Next up is Best Supporting Actress: another young, stable category with a relationship to an older, more hegemonic category–in this case, Best Actress, my wheelhouse. The formation of the Best Supporting Actress category in 1936 led to a fascinating, evolving relationship between the two. As the slate of 1936 set of nominees suggests, the advent of Supporting Actress at first opened up the Oscars to a whole new range of roles and performers. Indeed, during the first two decades of the categories’ coexistence, while character actresses like Ethel Barrymore and Agnes Moorehead racked up nominees in Supporting and studio stars like Greer Garson and Katharine Hepburn thrived in Lead, only five actresses (Fay Bainter, Olivia de Havilland, Teresa Wright, Jennifer Jones, and Grace Kelly) surfaced in both classes. After that, the two began to mingle, as the first generation of A-list stars began roosting in secondary roles: Wendy Hiller & Shelley Winters, as past Best Actress nominees, and Ingrid Bergman & Helen Hayes, as past winners, all won in Supporting. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, the flow reversed as an increasing number of rising stars like Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts, Annette Bening, and Kate Winslet earned Supporting nominations on their climb up to the Best Actress plateau. These days, the flow has reversed again, with ten actresses migrating from Lead to Supporting in the past decade, versus two (Michelle Williams and Jessica Chastain( who moved in the other direction–a number that will likely rise in retrospect, but still quite low. All in all, 63 of the category’s 295 unique individuals have shown up in both categories, though only a few (Geraldine Page, Shelley Winters) have anything like a balanced split between the two.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Best Supporting Actress is now my strongest among the three remaining acting categories: I’ve seen 292 of 385, leaving 93 performances to go (including fourteen winners). There are plenty of gaps I look forward to filling, including actresses I got to know through the Best Actress quest (Edith Evans for The Chalk Garden, or Geraldine Page for three still-unseen films), and those whose names I only know because of their nominations in this category (Flora Robson for Saratoga Trunk, Marjorie Rambeau for Primrose Path and Torch Song). In this category, I look forward to the individual films more than the individual performers in most cases, such as John Cassavetes’ Faces (Lynn Carlin) or seminal disaster film Airport (Helen Hayes and Maureen Stapleton).
If Best Actress has always interested me for the way in which the nominated performers seem to will themselves and their films into the Oscar conversation, single-nomination films are rare in this category. I cheer the cases where Jacki Weaver for Animal Kingdom or Laura Dern for Wild at Heart can break on through, but this category sometimes frustrates me with its tendency to reflect the opposite phenomenon: performers riding in on the coattails of major awards-contender movies. Since 2000, eight films—seven of them Best Picture nominees—have featured dual Best Supporting Actress performances (contrast this with only 5 such instances in the entirety of the Best Actress category). I find this a deeply mixed blessing, as it can bring small roles (Viola Davis in Doubt) and obscure performers (Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air) to the fore; but also often reflects lazy thinking that brings in actresses as an extension of the goodwill for another aspect of the film. Still, I can’t dismiss a category that features such brilliant wins as Tilda Swinton’s for Michael Clayton and Jane Darwell’s for The Grapes of Wrath, or nominees like Lily Tomlin for Nashville and Julianne Moore for Boogie Nights. I do hope to explore this category in the future, and it may be the next acting category that I attempt, but it will still have to wait!