The best supporting actor category of the Academy Awards is a strange one. The category itself is perfectly sensible, of course — it's designed to reward acting work in smaller, non-lead roles.
But a lot of the time, the nominations in it don't seem logical. Sometimes it's an actor who's playing above — or outside — his usual game (Burt Reynolds in “Boogie Nights”). Sometimes it's a hammy, sub-par performance from a well-respected actor (Jack Nicholson's “you can't HANDLE the truth” turn in “A Few Good Men” is one of the most parodied scenes in cinema), or a portrayal that looked better than it was by virtue of appearing in a fairly bad movie (Al Pacino in “Dick Tracy,” Andy Garcia in “Godfather III”), or a portrayal in a fairly good movie that got overlooked in other categories (Ben Kingsley in “Sexy Beast”).
Sometimes it's a role that seemed like a lead, but got nominated as a supporting part instead (Albert Finney for “Erin Brockovich”); sometimes it seems like the Academy wants to reward a given actor for cumulative career achievement, even if his work in that particular role isn't spectacular (John C. Reilly in “Chicago”); and sometimes it makes no kind of sense at all (Eric Roberts for “Runaway Train” … he's a hard worker, but … Eric Roberts?).
In other words, it's not just who gets nominated that determines the outcome; it's why.
With all these different motivations and types of performances put side-by-side in one category, it's often difficult to pick a winner — comparing apples to oranges to bananas, then trying to predict which fruit the Academy voters like best — and this year is no different.
Forget about Hurt, think Clooney
Fortunately, we can eliminate one nominee from the outset: William Hurt (“A History of Violence”). Hurt is one of those “…huh?” nominees; he's an outstanding actor, with a best actor statuette to prove it, but Hurt had barely 15 minutes of screen time, most of which he spent pointedly showing off the Philadelphia accent he'd learned. It's not impressive work; he did more, and better, in “Syriana,” so why did he miss a nomination on that role?
The Academy really wanted to nominate George Clooney for “Syriana,” to the exclusion of everyone else in the cast. The nomination is not completely out of left field, as Clooney is an immensely likable actor (and personage, generally) who got a lot of publicity for the Bob Barnes role, but his chief accomplishment seems to have been de-sexy-fying himself with a paunch and a beard. He's just not doing a lot, acting-wise, that we haven't already seen from him “Ocean's Twelve” or “Welcome to Collinwood.”
The Academy may have favored Clooney with this nomination as a potential consolation prize, in case he doesn't take the best original screenplay or best director awards for “Good Night, and Good Luck” but the voters ought to have let that film stand on its own — especially since other actors in “Syriana” did stronger work.
Alexander Siddig as Prince Nasir Al-Subaai had a more substantial role, and gave a surprising, subtle performance, but he may have gotten overlooked because Clooney is the hotter name right now. But the Academy isn't about rigorous fairness (just ask Annette Bening), and besides, Clooney already took the Golden Globe for the role — generally a reliable predictor of Oscar success. It's probably Clooney's to lose.
Playing the heavy
It's not Matt Dillon who will beat him, in any case. Dillon did solid enough work in “Crash,” but he got the nomination for two reasons: 1) the movie got a lot of critical buzz, and 2) he plays a racist. These reasons would explain why Don Cheadle and Ludacris didn't get nominated as well; Academy “logic” dictates that it's “harder” to play a character who's disagreeable or offensive, so, even though Ludacris did superior work with far clunkier writing, he's ignored in favor of Dillon.
Also ignored: the outstanding Terrence Howard, but he got nominated elsewhere, so he's skipped here. Why, when Jamie Foxx got a best supporting nod last year on top of being the overwhelming favorite for best actor as Ray Charles? Who knows.
Dillon probably can't win; the movie came out nearly a year ago, and underwent something of a backlash at the end of the year when critics turned in their best-of lists.
Is Jake really supporting?
Jake Gyllenhaal has a shot, even though he doesn't really belong in this category. Yes, he spent slightly less time on-screen than Heath Ledger did in “Brokeback Mountain,” but that doesn't mean Jack Twist is a supporting role — it's a leading role.
The studio may have feared that Gyllenhaal had no chance in the best actor group, either because the vote would split between him and Ledger or, more likely, because Gyllenhaal would have no chance against Ledger. And he wouldn't. Ennis Del Mar is a revelatory performance; Gyllenhaal's is merely good, and primarily a function of a good screenplay. That said, “Brokeback” is the season's awards darling, and Gyllenhaal could benefit from that.
The ‘I'm sorry we ignored you last year’ award
Paul Giamatti doesn't have any such critical momentum behind him. “Cinderella Man” did reasonably well at the box office, but Giamatti's is the only “major” nomination for Ron Howard's boxing opus, and the movie came out in the summertime — most people have forgotten it.
Not that the movie itself really matters, because Giamatti isn't actually nominated for that work. He's nominated because the Academy feels guilty that it insulted his performances in both “Sideways” and “American Splendor” by ignoring both of them completely. Giamatti is never going to get the Brad Pitt roles, but he's one of the most reliably excellent actors working today, and it looks like the nominating committee feels bad about taking so long to acknowledge that.
Should Giamatti have gotten a nomination for the Harvey Pekar role? Absolutely. Should he have beaten Sean Penn that year? Absolutely. (He wouldn't have, mind you. The Academy loves a scenery-chewer. But he should have.) But they can't turn back time, so they've nominated him for the Joe Gould role instead, and if the voters base their choices on acting, Giamatti will win. He turned in the best per se performance in the group.
If the voters base their choices on sentiment, Giamatti will still win, because he's due, and Mr. and Mrs. John Q. America love nothing more than the triumph of an underdog. But if the voters go with heat, with buzz, with a more popularity-contest approach, or with their desire for a clean sweep, he could go home with nothing.
Hard race to callAlas, we just have no idea what the voters do base their choices on, because if we did, we'd understand how William Hurt got nominated for the lesser of two roles, why the weakest supporting actor in “Crash” is the only one who got a shot, or how Tim Robbins beat Djimon Hounsou in “In America” with that twitchy, spazzy performance in “Mystic River.” (Yeah, it was two years ago, but it's still completely baffling.)
But we can guess. We can guess that Hurt's part (and the movie it's in) isn't big enough, that voters will give Ledger best actor and feel they've done right by “Brokeback” in that regard, that Dillon's too weird of a choice for most. That leaves two: Clooney and Giamatti.
Giamatti deserves it. But if you want to win your Oscar pool, go with Clooney — and feel good about it. He might not have entirely earned it as an actor, but at least he won't make a mockery of it with a movie like Robin “Jakob the Liar”Williams.