Will Melissa Leo win her second Oscar in 2018? Her new film, the independent drama “Novitiate,” opens October 27 in limited release from Sony Pictures Classics, and it gives her exactly the kind of performance showcase that often wins awards. She plays a sinister mentor figure like J.K. Simmons did when he swept through the awards season on his way to a Best Supporting Actor victory at the 2015 ceremony for “Whiplash.”
“Novitiate” tells the story of Cathleen (“The Leftovers” alum Margaret Qualley), the teenage daughter of an agnostic single mother (Julianne Nicholson) who decides that she wants to become a nun. Leo plays the Reverend Mother, a strict taskmaster who is often cruel to the new class of novice nuns, but like Simmons’s abusive music teacher in “Whiplash,” she believes it will truly bring out the best in them. It’s a bold, emotionally showy performance that also recalls other dark, overbearing characters that won Oscars for Denzel Washington (“Training Day”), Mo’Nique (“Precious”) and Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds”). Or if you’re looking for a recent TV analog, the Reverend Mother bears no small resemblance to Ann Dowd‘s Emmy winning turn as Aunt Lydia in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
But Leo has the benefit of being a bit more sympathetic than those aforementioned characters, because while the Reverend Mother is domineering, she is also facing the changing tide in the Catholic Church. The film is set when new guidelines set forth by the Second Vatican Council threatened the standing of her and all other nuns in the church, giving Leo’s role an additional tragic subtext.
As of this writing Leo ranks fourth in our combined predictions for Best Supporting Actress with odds of 10/1. That puts her in position for a nomination, which would be the third in her career, following a Best Actress bid for the 2008 film “Frozen River” and her Best Supporting Actress victory for 2010’s “The Fighter.” If she prevails again she would be only the third actress to claim the category twice, after Shelley Winters (1959’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” and 1965’s “A Patch of Blue”) and Dianne Wiest (1986’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” and 1994’s “Bullets over Broadway”).
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