Diverse Performances Square Off in Oscar's Supporting Categories

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Sam Rockwell in 'Three Billboards' and Allison Janney in 'I, Tonya'

The Academy Awards showcase big and bold, as well as subtle, interpretations in the supporting actor and actress categories.

There’s a showdown that’s reflected in this year’s Oscar race in all four acting categories: old guard versus new guard — and age has nothing to do with it. This year’s crop of acting nominations exemplifies a more diverse and expanded Academy membership, open to fresh choices, and suggests a promising future, even if the old guard triumphs this year.

In the supporting actress category, frontrunner Allison Janney who gives a brash, entertaining performance as Tonya Harding’s mother in I, Tonya. Janney is of the same generation as her main competition, Laurie Metcalf. But Metcalf’s layered performance as the mother in Lady Bird is a more subtle revelation of character. She allows us to see the defensiveness and insecurity beneath her character’s maternal but often unkind treatment of her daughter.

In the supporting actor category, Woody Harrelson was nominated not for his turn as the wild-eyed villain in War for the Planet of the Apes but for his everyman police chief in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — along with co-star Sam Rockwell. While Willem Dafoe can be broad when he has to in roles like the Green Goblin in Spider-Man, in The Florida Project, he blends in among unknown actors. – Caryn James

THR takes a look at all the contenders in the supporting acting categories and offers predictions for the two categories.

Best Supporting Actress

Alison Janney, I, Tonya

Janney’s take on Tonya Harding’s mother, LaVona Golden, is the stuff of nightmares: She’s an abusive, acerbic skater mom who seems to prefer her pet bird to her daughter. The performance has earned Janney, 58, a slew of awards and her first Oscar nomination.

“I was surprised by how much Tonya [Harding] thought I nailed it and then how many times I’ve had people come up and say, ‘Oh, my God, you can’t understand, you are exactly what I grew up with my mother. You’re exactly like my aunt so-and-so,’” Janney said. “People were coming to me saying they knew that character, and that’s shocking and surprising to me because sometimes I just thought these things were so over the top.”  Rebecca Ford

Mary J. Blige, Mudbound

Not only did Blige, 47, receive her first acting Oscar nomination for playing Florence in Dee Rees’ post-World War II family drama, but with her nod for the original song “Mighty River,” from the Mudbound soundtrack, she became the first person to earn acting and songwriting nominations in the same year.

“I know the thing that I do have in common with Florence is her ability to see a lot of things but not have a lot to say, and to be powerful and silent at the same time,” Blige said. “That’s a survival tactic of mine. I don’t say a lot — especially when I feel like I’m in trouble. I’m quiet because I’m trying to strategize, I’m trying to figure it all out; I’m trying to get through it. Florence was quiet, and she was just trying to figure it out, and then when it was time, she told her husband, ‘OK, you did everything you had to do. Now it’s my turn. I’m going to go work for these people whether you like it or not.’”  Shannon L. Bowen

Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread

Manville is one of England’s most celebrated actresses — a frequent muse to filmmaker Mike Leigh and an Olivier-winning stage performer who’s worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre and Old Vic. But despite all of her accomplishments, the 61-year-old has not yet managed to entice Hollywood in the ways that some of her contemporaries — Emma Thompson, Helen Mirren, Tilda Swinton — have. All of that is now poised to change, however, thanks to her turn as Cyril Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. Manville has earned her first Oscar nomination for the darkly droll performance, playing the controlling sister to Daniel Day-Lewis’ obsessional couturier, Reynolds Woodcock.

“Everyone always thinks about the Oscars as the ultimate prize. And they are,” Manville said. "Whatever your feelings are about them, they are absolutely held up on a pedestal. They are regarded as the ultimate. For me, I do a lot of theater work, but there was a giddy excitement — my 12-year-old came out when I found out I was nominated. But this film was such a full and satisfying and glorious experience, so it feels very right. I had 14 wonderful weeks making it, and I’ve become very good friends with Paul and Daniel."  Seth Abramovitch

Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

Spencer earned her second consecutive Oscar nomination, and third in six years, for her role as Zelda, a kindhearted custodian in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. In doing so, Spencer, 45, made history as the only African-American actress to receive back-to-back nominations from the Academy (she also has one win under her belt — for supporting actress in 2011’s The Help).

“I look for stories that I connect to and that I can see myself being a part of, something that feels like a world I could live in,” Spencer said.  Patrick Shanley

Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird

In Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, Metcalf plays Marion McPherson, a tough mom who is trying to raise a daughter, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who wants nothing to do with her or their hometown of Sacramento. Metcalf, 62, who earned her first Oscar nomination for Lady Bird, spoke about how her relationship with her teenager affected her performance.

“I confessed to Greta that I was kind of going through a bit of it, living through a headstrong teenage relationship in my own home at the time,” Metcalf said. “I just give all that credit to her for nailing that kind of a conflict during those late-teen years, where it just seems like it will never end.”  Mia Galuppo

Who Should Win: Laurie Metcalf

Effective as Janney is as Unsupportive Mother of the Decade in I, Tonya, there was something almost Saturday Night Live-ish about the one-note foulness. Blige and Spencer did solid work entirely of a piece with the equally fine contributions of their films' respective ensemble casts. For me, it comes down to Metcalf and Manville. The latter registered minutely calibrated emotional expressions of a hyper-alert character that were wonderful to behold. Still, Metcalf's distressed, limited and fearful mother of a daughter about to leave the nest clearly stands above the rest for its vivid portrait of violently conflicting emotions.  THR Chief Film Critic Todd McCarthy

Who Will Win: Allison Janney

Among performers, only Cloris Leachman and Julia Louis-Dreyfus have won more Emmys than Janney's seven, but until this year she had never received so much as an Oscar nomination. Now, for her portrayal of the meanest movie mom to hit the silver screen since Precious (for which Mo'Nique won in this category), a hilarious and spot-on impersonation of Harding's mom, she looks almost certain to take home gold. Lady Bird's Metcalf did well with critics groups, and Phantom Thread's Manville has her admirers, but Janney swept the industry awards.  THR Awards Analyst Scott Feinberg

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Best Supporting Actor

Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project

As Bobby Hicks, the caring but beleaguered manager of the Magic Castle Motel in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, Dafoe, 62, earned his third best supporting Oscar nomination — his first since 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire.

“I didn’t know who the character was because I was unfamiliar with the world we were portraying,” Dafoe said. “In the interest of respect and authenticity, I didn’t want to lean on any previous knowledge of who I thought this character could be. I went out and interviewed a bunch of these guys who had a similar life, had a similar job. That really helped — not superficially in how they dressed, where they came from, how they talked, but more deeply about their attitudes toward life. What was amazing is they were fairly normal, working-class guys, but they had this beautiful capacity to care for people. They took real pride in their work in being managers and that they made the place a better place for people.”  Andy Lewis

Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Harrelson, 56, earned his third Oscar nomination after reteaming with his Seven Psychopaths director, Martin McDonagh, for Three Billboards, this time playing a police chief who goes up against a grief-stricken mother (Frances McDormand).

“I have this unwritten rule in my life that I’ll do anything Martin asks,” Harrelson said. “Years ago I met him because I was writing this screenplay that takes place entirely in Ireland, so I was looking up great contemporary Irish playwrights. So I met Martin in Dublin. We ended up spending a lot of time together because I did a play over there. He was writing this play The Pillowman, and he offered it to me, but I read it and I said, “Well, finally with Martin the darkness has overcome the light.” Usually, he has a perfect little balance, but this one — he’s crucifying a kid onstage. So I didn’t do it.

Then I went and watched it. Billy Crudup played the part and it was like one of the greatest productions I’ve ever seen. After that, I said, ‘I’ll never make this blunder again.’ And thank God, because I really liked Seven Psychopaths. With this one, I read it, I thought it was very good, and then I was just in.”  Seth Abramovitch

Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water

Jenkins earned his second Oscar nomination for the role of Giles, a lonely gay artist who finds himself thrust into a dangerous plan to rescue a sensitive aquatic creature by his best friend and neighbor (played by fellow Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins) in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water.

“I love the scene where I’m translating for Sally on why I should help her save this creature,” Jenkins said of his favorite scene. “On that day, there was a different energy. We rehearsed it a lot, but it just felt new and alive when we shot it. I was also perplexed with how I would respond when [Giles] first saw the creature. When he sees him, it’s startling and terrifying, but then my first line is ‘He’s so beautiful.’ It’s always fun and interesting to see what will come out when we get on set.”  Patrick Shanley

Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World

Each fall, Plummer and his wife, Elaine Taylor, transform into snowbirds, moving their home base from Weston, Conn., to Palm Beach, Fla. But this year, those plans were waylaid in a major way when Plummer, 88, got a call in November about replacing disgraced actor Kevin Spacey in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, a Herculean and nearly unprecedented effort considering that the movie — recounting the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson — was done and scheduled for a Christmas release. Plummer said yes and was on set three days later. His nomination for his portrayal of the elder Getty makes him the oldest thespian ever nominated for an Oscar. He’s also the oldest to win one, a distinction he earned in 2012 with his supporting actor victory for Beginners.

“The whole bloody thing was challenging, but challenging in the right kind of way,” Plummer said. “You want the challenge. The hardest work was to make J. Paul Getty seem human. The writer [David Scarpa] gave him a hint of humanity every now and then. I grabbed on to that. I found a couple of openings in the role that would give the sense that he wasn’t just a cold, moneygrubbing man.” — Pamela McClintock

Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The third time turned out to be the charm for Rockwell, who received his first Oscar nomination for portraying clueless, racist cop Jason Dixon in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, his third project with writer-director Martin McDonagh.

“He was just a great antihero,” Rockwell said of his character. “He starts out as kind of a goofball — you can't even really say he's an antagonist. He is more of goofball, comic relief as opposed to an antagonist, and then he becomes not so much of a protagonist, but rather an antihero of sorts. It's almost like the arc of a superhero or a supervillain; there's a form of that vigilante kind of character.” — Ryan Parker

Who Should Win: Sam Rockwell

The roles played by Harrelson or  Jenkins aren't quite as substantial or challenging as the others and, effective as Plummer is in his moment's-notice role of Getty, the only former winner here isn't quite deserving of a repeat.  Dafoe's work as the motel manager in The Florida Project begins unassumingly, only to slowly accrue a low-key working-class grandeur that registers affectingly. But Rockwell's wild role as a foul policeman in Three Billboards is even meatier and has a greater arc, and the actor smacks it out of the park. – THR Chief Film Critic Todd McCarthy

Who Will Win: Sam Rockwell

This prize has been split by two “actors’ actors” all season: The Florida Project’s Dafoe, twice previously an Oscar bridesmaid, who swept the major critics groups, and Rockwell, never before Oscar nominated, who swept the major industry awards. Rockwell’s film is more admired — Dafoe is his film’s sole nominee — but Rockwell’s co-star Harrelson could bite off some of his votes. Rockwell should be able to hold them off them as well as two other beloved vets, Jenkins and Plummer. – THR Awards Analyst Scott Feinberg