principled, silent stance against the lack of quality roles offered his way. Not to denigrate the other nominees, all who have come across graciously as nominees, but Leto has seemed the most upfront about his friendly desire to win, and his recent turn on the awards circuit, charming other stars and reporters, matters a whole bunch.

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