Best Supporting Actor, 2000
(Click on the linked film titles for reviews of those movies.)

Jeff Bridges
The Contender


An immensely respected and well-liked actor who's been trumpeted for years as Hollywood's least appreciated star. Acting aside, his politics, both national and professional, look much better than those of Gary Oldman; rather than shoot his mouth off about the film's inadequacies, Bridges supported it from the get-go and was rewarded with an Oscar nod, his first since 1984. In fact, The Contender, in which he plays the only emphatic defender of a wronged woman—and gets a big finale speech to drive the point home even harder—provides an easy role by which to reward Bridges, without waiting till he's old and doddery or till he's playing Matt Damon's shrink. Many will supply Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Hudson as only the most recent evidence that "Hollywood royalty" is still a good thing to be if you're seeking Oscar's attention.

As of early March, Bridges hasn't won anything, and in fact the support he's received from the Globes nominators and others was hardly foreseen when The Contender premiered and his buzz was nil. I think there's an intimation here that Bridges' nomination is more than a chance to reward an Oscar-less actor. Rather, voting for him can only be construed as a remembrance of things past—it's impossible to get too excited about this performance—and Hollywood often hesitates to expose the sentimentality of its voting patterns too baldly. I think that's why Lauren Bacall lost in '96, voting for her was too easy, too obvious, and I think Bridges will suffer a similar fate (if losing an Oscar can be called "suffering.") If he wins the SAG Award, the situation changes.
Willem Dafoe
Shadow of the Vampire

Having claimed the Los Angeles Film Critics award and the Golden Satellite for this performance, Dafoe has since gone on to be nominated in every conceivable list of Supporting Actor races. His career as a character actor has been fairly long and mostly distinguished—let's not talk about Body of Evidence—and he more than fit the bill for Big Gestures in a Showcase Part that supporting categories tend to thirst for. Does anyone even remember that John Malkovich was in this film? Finally, playing a lugubrious but weirdly sympathetic vampire-actor worked perfectly for Martin Landau in 1994.
Though Dafoe has popped up on all the lists, he has few actual trophies to show for it. More revealingly, Shadow of the Vampire itself has shown up on no one's list for anything: for a picture that started with middle-to-high buzz, the film died a quick death (undeath?) in theaters, which won't help him compete against three $100 million grossers like Gladiator, Erin Brockovich, and Traffic (which surely will have reached that mark by the Awards date). Whatever veteran status Dafoe has accrued is outpaced by Finney and Bridges, who have worked harder and more closely within the Hollywood system, or at least its British counterpart.
Benicio Del Toro

Like The Usual Suspects, the 1995 sidewinder that put Del Toro on the Hollywood map, Traffic is too harsh and subversive of its genre to warm the general membership's hearts—from that angle, the film's five nominations are a surprise in themselves. In both cases, though, Del Toro makes the most of a role that would have registered as much less without him. The British Academy Award, Golden Globe, New York Film Critics citation, and other trophies he's reaped in over his distinguished competition lend considerable weight to the impression that the force of his performance is weighing in more heavily for voters than the longer résumés of his chief rivals. SAG victory, in lead actor category, no less, is unprecedented good omen.
I'm not at all convinced that the preponderance of Del Toro's dialogue being in a foreign language will hurt him at all. Short reason why not: Robert De Niro, 1974. Longer reason: even the Academy's most out-of-touch voters have to know by know, in 2001 (not coincidentally the year of Crouching Tiger) that the English language is not the only badge of cinematic merit. Rather, if Del Toro loses this award, the almost certain rationale will be that Finney, Bridges, and Dafoe, in that order, have worked harder and longer for this, whereas Del Toro promises to be around for future opportunities.
Albert Finney
Erin Brockovich

Not the intuitive choice to play a feisty Southern lawyer who mentors Julia Roberts, Albert Finney's triumph as Ed Masry is to hide all the aspects of his performance that must have required the most craft: not just the accent, which is flawless, but the trick of yielding the spotlight to Julia without effacing his own presence. Having first been nominated in 1963 for Tom Jones but losing each of his four earlier bids (the others were for Best Actor in 1974, 1983 and 1984), Finney has waited long enough—and if Michael Caine, who already had one Oscar, can win another for accepting a featured "character" part, why not Finney, an Academy virgin? Already followed Caine's example by snagging SAG trophy.
A nomination for this kind of performance—a likeable comeback for a one-time bad boy or semi-icon—often comes across as reward enough. True, James Coburn and Michael Caine stole statuettes from crowded fields of mostly younger folks in '98 and '99, but Robert Forster, Burt Reynolds, and Paul Scofield went unrewarded for roles which, like Finney's, were quiet and subtle compared to the histrionics of their costars and/or directors. Finney's only major pre-Oscar award is the SAG prize, where Del Toro wasn't a competitor. Also, he didn't even bother showing up to the Globes; the Academy hates honoring people who don't seem to care for the honor. Film is lighter than Traffic and less nominated than Gladiator, and the role less flamboyant than those of Bridges, Dafoe, or Phoenix.
Joaquin Phoenix

Contributed a year of impressive performances—the Broadcast Film Critics and National Board of Review honored this role as well as the hustler in The Yards and the abbé in Quills—but his slithery bit as Commodus in Gladiator was the most widely seen and the most ostentatiously performed, always helpful in this category. Never hurts to be in a film everyone's seen, nor to combine the dual buzz of a blossoming actor and a burgeoning star.
Commodus is an extremely distasteful character, and Oscar annals are littered with bravura performances that lost out on sympathy appeal: thus, Ralph Fiennes and John Malkovich lose to Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Cruise to Michael Caine, Burt Reynolds to Robin Williams, and in 1996's crown example, four inveterate losers and villians bow down to a sunny Cuba Gooding. The prospects look even worse if you consider that Commodus was hardly "bravura" work—I think the Academy is honoring Phoenix's body of work and Gladiator as a whole more than this particular character sketch. Finally, the young guy will have a time of it up against the three vets, and even Del Toro seems more proven and versatile a performer.

WHO WILL WIN: No one's totally out of the picture, though I think Phoenix is trailing considerably, and Dafoe has faded faster than I would have expected. I'm expecting Bridges, Dafoe, and Finney (who is definitely in second-place at the moment) to split an old-timer's vote and confer the award on Del Toro, a relative upstart with some strong consensus appeal.

WHO SHOULD WIN: Unlike Marisa Tomei's win, which was also produced by a passel of older, proven actors cancelling each other out, a victory for Benicio Del Toro would have the virtue of being just and deserved. Finney and Bridges had to sound one basic note for their characters and tap out only the most minor variations. Dafoe and Phoenix could indulge nearly any gesture they wanted. Del Toro's work was the most controlled, the most specific, and by leagues and miles the most affecting.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: I had high hopes for Bruce Greenwood, whose resurrection of JFK in Roger Donaldson's hokey Thirteen Days made Bridges' impersonation of a president look like . . . well, an impersonation. I had similar hopes for Gary Oldman, whose rendering of The Contender's villainous Shelley Runyon also put Bridges to shame. I don't mean to pick on Jeff, so I'll go out on a totally different limb and say that my favorite supporting performance from a male actor this year was from another Jeff—Jeffrey Wright, whose absurdist predator in the Shaft remake was no less chilling for being so comical, and all the more adept for exposing the silliness and the shocks (better than the movie as a whole did) of the old blaxpoitation genre.

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