Since around July 18, the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor has been basically a one man category. As December approaches and the final movies of 2008 are approaching, that perception has barely changed. The chance that Heath Ledger would win an Oscar for his final role as the Joker seemed laughable in the beginning of the year, even after he died. Even when Ledger and the Joker exploded on screen, some thought the chances for an actual posthumous Oscar would fade by December. But instead, Ledger’s chances have only gotten stronger.
The precedent for giving dead actors an Oscar exists, but hasn’t been used in a while. Some may still scoff at giving Ledger an Oscar for playing the Joker, of all characters. But the facts are these- it is December, and few people see Ledger losing out. Even if Ledger isn’t a lock to win the Oscar, he is still the undisputed favorite. Now, all Oscar pundits can do is pick out who could overtake him between now and Oscar night.
Ledger is still a big favorite, but a few actors are starting to fill out the remaining four nominated spots. Philip Seymour Hoffman is perhaps the biggest name in contention for Supporting Actor besides Ledger. This time, Hoffman is pegged as a nominee for Doubt, as a priest suspected of child molestation- or persecuted- by Meryl Streep’s antagonistic nun. Doubt is chock full of actors that could get nominations, with Hoffman among them. With Hoffman playing such a suspicious character, getting to square off with Streep, and his new favored status by the Oscars, a nomination seems certain.
Hoffman has defeated Ledger before at the Oscars, in the Lead Actor category in 2006. But can Hoffman conceivably beat Ledger again? He might have less of a shot than one might think. This would be Hoffman’s third Oscar nomination in four years, so perhaps the Academy is a bit Hoffman-ed out by now. The early reviews for Doubt have cited Streep and supporting actress Viola Davis, but Hoffman, for all his early praise, has largely been left in their shuffle.
If Streep and Davis continue to have most of the buzz from Doubt around them, Hoffman could be the forgotten man. Not forgotten enough to prevent a likely nomination, most likely, but Hoffman needs a lot more than that to overtake Ledger this time.
Instead of Hoffman, the actor that might have the best shot at Ledger is a relative unknown. Revolutionary Road is headlined by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, but supporting actor Michael Shannon is cited by early reviewers as the real scene stealer. Shannon plays a mentally ill but brutally honest friend of DiCaprio and Winslet’s characters, who illuminates just how lost and unsatisfied they are with 1950’s suburban life. It takes a lot to steal buzz from DiCaprio and Winslet, especially when they are shooting for Oscars. But Shannon has done that in early reviews, shooting the little known character actor up the Supporting Actor charts.
If Revolutionary Road becomes a real contender, Shannon’s stock could rise even further. So much so that Ledger could become vulnerable, if all goes well. Shannon’s character is thematically close to Ledger’s Joker, as they both play unhinged characters who, nonetheless, expose brutal truths of humanity. The difference is that Ledger’s Joker is a maniac, while Shannon’s character is more of a tragic figure. But there might be enough scenery chewing, mixed with some restraint, for Shannon to truly threaten Ledger.
However, even if Shannon maintains this momentum, that might not quite be enough. Shannon has only a few scenes in Revolutionary Road to work with, unlike Ledger. Would those select few scenes from Shannon be enough to overcome the larger amount of highlights Ledger had? It might be a hard sell. Plus, the Academy knows Ledger and has only one more chance to honor him. Would they pass that up to honor a relative newcomer like Shannon? In addition, Shannon’s fate is likely tied to the future success of Revolutionary Road, as DiCaprio and Winslet could survive if the movie’s stock fell, but it would be harder for an Oscar newcomer like Shannon.
Beyond Hoffman and Shannon, most of the other Supporting Actor contenders are just trying to get in. The category could have a young nominee in Dev Patel, the teenaged lead in Slumdog Millionaire. Patel is probably more of a lead actor, but was placed in the supporting category instead. Slumdog Millionaire is widely expected for multiple Oscar nominations, which could sweep Patel to a nomination. But for such a young actor in his first movie, the nomination would be the reward. Slumdog Millionaire could be an Oscar darling, but probably not enough for Patel to pull ahead of Ledger.
The final nomination will likely be from one of the Milk supporting actors. Besides Sean Penn’s certain nomination, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch and James Franco were all cited for their supporting work. If any actor other than Penn gets nominated for Milk, it would be one of these three. However, among them, Brolin has gotten the most passionate raves as politician turned assassin Dan White. Brolin has pretty much dominated the last two falls without any nominations, so the Oscars are probably due to honor him with something. However, like Patel, the nomination for Brolin would probably be its own reward, unless they really owe him.
The rest of the contenders are just fighting to get in and wouldn’t likely have a shot at Ledger. Robert Downey Jr is aiming for a nod with his wild comic turn in Tropic Thunder. Like Ledger, Downey stole the summer with an over-the-top supporting turn, and like Brolin, Downey is due for some recognition from the Oscars. But the nomination would likely be enough, if Downey could get it.
Other names like Ralph Fiennes, Liev Schrieber and Eddie Marsan are tossed around for the final spots. If Michael Sheen decides not to campaign as lead actor for Frost/Nixon alongside Frank Langella, he could squeeze into a supporting nomination, but that might not happen.
By the time of Oscar night, pundits will want to project that Ledger could be overtaken, if only to create some suspense. But it could very well be futile after all. Ledger is unlikely to lose any buzz or face new criticism over the next few months. Hoffman, Shannon, Brolin and others each have drawbacks that could keep them from closing such a wide gap. The final factor could come in seeing if The Dark Knight does get nominated for Best Picture after all- if the Academy favors the movie to that extent, it will be extremely hard to picture a Ledger loss.
Coronations and final tributes to Ledger have been going around for months, and should increase in awards season. A final coronation would be an Oscar win for the late Ledger and his Joker, which could be derailed by another actor- it is just not looking that likely yet.
In Contention- “Oscar Prediction Charts” www.incontention.com/