Film Poll: In 2017, Supporting Performers Were the Movies’ Soul

From Willem Dafoe to Barry Keoghan, Allison Janney to Tiffany Haddish, the category found the future of Hollywood competing with its longtime players


“Together, we’ll make history!” croons Foreigner when Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) lands her triple axel in I, Tonya. That’s everyone’s goal: make a move, make a movie, make history. I, Tonya’s Allison Janney, who plays Harding’s mother, will get her name carved in gold if she wins Best Supporting Actress at this year’s Oscars. She’s the odds-on favorite with bookies — no, really, you can place a bet — but she’ll have to get past the Village Voice Film Poll’s top pick for Best Supporting Performance, Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird, who trounced Janney in our roundup at a rate of 4-1.

Why the disparity? Because, historically, two types of very different supporting performers jockey for awards glory, not unlike the polar-opposite rivalry between the socially approved Nancy Kerrigan and the raw zest of Tonya Harding. There are the much-beloved actors who’ve long been as solid in everything as they are here, so, clearly, they’re due. And then there are the lesser-known talents who seize their shot but are perhaps a little too new-on-the-scene for voters to feel obligated to award them first place.

The former, this year, is the forever-terrific Janney (number six in the Voice poll), who’s been cranking out performances better than her chain-smoking, abusive LaVona Golden for decades, only without the extra frill of a pet bird. Her challenger Metcalf is flawless as Saoirse Ronan’s fretful, irritating mom, but a bit of an outsider as she’s focused mainly on theater and TV. I love Janney, but LaVona is a 2-D cartoon without any depth. Watching Metcalf’s performance, however, feels like discovering an underwater treasure with sonar. She lets you see the shape of a full, complicated woman without ever plopping all her flaws on the table. As she was with Voice voters, she’s my clear pick. Yet she’ll probably lose the Oscar, as she hasn’t committed enough of her career to film to make the Academy eager to engrave her in its annals.

2017 was a good year for actresses — particularly the oh-my-god-why-aren’t-we-casting-her-more? kind. It was especially good for supporting actresses, as evidenced by the murderers’ row of Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip, number three), Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread, number four), and Mary J. Blige (Mudbound, number nine) that rounds out the Voice poll’s top ten. Too often, the end-of-year nominees in this category tend to read as if voters were scrambling to remember what girl had a couple of scenes in that male-centric Best Picture contender they like. I’d name names, but that’s unfair to the actresses who are just doing good work with the scraps they’re given.

In truth, many of the best supporting performances, female and male, tend to shine in the murk of otherwise awful films. They have the ability to brighten up a boring script, but get forgotten by awards time, when people have discarded their movies altogether. (Yes, I’m still mad Sienna Miller didn’t get nominated for her phenomenal role as a two-timing Irish girlfriend in last year’s Ben Affleck disaster Live by Night.) Still, the category tends to be my favorite, because it’s where you find the future of Hollywood shimmying alongside the great talents of its past, who are hoping to take one last memorable stage bow. It’s where Michelle Pfeiffer and Holly Hunter can remind producers their best decades might be ahead of them; where Haddish and Get Out’s Betty Gabriel can announce that they are here to stay.

Among the men in this year’s Voice poll, I’m excited to see an up-and-comer like The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s Barry Keoghan (number seven) nipping at the heels of established veterans: Call Me by Your Name’s Michael Stuhlbarg (number five), The Florida Project’s Willem Dafoe (number two). Keoghan can eat a bowl of spaghetti blank-faced and still make the audience shiver. Among the Voice crowd, the 25-year-old actor, who convincingly passes for fifteen (see also: Dunkirk) and still has eons in front of him to claim his prize, ranked higher than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’s Sam Rockwell (number eight), who gives a performance delivered in the key of yelp.

Rockwell’s good in the role of a dumb, angry cop, and the gamblers have him pegged to win. (Note: Last year, they were also certain La La Land would score Best Picture.) Yet he’s out-acted even in his own movie by Woody Harrelson, as the sheriff whose name and reputation is fourteen feet tall and fated to go down in flames. Voice voters ranked Rockwell just higher than The Shape of Water’s Richard Jenkins (number ten), doing what he’s always done best: turn a paper-thin role into a human being who feels as weighty as Don Quixote. Jenkins is due for that warhorse’s award — overdue, really. He’s seventy years old and still the best part of every movie he’s in, especially the bad ones. (What on earth was he doing in White House Down? Also, thank you, Richard Jenkins, for appearing in White House Down.)

I agree with the poll results that this is the year to hail Dafoe or Stuhlbarg — and, of the two, I’m glad to see Dafoe edge ahead. The more you watch Sean Baker’s phenomenal film, the more clear it becomes that, if six-year-old Brooklynn Prince is the heart of the movie, Dafoe is its soul. We spend most of The Florida Project seeing life at the Magic Castle through the young eyes of Prince’s Moonee: big, bold, beautiful, full of promise. But every time Dafoe shuffles into the frame, we realize he’s the fairy godfather who allows her innocence to thrive, protecting her from dangers she’s too young to understand, be they pedophiles claiming they’re just thirsty for a soda or Moonee’s own mother. He’s the duke of this dilapidated castle, a Sisyphus wrestling with broken ice machines, a man standing alone in overgrown Orlando, trying to beat back nature with a leaf blower. He’s not just on the sidelines glowering as the movie’s star nails her world-record jump. He is the real Florida, good and bad, empathetic and stern. He is the movie, and, for a supporting actor, that’s the best salute of all.