Winners often come off the beaten path

When it comes to children, most parents will cite the old adage: “It’s impossible to pick a favorite.” The same could easily be said for Oscar’s supporting thesp races.

In an era where Oscar prognosticators are becoming ever more confident about most of their picks, it’s not easy to pick a favorite in what can be called the Academy’s two wild-card fields.

Even a best pic contender doesn’t always translate into a supporting nomination. Last year’s supporting actor winner, Christoph Waltz of “Inglourious Basterds,” was the category’s only nominee from one of the 10 top pictures — in contrast to Matt Damon (“Invictus”), Woody Harrelson (“The Messenger”), Christopher Plummer (“The Last Station”) and Stanley Tucci (“The Lovely Bones”).

Though there appears to be little rhyme or reason to the Academy’s thinking in the supporting heats, here are a few trends that cannot be overlooked.

Rule No. 1: Expect upsets

Ed Harris, thrice nominated in the category, has been on both sides of a supporting race surprise. In 1999, he nabbed a Golden Globe for his supporting turn in “The Truman Show,” giving him frontrunner status at the Oscars, but lost to James Coburn (“Affliction”).

Two years later, Marcia Gay Harden pulled off an upset win for her supporting role in the Harris-helmed biopic “Pollack.” Harden was considered a longshot given that she hadn’t even been nominated for a Golden Globe or SAG Award.

“The supporting race is kind of a crapshoot,” says Harris, a four-time nominee who is garnering Oscar buzz this year for his performance in “The Way Back.” “When Marcia Gay won, that was a glorious surprise. But it’s a somewhat unpredictable race because you get such an eclectic mix of performances and interesting characters.”

Other recent upsets include Alan Arkin of “Little Miss Sunshine” besting Eddie Murphy of “Dreamgirls,” after Murphy took home the Golden Globe and SAG Awards, and “Michael Clayton” co-star Tilda Swinton, who beat out SAG winner Ruby Dee (“American Gangster”). Jim Broadbent’s win for “Iris” also stunned Oscar watchers, who largely predicted Ian McKellen to prevail for “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”

Rule No. 2: Oscar loves the little ones

Anna Paquin’s upset win for “The Piano,” coupled with Tatum O’Neal’s “Paper Moon” feat, indicate that Academy voters are willing to anoint a novice. Likewise, Abigail Breslin nabbed a nomination for “Little Miss Sunshine,” as did Haley Joel Osment for “The Sixth Sense.” The late River Phoenix was recognized as a teen for his supporting turn in “Running on Empty,” while a teenage Juliette Lewis earned a nomination for “Cape Fear.”

“There’s a certain tradition with the Academy: Older actors and younger actors do very well in the supporting category,” says Roman Coppola, producer of “Somewhere,” whose 12-year-old star Elle Fanning is drawing praise for her turn as the daughter of a hard-living actor. “Particularly with the younger nominees, there’s a nod that these people are rising and are on their way to greater things.”

Though Fanning’s performance straddles the fence between lead and supporting, Focus Features is backing her as a supporting candidate.

“Due to the culture of the Academy and savvy of our distributor, they’ve decided to position her as a supporting actress,” Coppola explains.

Rule No. 3: Comic performances have a better shot in the supporting race

Though the Academy rarely christens a comedy as best picture and largely eschews lead comic performances, there’s an abundance of supporting winners and nominees that have tickled funny bones.

Jack Palance (“City Slickers”), Marisa Tomei (“My Cousin Vinny”), John Gielgud (“Arthur”), Jessica Lange (“Tootsie”), Don Ameche (“Cocoon”) and Kevin Kline (“A Fish Called Wanda”) are among a long list of thesps who earned statuettes for lighthearted performances. Director Woody Allen has spawned a cottage industry of comic supporting winners: Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine for “Hannah and Her Sisters,” Wiest again for “Bullets Over Broadway,” Mira Sorvino for “Mighty Aphrodite” and Penelope Cruz for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

Rule No. 4: Supporting performances often get swept up in a successful best picture campaign — but nothing is certain

Strategists behind “The Social Network” are positioning several thesps for supporting recognition, including Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake, in an effort to hitch their wagons to an already buzzworthy picture push. That tactic worked for a number of past supporting winners whose films also took home top honors, including Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”), Jack Nicholson (“Terms of Endearment”), Timothy Hutton (“Ordinary People”), Gene Hackman (“Unforgiven”), Juliette Binoche (“The English Patient”), Judi Dench (“Shakespeare in Love”), Jennifer Connelly (“A Beautiful Mind”) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (“Chicago”).

“Ultimately, it’s a more flexible category,” notes Patricia Clarkson, who was nominated for her supporting performance in “Pieces of April” and who is once again in the awards-season mix for her lead turn in “Cairo Time.” “The age range is larger. It can accommodate an expanse of comedic to dramatic. It can just be recognition of a sheer performance, but sometimes it is a nod to the career: ‘You’ve been around long enough. You’ve paid dues.'”

More from Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language:
Legends struggle to win again | Foreign actors embrace global style | Will Swinton, Bardem speak Oscar’s language? | Anything goes in supporting race | The buck goes there | Young actresses not looking for celeb status

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