Film Mafia continues to examine this year’s Oscar nominees! This week:
Best Supporting Actress
What looks like a nail-biter between Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle and Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years A Slave is actually no contest. Lawrence delivers not only the funniest performance of the year, and does so with all-others-shrink-before-my-power skill and tenacity… but Nyong’o gets whipped for ten minutes. (Actually, I don’t know how long that most infamous scene is, but it sure feels like ten minutes. For Nyong’o, I bet it felt like all eternity). And, amongst the technical virtuosity of that (single-shot) scene, she makes it. For all the proficient whipsmanship of Ejiofor and Fassbender, if Nyong’o didn’t bring it for that scene, the movie would kind of fall apart.
While Fassbender’s Epps is certainly Northup Solomon’s antagonist, and Fassbender is up for his own Oscar, Nyong’o’s Patsey is actually Solomon’s conscience antagonist, and is, more than Epps, the most important character in the film after Solomon. She is in the first shot of the movie, and her final shot – her final unforgettable, gut-wrenching shot, despite her being almost Where’s Waldo’d in the corner of the frame, brings her huge character arc to a bitter and heart-breaking conclusion.
By contrast, Lawrence’s Rosalyn Rosenfeld (what a name!) could have been cut entirely from American Hustle. It would be a loss to that movie, for her performance is so wonderful, but, dramatically, she is very far from the film’s spine – she’s perhaps it’s wacky third nipple. It’s important that Christian Bales’ character Irving is married, but, in another telling of this tale, his wife could have remained offscreen, talked of but never seen. It would be impossible to do any sort of justice to Solomon Northup’s book without Patsey being hugely present, which she is, thanks to Nyong’o, in Steve McQueen’s film.
Dramatic necessities aside, Lawrence won Best Actress last year (for Silver Linings Playbook, another David O. Russell film) and Nyong’o is making her feature debut. Best Supporting Actress is a good place to acknowledge new talent, not give another, lesser award to a star who is already shining so bright eggs have been known to cook in her presence. As voters tick the box for Matthew McConaughey instead of Chiwetel Ejiofor, they will feel better about themselves, further down the ballot, ticking Nyong’o’s box instead of Lawrence’s. That’ll make up for all that whippin’.