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Who is the best Oscar-winning supporting actress of all time?

Category: Women and Culture 

Supporting performances are often where a movie’s gold is to be found. Mostly they happen unheralded and unacknowledged, discreetly lending texture and sinew to a film. The leading players need outstanding support if their own performances are to be coherent, and the stars can’t do their job without very intelligent but basically unassuming work from the players further down the bill. All great actors know this – and perhaps, in their heart, fear being upstaged, especially by the very old or the very young. Looking down the list of Oscar winners in this category over the years, it’s impossible not to notice its politics of race and gender. Women tend to get these awards for servant characters or subordinate parts because they’re playing supporting roles in life as well as in art. Yet these can be transformed and subverted.


Hattie McDaniel’s best supporting actress Oscar has become legend: the first African-American to win an Academy Award — and she played a slave: Mammy in Gone with the Wind in 1939. Notoriously, she was not seated at the main table on Oscar night with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, and it was only with some difficulty that the venue, the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles, was persuaded to suspend its segregation policy to allow her in. McDaniel herself said that she drew inspiration from her own grandmother, who was a slave on a plantation just like the one in the film. It was a great performance, although she was typecast as the maid for the rest of her career.

Gloria Grahame is a star whose reputation is being reclaimed, perhaps due to the movie Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, about her poignant end. Her brilliant talent for seriocomic character work is showcased in Vincente Minelli’s 1952 film The Bad and the Beautiful, as Rosemary, the flighty wife of a hard-pressed screenwriter whose seduction is deliberately contrived by Kirk Douglas’s ruthless movie mogul to distract her, so that she cannot interrupt her husband’s work. Her moody, sulky, witty line-deliveries have something self-deprecatingly absurd in them: there is a little of Mae West in Grahame, but with more dark realism.


Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show is a masterpiece of the American New Wave and no single person did more to contribute to the 1971 film’s greatness than Cloris Leachman, who plays Ruth, the melancholy, lonely, sexy older woman whose silence throbs with unspoken yearning and regrets, and who has an affair with the intriguingly named Sonny, played by Timothy Bottoms. Her class and grace in the role shine out. Leachman’s career, which began in the 1940s, has continued vigorously to the present, with TV roles on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and an appearance on Dancing With the Stars (the US version of Strictly Come Dancing). But this was her masterpiece.

Tilda Swinton is an utterly unique figure in modern cinema, an arthouse icon: star, producer, cinephile and project initiator. In Tony Gilroy’s 2007 legal drama-thriller Michael Clayton she has an atypical role. Despite being known for enigmatically strong roles, she here plays a weak and culpable figure: Karen, a lawyer for crooked big pharma who is faced with taking terrible steps to protect her employer. She is capable of doing very bad things: but appears to have been bullied into them. It is a compelling portrayal of evil in the power-suited corporate world.

Viola Davis was a deeply impressive figure in Fences, the high-minded 2016 adaptation of the August Wilson stage play. She is Rose, the wife of Troy, played by Denzel Washington — a former baseball player now working as a garbage collector. This could have been a thankless role but Davis supercharges it with intelligence and integrity.


Tags: Oscar winners Women

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