Craig Sjodin; Wilson Webb/Netflix

Why the Oscars' Best Supporting Actress category tells a crucial Hollywood story

October 31, 2019

Welcome to EW’s The Awardist: a weekly column offering (very!) early and in-depth analysis of the 2020 awards season. Check out last week’s deep dive.

To many, Regina King’s hard-fought win earlier this year for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar seemed overdue. And this felt a little strange, since the actress had given acceptance speeches on the national stage for three out of the four preceding years — for her TV work. She won two Emmys for two wildly different turns in the anthology drama American Crime, and an additional trophy in 2018 for her wrenching leading performance in the Netflix limited series Seven Seconds. When she won the Oscar for If Beale Street Could Talk, she was riding an awards hot streak. And yet still: The moment felt major.

Oscars rarely honor career-best work; often, they represent the moment an industry rallies around an actor and designates it as their time. King, who’s been in the business for 35 years, hadn’t done a movie in nearly a decade before Beale Street. As with many actresses approaching middle age, the former Boyz N the Hood and Jerry Maguire star’s career flourished on the small screen. (In the 2010s, she also earned Critics’ Choice Award nominations for her work in Southland and The Leftovers.) Winning an Oscar was like a grand, full-circle moment.

It’s a recurring pattern for the Best Supporting Actress category, which tends to honor long-respected actresses in rare meaty film roles. Last year’s winner, Allison Janney, has more Emmys than almost anybody; before her was Viola Davis, who’d triumphantly won a Lead Actress Emmy about 16 months beforehand. And if the winner doesn’t fit that mold, exactly, she’s probably a bright young star just beginning to establish herself: Alicia Vikander, Lupita Nyong’o, and so on.

It’s as much representative of the way the industry tends to treat actresses of a certain age as it is how the industry itself continues to change; Davis, King, and other resurgent actresses like Toni Collette and Taraji P. Henson found Emmy-winning prestige glory in TV where such roles didn’t used to exist.

And so this year, Laura Dern arrives in the form of a frontrunner, and also one who’d be right in step with the direction the category has gone in lately: a two-time Oscar nominee who’s been in the business for nearly 40 years and is now in the absolute prime of her career. A big reason why? Television. Her small but brilliant HBO series Enlightened won her a Golden Globe and the immediate attention (and affection) of those who watched; she’s been an Emmy-winning, scene-stealing standout through two seasons of Big Little Lies opposite Oscar winners Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Meryl Streep. Now we’re in Dern’s biggest film year in recent memory: She’s competing mainly for her commanding comic turn in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, but is also deeply affecting in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, which is another major player this awards season.

Dern has been working the circuit hard for both movies already, and she’ll surely be in the thick of things through to ceremony night. In hearing from attendees at various industry screenings, the narrative that it’s her “time” is already taking shape. It’s what may put Dern over other veteran showbiz names like Jennifer Lopez, a serious player for Hustlers who can hardly claim she’s overdue, or Annette Bening, who’s quickly going the Glenn Close route of always coming close, but never sealing the deal. (Note that Davis won on her third nomination; Janney and King both won for their first.)

For those attracted to the unexpected — a “Where did this come from?” surprise — Lopez very much ticks that box, and remains in the hunt accordingly. But again, this is an area where the Academy tends to sway one of two ways. And if we’re looking in the other direction — that of the ingénue, as goes the simplistic moniker — Dern’s costar Florence Pugh announced herself as a major candidate last week, with the first official Little Women screenings. She’s spectacular in Gerwig’s reworked version of Amy March, really running the gamut of emotions and nailing each one. Early reactions have singled her out, and with a big year around this performance for her — from Fighting With My Family to Midsommar — she’ll be on many voters’ minds.

The other big under-30 contender, Margot Robbie, feels less like a newbie, having been in the thick of awards season for two straight years already. (Last year, she narrowly missed out on a supporting nod for Mary Queen of Scots.) But she still shines in two major movies opposite Oscar winners — in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and in Bombshell, featuring Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman. She’s a more serious threat for the latter, with a few gut-wrenching scenes that feel tailor-made for Oscar clips. And I’d throw out Da’Vine Joy Randolph, too, who to my mind should be the real discovery of the season. You come to Dolemite Is My Name for Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes, but see a new star introduce herself in the process.

It’s an interesting group to compare to that of Best Actress, where two former winners seeking their first nods in over a decade lead the pack, and Supporting Actor, which — seriously — could very well exclusively include former Oscar winners. This is often the field where the industry subconsciously interrogates itself — its biases, its misogyny, its exciting new faces, its grudging respect for those who have stuck it out. Show business may be changing, but the story continues.

EW’s current predictions for Best Supporting Actress:
—Laura Dern, Marriage Story
—Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers
—Florence Pugh, Little Women
—Margot Robbie, Bombshell
—Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey

*This article has been updated to clarify Allison Janney and Regina King’s Oscar histories.