Hey, everybody, it’s almost Oscar time, when lots of money is spent to hide a bunch of mirrors in a lot of smoke, when starring roles are turned into cameos and we’re all just supposed to say, “Yay!” So let’s hear it for Armie Hammer, whose part as a vacationing American Ph.D. candidate and hypnotically bad dancer in “Call Me by Your Name” is being offered in the supporting actor category, despite his being in most of the movie. “Support” might be subjective. But who on earth is he supporting? The movie has no title without him — no leisurely bike rides and no sex, either. (Well, almost no sex.)
I get it. This is a strategy, designed to prevent a vote split between Mr. Hammer and his co-star, Timothée Chalamet. And there can only be one. Mr. Hammer in this movie — and, really, in every movie — gets by on variations of earnestness. I’m never really sure he’s right for any part, but he wears you down because not only is he hilariously handsome, he’s also really trying. There’s a soul in there. Ideally, people who give out awards would be asked to consider the charm of Mr. Hammer’s one-dimensionality. Like, say, the films of Christopher Nolan, he’s not deep. He’s pretty vast, and vastness, in the movies, is a virtue. I have a friend who believes, justifiably, that straight people shouldn’t play gay ones, which is a conversation for another time. But I didn’t think Mr. Hammer was playing gay as much as he was playing grad student.
In this movie, Mr. Hammer is funny and confident and brave and light — William Hurt in “Broadcast News” as opposed to Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain.” Mr. Hammer’s lightness is essential to the movie’s secret heft. He wafts, like cologne. The eventual sad beauty of Mr. Chalamet’s performance is that he can’t escape his scent. But nobody gets a best actor nomination for wafting, not anymore. People want to see your work (your weight loss, your accent, your physical deformity), and Armie Hammer doesn’t show his.
It’s true that he would seem to have no shot at cracking the final five for best actor. Not when the names near the top of the pile include Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Hanks, Gary Oldman, James Franco and Denzel Washington (work, work, work, work, work; well, Mr. Hanks is happily excused). Not when the kid who plays the object of Mr. Hammer’s affection — Mr. Chalamet — is probably going to win. Mr. Hammer does seem like he’s out of his depth when you put it that way, even though a couple of those performances are mostly full of hot air or gimmickry or both. (There’s a kind of acting that reeks of “I’m overdue” and Mr. Oldman’s Winston Churchill as a talking dirigible is it.)
So into the supporting-actor race Mr. Hammer goes, where he may have to face a different co-star, Michael Stuhlbarg, who doesn’t appear to have much to do in “Call Me by Your Name,” until, of course, he does. (That is a partial definition of “supporting actor”! And with midsize parts in “The Post” and “The Shape of Water,” Mr. Stuhlbarg is what you might call heroically supporting.) Shoving him there increases his odds for a nomination. But it’s a sad commentary on the absurdism of this process that it has to be that way. Rigging is how Viola Davis won her supporting-actress Oscar last year for a performance that probably would have won best actress. But it didn’t matter. She was in the other category, where her gale-force crying and State of the Union level monologuing in “Fences” were like that giant brontosaurus steak that tips over Fred’s car at the end of every episode of “The Flintstones.” Nobody was beating that.
This kind of bait and switch is now a classic Oscar-campaign move that usually leaves somebody — me! — crowing about the impurities of a process that, admittedly, was never pure to start with. “Supporting” acting is now where lead acting goes, either when odds in the lead categories seem grim, as they apparently do for Mr. Hammer, or, in the case of Ms. Davis, when there’s a clearer path to certain victory (and facing Emma Stone, the eventual best actress winner for “La La Land,” apparently didn’t seem certain enough). But, usually, it’s to get an actor out of the way of a co-star. A golden demotion. Recently, the demoted have included Jake Gyllenhaal in “Brokeback Mountain,” Julia Roberts in “August: Osage County” and Rooney Mara in “Carol,” jumping out of the way of bigger freight-train acting by Mr. Ledger, Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett, respectively.
Ultimately, it’s up to academy voters to do what they want with Armie Hammer, but he’s already going to the Golden Globes as a supporting actor. He could go to the Oscars that way, too, snatching a spot that could go to somebody doing actual supporting acting.
I like Rob Morgan in “Mudbound.” Most of the attention being paid to this movie has focused on Rachel Morrison’s cinematography and Mary J. Blige’s stiff but intensely stoical performance. Mr. Morgan plays her sharecropper husband, and he’s the best thing in the movie. No one’s been directed to overdo anything here, but Mr. Morgan’s restraint is particularly remarkable. There’s anger coursing beneath it but also, in a moment requiring him to hug another actor, great relief that just comes pouring out. This is also a movie that depends on narration. Mr. Morgan’s ragged, raspy line readings match the soil his character is desperate to call his own.
“Lady Bird” probably doesn’t need more attention than it has gotten. It’s a perfect movie, and some of its perfection is in its casting, but this is a movie crammed with wonderful work by people who aren’t Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan, people like Lucas Hedges, Tracy Letts, Stephen McKinley Henderson and, yes, that Timothée Chalamet. But can I just put a word in for Beanie Feldstein? She plays Ms. Ronan’s put-upon best friend. She gives her dialogue air and vinegar and zip. And while we don’t need another Joan Cusack — we’re not done with the one we’ve got — Ms. Feldstein has a similarly original, unpracticed approach to comedic acting.
Lesley Manville comes at “funny” from a totally different direction in “Phantom Thread,” using snootiness and froideur. The effect of her performance — as the difficult manager of her difficult brother’s couture dress business — stems in part from the chill she puts into her line readings. The rest comes from the chill she creates with her gaze and her carriage. It’s a master class in haughtiness, the sturdiest icebox in a movie boldly committed to emotional refrigeration and thaw. I’m concerned that academy voters aren’t going to go for the movie, let alone her.
What about Tiffany Haddish in “Girls Trip” or Betty Gabriel in “Get Out,” both of whom I’ve already genuflected before? What about Hong Chau? In typical supporting-part fashion, she shows up halfway through “Downsizing,” already shrunk, an imperious Vietnamese house cleaner with a limp and sharp angles. The movie’s satirical cleverness upstages its rage, then Ms. Chau proves she’s capable of managing both. People will carp that the movie glorifies an Asian stereotype, piquantly accented pidgin English, but Ms. Chau makes a vivid person of the part, using physical and verbal comedy and emotional understatement to go only for glory.
While we’re on the subject — of both glory and support — now’s probably the time to mention Meryl Streep, again. Not her performance in “The Post,” although she’s as good as you might already have heard she is, but the performance of a caftan she wears in a climactic scene. It’s a white tented number with gold trim, and it’s probably best left to a conversation about how the costume designer, Ann Roth, shouldn’t be overlooked. But come on. How isn’t this dress, for its one big scene, giving the performance of a lifetime, too?
Ms. Streep’s character in the movie, the Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, wasn’t dressed for work. She’d been doing some entertaining when some of the paper’s editorial staff and board members invade, so there’s that. But once her parlor becomes a situation room, her evening wear turns into a power suit, but a reconsidered one. Graham looks royal in it, presidential. And it answers a fundamental question about important women: How should they look? That caftan-wearing Meryl Streep in this movie has a thrilling answer: Like this.
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