The best performances every year are from actors trying to appear gracious about not getting Oscar-nominated, even though by all rights, they know they deserved to win. Alas, some of these actors happen to be in relatively obscure flicks that don’t have a big Oscar push, and others are simply ignored in favor of flashier performances. Other factors pop up, too, like the fact that the nominators don’t feel they owe the actor a nod based on their body of work, not to mention that they might not be what’s known as “a member of the club”—i.e., a known player within the Hollywood scene. Here are my 10 favorite 2021 turns given by actors who will simply have to settle for my appreciation instead of the Academy’s.
The Worst Person in the World
In this bracingly original Norwegian film by Joachim Trier, Reinsve is a 30-something Oslo native who impulsively switches careers—and personal direction—as readily as she changes outfits. She leaves her loving, long-term boyfriend for a guy she meets at a party, clearly entranced by the spontaneous silliness of their physical games, which include armpit sniffing and spending time in the bathroom together. All through this and the pathos that follows, Reinsve—who won Best Actress at Cannes—is suitably unpredictable, making Julie riveting without ever sugarcoating her choices. Alas, Oscar won’t choose to nominate her, since the category will most likely be filled with Princess Di, Tammy Faye Bakker, Lucille Ball, and other bigger names.
Mass is a low-budget gut-punch of a film in which the parents of a teen who’s been murdered via gun violence at school meet with the parents of the kid who did the shooting. All four actors are good, but Plimpton is by far the standout as the victim’s mom, who strains to be polite and nonconfrontational but can’t help exploding into anxious rages. I would call Plimpton a lead, but she’s landed in the Best Supporting Actress competition, where she’s up against costar Ann Dowd, who’s also gotten praise and a push. The result will probably be bupkis.
The Lost Daughter
The costar of 50 Shades of Grey—and daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson—has turned out to be a real actor.
While Olivia Colman is deservedly getting honors for her Lost Daughter performance as a vacationing professor with seriously conflicted views about family, Johnson is also terrific as a younger woman facing a similar struggle. Her support helps Colman shine, but that kind of thing only gets you a “thank you” in someone else’s speech.
The French Dispatch
In Wes Anderson’s dizzyingly clever ode to journalists abroad, so many art-house actors pop up that the second you start thinking, “Where’s Tilda?” she’s there, with false teeth. And in the last of the film’s three chapters, Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat) arrives as a food writer who’s partly based on James Baldwin via A.J. Liebling. Wright comes off skillfully loquacious, but it’s the kind of sophisticated performance that film critics groups are more likely to recognize than the Oscars are.
Penelope Cruz is en route to getting nominated for her captivating performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s melodrama (complete with an old Hollywood twist), but Smit also scores as the young lesbian who has evolving feelings about whether she wants a baby and what she’s willing to do about that situation. As with The Lost Daughter, these parallel mothers give parallel performances, but unfortunately, there’s only room for five people per category.
Mexican comedy star/director Derbez is fabulous as the unconventional music teacher of a hearing daughter of deaf parents. He’s quirky, tough, and ultimately lovable, coaching the girl to sing “Both Sides Now” with guts instead of prettiness. (That she later seems to ignore everything she learned is one of the film’s problems, and certainly not the actor’s fault; his lessons were persuasive to me.) Fellow supporting players Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur are understandably getting noticed for their heartbreaking work, but Derbez’s scene-stealing antics might not have enough gravitas for Oscar to bite. What’s more, while the film was scooped up at Sundance for a whopping $25 million, it didn’t end up being a hit, and that kind of cash-flow crisis has a tendency to impact trophy-holding chances. Derbez is crowd-pleasing in a movie that hasn’t drawn crowds.
In Leos Carax’s avant-garde musical allegory, a puppet baby grows into a real girl, played by McDowell, who is now all of 7 years old. McDowell has only one scene, but that’s not the problem; Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting Actress for a single, seething scene in Network (1976), and McDowell is as powerful as Straight was. In her spotlight moments, she has to make you forget the amazing puppet she’s morphed from, while also holding ground with dad Adam Driver in recrimination-filled dialogue and singing, and she is miraculously good at all of it. But the movie is too weird for Oscar’s taste, and besides, children don’t usually get Oscar nods. For every nominated Quvenzhané Wallis (the stunning star of 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild), there are a lot of rudely snubbed Jacob Tremblays (he was astounding in 2015’s Room). My feeling is that the Oscars should bring back the honorary award for juveniles, which they gave starting with Shirley Temple and ending with Hayley Mills. That type of special prize also serves to spare kids from direct competition.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Hawkins (In the Heights, Straight Outta Compton) is superb as Macduff, the Thane of Fife, who gets locked into a competition to the death with the title character in Joel Coen’s dark and whispery Shakespeare adaptation. He’s tough and poignant and, according to Indiewire, he “runs away with a movie that keeps him largely on the margins.” The problem is, there are so many actors doing great work in the cast that even Coen’s wife, three-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand, probably won’t get nominated for her stir-crazy Lady Macbeth.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Yes, this Tragedy may be begetting another Oscar casualty. Playing all three witches who predict Macbeth’s terrible fate, actor/theater director Hunter coos and melts and reappears and haunts, laying the groundwork for the film’s startling tone. But while Hunter did win Best Supporting Actress from the New York Film Critics Circle, my dark prophecy is that Oscar nominators will find her turn too esoteric for their taste (and there’s that actor overload problem, too). But not to worry—Oscar favorite Denzel Washington’s bravura achievement as Macbeth is sure to get noticed. He’ll be nominated tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow….
Harriet Sansom Harris
All kinds of actors are nabbing kudos for Paul Thomas Anderson’s swirling look at a bumpy 1970s relationship, but one of the funniest scenes of the year has Broadway/TV fave Harris as a memorably wacky power broker. Harris plays Mary Grady, a real-life, now deceased casting agent, who pummels Alana Haim’s aspiring actress character with questions, comments, and concerns from outer space. (“You’re like an English pit bull dog!” Grady exults. “With sex appeal! And a very Jewish nose!”) No one could have played the scene better than Harris—but screaming and crying is usually an easier road to a nomination. ❖