According to our racetrack odds, the Best Supporting Actor Oscar is a close contest between J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash“) and Mark Ruffalo (“Foxcatcher“). However, while “Foxcatcher” is a major contender for Best Picture, “Whiplash” isn’t expected to reap bids in any other major category. Can Simmons prevail if he’s the sole nominee for his film? Or can “Whiplash” gain traction in other categories as well?
These days, it’s hard to win an acting Oscar without broad academy support. Best Picture has included nine or 10 nominees since the academy expanded the category in 2009. Of the 20 acting winners over these past five years, all but four have come from Best Picture nominees. The exceptions: Jeff Bridges (Best Actor, “Crazy Heart,” 2009), Meryl Streep (Best Actress, “The Iron Lady,” 2011), Christopher Plummer (Best Supporting Actor, “Beginners,” 2011) and Cate Blanchett (Best Actress, “Blue Jasmine,” 2013). Of these, Plummer was the only one to be the sole nominee from his film.
As with Plummer, Simmons has the benefit of being a respected industry veteran, with tons of TV and film credits including “Law–Order,” “The Closer,” “Spider-Man,” and Oscar-nominated films like “Juno” and “Up in the Air.” He’s worked with his fair share of voters and he has never been nominated before. The academy has a history of playing catch-up with other character actors whom they’ve never honored, like previous Supporting Actor champs Jim Broadbent (“Iris”) and Chris Cooper (“Adaptation”).
And it helps that Simmons has one of the flashiest performances of the year, snarling viciously at his poor music students, and hurling music equipment as well as insults. Lately, Oscar voters have been fond of showy villain performances, like Christoph Waltz as a ruthless Nazi in “Inglorious Basterds” and Heath Ledger as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” How intense is Simmons in the role? Imagine Mo’Nique from “Precious” teaching you how to stay on tempo.
But maybe it’s unfair to assume that “Whiplash” won’t get any other nominations. Other Sundance Film Festival hits have scored multiple bids. Like “Whiplash,” “Precious,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and “Winter’s Bone” won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and went on to earn Oscar bids for Best Picture. While those films dealt with the kinds of “Important” subjects the academy likes to congratulate itself for acknowledging (poverty, race, abuse), voters also like movies about obsessive artists too – just look at “Black Swan.”
I’m admittedly biased. I think “Whiplash” is a knockout, and I was more galvanized by Simmons’s performance than I have been by most of the Supporting Actor nominees from the last several years. It’s a rare film able to make artists’ creative process visually and emotionally compelling, and it’s also worthy of consideration for Picture, Director, Original Screenplay (Damien Chazelle), and even Actor; Miles Teller‘s intensely physical performance is just as accomplished as Simmons’s, but Hollywood usually doesn’t take young men seriously, so the 27-year-old is probably a long shot.
Below-the-line, I hope the academy also considers the editing by Tom Cross and cinematography by Sharone Meir, which make jazz drumming far more kinetic than you would expect; some scenes play like an action film and are just as bloody.
Even if the primary draw for the academy is Simmons, it’s possible voters will be impressed by the rest of the film as well, leading to more nominations than we’re expecting, similar to how Bridges’s candidacy for “Crazy Heart” boosted co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal to a surprise Supporting Actress bid in 2009.
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