Lately, newcomer nominees have dominated the Oscar playing field in the Best Supporting Actor category. Over the last thirteen years, with the exceptions of 2012 and 2019, at least one newcomer has either been nominated and/or won the category. Within the last three years, in particular, Best Supporting Actor was made up almost entirely of first-time nominees. From newer faces on the scene (Barry Keoghan, “The Banshees of Inisherin“) to under-the-radar talent (Paul Raci, “Sound of Metal“) to longtime actors finally getting their due (Ke Huy Quan, “Everything Everywhere All at Once“). The past decade of winners in the supporting actor category has also shown the Academy’s gravitation towards honoring well-respected actors later in their respective careers: Christopher Plummer (“Beginners”), J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash“), Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”), and Sam Rockwell (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri“), to name a few. Breakthrough/film debut performances seldom win Oscars; the nomination itself is considered the victory, which seems to be the fate of this year’s newcomers to the Oscar race. However, the question they face is not so much whether they can win but who can find room among a predicted group full of veteran actors. Before diving into the newcomer contenders, let’s first take a look at where the Best Supporting Actor category stands and whether there is a strong element of surprise.
Among the overall contenders, one name fits the “late stage first-time winner” bill better than anyone: Robert Downey Jr. In Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” Downey Jr. plays Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission during the 1950s and trustee at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study (where the character meets Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer in the film). Downey Jr. conveys a masterful blend of charming and conniving energy. His true colors — from a seething ego to a relentless obsession with tearing Oppenheimer apart — gradually seep through the black-and-white screen with fury. Downey Jr., previously Oscar-nominated for his work in 1992’s “Chaplin” (Best Lead Actor) and 2008’s “Tropic Thunder” (Best Supporting Actor), has yet to win. The narrative for him to do so with “Oppenheimer” appears clear as day. Following years of Marvel-driven projects and boatloads of commercial success, Strauss feels like the complex role many have been waiting to see in his career – and he devours the opportunity.
Most of this year’s top supporting actor contenders are Oscar favorites who have yet to win. For his performance as the goofy bleach-blonde Ken in Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” Ryan Gosling is on track to receive his third acting nomination. With “Barbie” in solid contention for several categories across the board, including Best Original Song (“I’m Just Ken”), Gosling’s “kenergy” will be felt all over the 96th annual Oscar ceremony.
In a much more gothic fantasy land, Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Poor Things” is expected to appear strongly in the Best Supporting Actor category. The film would mark a fourth acting nomination for Mark Ruffalo and a fifth for Willem Dafoe, both of whom have been receiving enthusiastic notices for their work in Lanthimos’s latest. Recent category statistics certainly don’t hurt the “Poor Things” duo. In the last four years, two performances from the same film were nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Brendan Gleeson and Barry Keoghan in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee in “The Power of the Dog,” Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in “The Irishman“). If there’s one film that could achieve a double acting feat in the category this year, it’s “Poor Things.”
Then there’s two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro, with a total of eight nominations to his name, including one in the Best Picture category as a producer on 2019’s “The Irishman.” De Niro’s chilling performance in longtime collaborator Martin Scorsese’s latest picture, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” is among the actor’s greatest works. De Niro’s most recent acting Oscar nomination was in the supporting actor category for 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” After missing the lead actor category for his work as Frank Sheeran in “The Irishman” (which received ten Oscar nominations), could the Academy overlook another De Niro performance? He faces a less competitive category this time around for “Killers of the Flower Moon.” The consensus forming around the predicted lineup of De Niro, Dafoe, Ruffalo, Gosling, and Downey Jr. feels safe; one could argue a little too safe, considering there’s plenty of time left for a shakeup in the Oscar race. One of the aforementioned names might be more vulnerable than expected.
While film debut performances often struggle to find recognition at the Oscars, every now and then, a complete discovery comes along, like Quvenzhané Wallis (2012’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild“), Barkhad Abdi (2013’s “Captain Phillips“) and Yalitza Aparicio (2018’s “Roma“). All three of the aforementioned performances starred in Best Picture-nominated films. While having the support of a Best Picture nomination is not necessarily a prerequisite, and examples point to this (such as Catalina Sandino Moreno in 2004’s “Maria Full of Grace”), the boost certainly doesn’t hurt when it comes to giving newcomers an edge.
Making his screen debut in Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers,” one of this year’s top contenders across significant categories, including Best Picture, Dominic Sessa has a vital role in the film’s emotional resonance. Sessa plays artful rebel Angus Tully, a New England boarding school student forced to stay on campus over Christmas with his grumpy teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) and the school’s cafeteria manager Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). Angus has nowhere to stay and, in a state of loneliness, yearns for a sense of belonging that he ultimately finds in unexpected places. Angus, Paul, and Mary become a family unit, their melancholy soothed by the feeling of not being alone.
Will the cast of “The Holdovers” unite as a family unit at the Oscars as well? Given how essential Angus is to push the film’s narrative, the Academy might feel inclined in wanting to recognize Sessa alongside his co-stars. Sessa, making his film debut performance, has the advantage of being welcomed into the industry for one of the most ensemble-friendly films. More so than its production value, the acting is the film’s most substantial play, and Sessa is truly a revelation. Voters might feel the urge to highlight how great a find he is and his ability to go toe-to-toe with Giamatti and Randolph. What may detract from Sessa’s chances is whether or not he can stand out enough on his own and maintain individual buzz on the same level as his co-stars. Sessa could get lost in the chatter, not to mention the added competition of major awards players in the category (“Oppenheimer,” “Killers of the Flower Moon,” and “Poor Things“).
One newcomer generating strong individual buzz is Charles Melton for his performance in Todd Haynes’s alluring “May December.” Melton plays the soft-spoken Joe, a young man trapped in a relationship with a much older woman, Gracie (Julianne Moore). Twenty years after being involved in a national tabloid scandal, Gracie and Joe lead a quiet suburban life at a coastal beach house in Savannah. Long-buried truths about the couple’s relationship resurface with the arrival of a famous TV actress, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who is researching how to play the controversial Gracie in an upcoming movie. With astonishing subtlety and control, Melton conveys a character so deeply broken and haunted by his past and forced to live out a shell of existence with a morally corrupt woman. From the premiere of “May December” at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and its limited release in theaters, Melton has been consistently singled out as the film’s breakthrough performer and now has added his first prize of the year to his resume with a big win at the Gotham Awards for Outstanding Supporting Actor last night.
Alongside heavy hitter co-stars Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman, Melton not only holds his own but gives the sort of star-making performance that is finding its own narrative beyond the ensemble. It’s no easy feat stealing the show with such accomplished scene partners, who themselves are brilliant in the film and at the top of their game. While it’s unlikely “May December” will find its way into the more competitive awards categories (Best Picture, Best Director), the strength and individuality of Melton’s work might be enough to become the film’s sole nomination, even more so than Samy Burch’s original screenplay. Passion votes can go a long way with the Academy, particularly in the actors’ branch. With enough time left for the film to make a greater presence on the campaign trail, industry support around Melton, and a potential boost from critics groups could skyrocket his chances.
Who among the safe-sounding predicted supporting actor nominees (Downey Jr., Gosling, Ruffalo, Dafoe, and De Niro) would be most vulnerable for a newcomer to step in? Will the Academy spread the wealth and favor one “Poor Things” co-star over another, or will vote splitting come into play? Whatever the case may be for who is most vulnerable, it’s unlikely that both Melton and Sessa will find a way into this category. If a spot does open up, which of these two breakthrough performances has the edge? Or will neither claim the spot, leaving room for wildcard contenders such as Glenn Howerton (“BlackBerry“) or John Magaro (“Past Lives“)?
Working in favor of both Melton and Sessa is that, to a greater extent than the wildcard contenders, the two of them have a clearer narrative as newcomer nominees. While Melton has acted professionally before “May December,” his performance surprised audiences and left an incredibly strong “star is born” impression. His character, the heart of the film, exuding warmth against the manipulation of Moore’s and Portman’s characters, stands out. Sessa is also the heart of “The Holdovers,” but he only shares that sensation with his co-stars, amplified by the characters’ family unit in the film. Both Melton and Sessa can find support from critics’ groups, with Sessa garnering attention in best debut performance lineups and Melton becoming the critics’ Best Supporting Actor darling (he’s heavily favored to win this week at the New York Film Critics Circle). While Melton is receiving more enthusiastic individual praise, which will only build once “May December” hits Netflix this weekend, Sessa could catch the wave of a more Academy-friendly ensemble film and find a boost over the holiday season. As their chances now stand, it’s anyone’s game.
Who do you think will be one of the final nominees in this year’s Best Supporting Actor lineup? Will both of the newcomers make it into the final five? Is Charles Melton about to become the categories new frontrunner after his Gotham win last night? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out the Next Best Picture team’s latest Oscar predictions here.