This year’s category features five very familiar faces. Other than the veteran Robert Duvall (receiving his sixth Oscar nomination), the other four men have varying experience at the Academy Awards, escalating from zero previous nominations (J.K. Simmons) to one (Mark Ruffalo) to two (Edward Norton) and to three (Ethan Hawke; only one previous acting nomination). The following is my Oscars ballot for this category, Best Actor in a Supporting Role:
WINNER: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)
In my opinion, J.K. Simmons delivered the most extraordinary acting performance of any kind in 2014. I have been eagerly awaiting the release of my “Best Supporting Actor” ballot simply because of Simmons’s tour de force in Whiplash as Terence Fletcher, the conductor of New York’s most prestigious music school. Fletcher is totalitarian, bullying, and without any charismatic quality, and Simmons breaks free from his seemingly charming persona (as depicted in most of his films) to breathe life into this despotic conductor—for the sake of cinema, Simmons thrives in this newfound “asshole” role. Never once did I say, “I just cannot buy into Simmons as this tormenting, crass character,” which would be easy to do considering he is the Farmers Insurance guy. From the moment Fletcher stepped into his first scene, I was completely on board with Simmons’s harrowing portrayal. He owns every single scene that he is featured in, and I would watch Whiplash (an absolutely spellbinding film unto itself) over and over again just to see Simmons. His terrifying nature in this film had me on the edge of my seat, and this is almost exclusively due to one of the best acting performances of the past decade. Simmons has never previously been nominated for an Academy Award.
- Edward Norton (Birdman)
In Birdman, Edward Norton plays Mike Shiner, a volatile method actor that is hired at the last minute to play a key role in failing actor Riggan Thompson’s Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. This movie is about as odd as it gets, but it succeeds in more ways than one—one of those ways is via Norton’s hilarious performance. Shiner is one of the cockiest SOBs you will ever see on the big screen, and Norton delivers this not-so-subtle swagger with ostentatious vigor. Some of the film’s most hilarious scenes are a result of Norton’s spirited performance. During the Broadway show’s preview before opening night, Shiner gets so “method” that he actually gets drunk (his character is seen drinking alcohol in this particular scene) and embarks on an inebriated rant in front of the crowd. In another scene, he is supposed to be pretending to engage in “coitus” with Naomi Watts’s character, but instead of “acting,” Shiner attempts to actually have intercourse with her on stage. These scenes are downright hilarious, and Edward Norton’s performance is spot-on. With a long career featuring amazing performances, this is by far one of his best. Norton was previously nominated for Best Actor for Primal Fear (1996) and for Best Supporting Actor for American History X (1998).
- Robert Duvall (The Judge)
In The Judge, Robert Duvall portrays the titular “judge.” Judge Joseph Palmer, a respected man in a small town, is thrust into a nightmarish whirlwind as he is arrested and charged with murder. Robert Duvall is clearly one of Hollywood’s most enduring performers, and with a career (spanning over 50 years) full of memorable roles, the 84-year-old veteran adds another spectacular performance to his already incredible filmography. Judge Palmer is a complicated character. He has just lost his wife, is suspected of murdering a local man, and is battling illness—this is by far the most trying time in his life. I could not imagine anyone else making this performance work as well as Duvall. In recent years, he always plays the smart-mouth, grumpy character well, but it is in the most emotional of Judge Palmer’s scenes that Duvall most flourishes. I was not a massive fan of this movie, but I was more than impressed by the way Duvall carried the story throughout. Robert Duvall has been previously nominated five times in acting categories at the Oscars, winning the Academy Award for Best Actor for Tender Mercies (1983).
- Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
In Foxcatcher, Mark Ruffalo plays the real-life Olympic champion Dave Schultz. I enjoyed Foxcatcher (not as much as I was hoping for, though), and it is most due to the remarkable acting performances from Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo. Carell plays the consistently mysterious and disturbing John du Pont and Tatum plays the macho, but unassuming Mark Schultz; however, the most intriguing character is Dave Schultz. He is by far the most levelheaded of the film’s main cast, and Ruffalo portrays the character amazingly. According to Ruffalo in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the physical and emotional preparation for Foxcatcher was intense: “I’ve never done anything harder in my life[.] I’ve never been pushed more. It was literally blood, sweat, and tears on this movie. Every part of it.” In some of the most vexing scenes of this movie, it is Ruffalo who delivers the most truthful of performances, and it is part of the reason Foxcatcher is so good from an acting standpoint. Ruffalo was previously nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in 2010’s The Kids Are All Right.
- Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
In Richard Linklater’s 12-year epic Boyhood, Ethan Hawke portrays Mason, the divorced father of Samantha and Mason, Jr. Boyhood is an unbelievable film, but I have Hawke in last place in this category because I do not agree with his nomination. Yes, he gives a great performance, but it was nothing memorable in my opinion—he is merely serviceable in his role. Fresh off of his Oscar nomination for 2001’s Training Day, Hawke’s performance in those initial scenes (filmed first back in 2002) is stellar. He is everything you would expect from an Oscar nominee. However, like his acting career since 2002, his performance seems to go downhill throughout the rest of the film. It never borders on a “bad” performance, but it is not anything that sticks out as Oscar-worthy. He seems like he is just playing Ethan Hawke, which is not compelling enough for me to believe his inclusion in this category is justified. Although Hawke has received two Oscar nominations for screenwriting, his only previous nomination in an acting category was for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Training Day (2001).
Actors snubbed in this category: Shia LaBeouf (Fury), Jon Bernthal (Fury) Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler), Ben Mendelsohn (Starred Up), and Chris O’Dowd (Calvary)