9 Great 2019 Performances the Oscars (and Everyone Else) Ignored

Wake up! The Academy slept on them, but you don’t have to.

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Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Naomi Watts in Luce (Photo: Neon)

Another year, another predictable Oscar season overwhelmed by award prognostications from one would-be Nostradamus after another. Oops, they did it yet again. The online Greek chorus of writers, critics, and cinephiles has become so obsessed with forecasting who will be nominated and who might be nominated that anyone who should be nominated but has practically zero chance of getting in has become a perennial afterthought.

These days, precursors like the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards seem to be more invested in predicting the final Oscar line-up than casting a wide net and rewarding the most worthy work. We keep reading about the same movies and the same performances while equally worthy ones are largely left out of the discussion. By the time the Oscar nominations are announced, they, predictably, echo the names and titles we’ve been hearing for months.

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts weighed in on February 2, and if their 100 percent white acting nominees (a phenomenon that spawned a new #BAFTAsSoWhite movement), revealed anything, it was this: Any list of the year’s five best supporting performances by women that includes Margot Robbie twice (for Bombshell and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) while leaving out Hustler’s Jennifer Lopez is missing the mark by a mile (or a kilometer).

It’s hard to argue with the merit of presumed Best Actor and Best Actress frontrunners Joaquin Phoenix in Joker and Renée Zellweger in Judy (both of whom, like Marriage Story’s Laura Dern and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Brad Pitt, swept the precursors leading up to the February 9 Academy Awards ceremony), but it’s too bad there has been little room in the Oscar conversation for several acting turns that were shut out in the proverbial cold.

Alfre Woodard and Aldis Hodge in Clemency

We see it every year, especially in Best Actress. Even before anyone sees the movies, certain actors (usually white) are hailed for their “Oscar-worthy” performances.

This season, we saw it happen with Charlize Theron for Bombshell and Saoirse Ronan for Little Women. As a result, the race became overcrowded early, leaving worthy actresses in less-pedigreed films out of the discussion. With Theron, Zellweger, and Marriage Story’s Scarlett Johannson declared locks pretty much all season long and Ronan deemed a fairly sure thing, four actresses — tellingly, all of color — duked it out for the fifth slot.

Holding up the rear behind Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo, The Farewell’s Akwafina, and Us’s Lupita Nyong’o was Clemency’s Alfre Woodard, who was overlooked by all the major precursors. That’s a shame. One of the most-celebrated-under-the-radar screen actresses, Woodard has won four Emmys out of 18 nominations, yet she’s been up for an Oscar just once (Best Supporting Actress for Cross Creek in 1984) and hasn’t had anything resembling real Oscar buzz since 1992’s Passion Fish.

Clemency’s late release date (December 27) probably didn’t help her case, though Little Women’s Christmas Day unveiling didn’t seem to hurt Ronan. Campaign logistics aside, Woodard’s performance as a weary prison warden who has overseen one execution too many is the type of performance that would have Hollywood chanting “It’s time,” if she were, say, Glenn Close, or Annette Bening, or, well, Laura Dern. And if Renée Zellweger had held a shot for a full three silent minutes in Judy, telling two hours of movie using just her face, Best Actress would have been a done deal the day Judy came out in September.

As the death-row inmate who has Woodard’s character rethinking her life’s work, Aldis Hodge matches his seasoned co-star scene for scene. It’s a shame that with the exception of the Screen Actors Guild (which gave this award season a much-needed jolt of the unexpected with a nod for Just Mercy’s Jamie Foxx), this year’s best supporting actor races have been too obsessed with white vets over 55 (namely Brad Pitt, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Tom Hanks, and Anthony Hopkins) to notice.

Daniel Kaluuya in Queen & Slim

The movie is a bit of a mess, but Kaluuya, a 2018 Best Actor nominee for Get Out, is just as effective here as he was in the earlier film. A master at conveying so much with just his eyes, Kaluuya would have been a superstar in the silent-film era (if blacks had been allowed to be superstars back then).

Queen & Slim is full of gaping plot holes, and its screenplay tries too hard to be profound, making its characters say things no-one would ever say in real life. But despite the heavy-handed racial politics of the Thelma and Louise-style tale, Kaluuya’s deft, delicate touch grabs you by the soul and leaves you praying he’ll get a happy ending.

An overcrowded Best Actor race meant he was never really a serious contender, while the passionate but somewhat clunky performance of his costar Jodie Turner-Smith garnered most of the movie’s short-lived Oscar buzz. Oh, well. He may have missed out this year, but Queen & Slim cements Kaluuya’s potential. He’ll end up in many future Oscar roundtables.

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Indina Menzel gives Adam Sandler the business in Uncut Gems (Photo: A24)

Indina Menzel in Uncut Gems

The movie is clearly The Adam Sandler Show, but it never would have worked without his two supporting ladies, Julia Fox as his employee/girlfriend and Menzel as his estranged wife. The actress best known for singing Frozen’s Oscar-winning song “Let It Go,” Menzel does so much with a tiny role that even while the action focuses on Sandler’s ramblin’, gamblin’ jeweler Howard Ratner, I kept finding myself wondering what Menzel’s Dinah was up to.

The scene where she tells Sandler that he’s the most annoying person she’s ever known would make a killer Oscar clip (think Lesley Manville calmly threatening Daniel Day-Lewis while sipping tea in Phantom Thread two years ago), and it was the moment when I realized that she easily could have carried her own movie.

Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Luce

Who are the heroes and who are the villains in this overlooked 2019 thriller? The screenplay doesn’t pick sides, and the opaque denouement leaves it up to viewers to decide. I still haven’t.

The three central performances are equally ambiguous — in the best way. It’s a shame critics, precursors, and the Academy ignored Octavia Spencer, a default 2017–2018 nominee for Hidden Figures and The Shape of Water who delivered her meatiest performance since her Oscar-winning one in The Help.

And in a perfect non-black-and-white world, this film would have made Kelvin Harrison Jr., playing a high schooler who may or may not be a PTSD-ridden psychopath, every much the It Boy Timothée Chalamet now is. The 25-year-old, who also made waves with Waves in 2019, might be the most promising (and handsome) young black actor to come along since Denzel Washington hit the Hollywood scene in the ’80s.

Ray Liotta in Marriage Story

Laura Dern has taken home most of the supporting hardware, but mirroring their characters in the Netflix film, Ray Liotta is every bit her match as a no-nonsense divorce attorney with a steely gaze and an iron-clad disposition. Even without the benefit of a big monologue or an Oscar-clip moment, the never-nominated Liotta makes a profound impression. He’s scary — and expensive — as hell, but if I were to find myself in divorce court, I’d definitely want him on my team.

Wesley Snipes in Dolemite Is My Name

The comeback story that nobody talked about. Perhaps everyone was so focused on Eddie Murphy’s big return that they blinked and missed Wesley Snipes’s brilliantly understated performance as a director who’s lost control of his so-awful-it’s-hilarious blaxploitation film.

Snipes’s work here, so funny and subtle that you almost don’t notice him stealing every scene he’s in, reminds us why he was such a big star in the early ’90s. He shows up fairly late in the film and doesn’t get a ton of screen time, but as he did with Waiting to Exhale in 1995, he takes a small part and turns in a performance so vibrant and specific that it’s hard to imagine the Netflix flick without him.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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