No Frontrunner in Sight for Supporting Actor Oscar Race

An abundance of performances deserve mention in this year's most crowded field

Hell and High Water
Courtesy of CBS Films

While the supporting-actress Oscar field is beginning to fill out nicely — with Viola Davis (“Fences”), Naomie Harris (“Moonlight”), Nicole Kidman (“Lion”), and Michelle Williams (“Manchester by the Sea”) already zeroing in on nominations — the supporting actor ranks are positively scattered. It’s anybody’s game for the five spots, with upwards of 20 strong contenders vying for position.

Two popped up in films released at the end of the summer. In David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water,” Jeff Bridges seems to relish playing the role of a soon-to-be-retired West Texas marshal on the hunt for a pair of bank robbers. Meanwhile, in Stephen Frears’ “Florence Foster Jenkins,” Hugh Grant offers a warm, charmingly protective portrayal of the eponymous soprano’s husband. (Speaking of which, Simon Helberg is also delightful in the film, and he has shouldered much of the early campaign glad-handing this season in Grant and co-star Meryl Streep’s stead.)

Three performances stand out in Denzel Washington’s “Fences,” and each of them will no doubt secure their share of votes. Stephen McKinley Henderson could be the one that sticks; he’s a respected veteran who already picked up a Tony nomination for his work in the 2010 revival. But Mykelti Williamson warms the heart as a disabled World War II veteran, while newcomer Jovan Adepo stakes a claim, too, with an emotional performance as son, Cory, that builds throughout the film.

Speaking of emotional performances, Dev Patel is sure to get traction for Garth Davis’ “Lion,” given that he’s really the lead of the film but finds himself campaigned in the supporting category. Mahershala Ali, meanwhile, is present in “Moonlight” for only the first third of the movie, but he’s so crucial to the emotional balance of the film that he’s sorely missed when he takes his leave. (Ali’s co-stars André Holland and Trevante Rhodes will likely have support, too.)

As a straight-talking NASA supervisor in “Hidden Figures,” Kevin Costner reminds audiences of the gravitas he can generate on a film’s periphery. Aaron Eckhart gained 40 pounds and fully immersed himself in the role of real-life, down-and-out boxing trainer Kevin Rooney in “Bleed for This.” And 20-year-old Lucas Hedges holds his own opposite powerhouse performances from Casey Affleck and Williams in “Manchester by the Sea.”

Seriously, the list is endless: Bridges’ “Hell or High Water” co-star Ben Foster molds yet another memorable character in the film. Michael Shannon could reap some good will for a colorful performance in “Nocturnal Animals” after missing the cut for “99 Homes” last year. And word is that Chris Messina and Chris Cooper are two to look for in Ben Affleck’s “Live By Night” — particularly Messina, who packed on weight to play a Prohibition-era henchman in the film. Plus, who knows what Liam Neeson will add to Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” (though I’m told he isn’t in the film a whole lot.)

A pair of personal favorites that were featured in early-year releases are at risk of being lost in all this clutter, so let’s give them a shout-out: John Goodman was positively terrifying in March’s “10 Cloverfield Lane,” while Ralph Fiennes gave one of the year’s best performances in any category in May’s “A Bigger Splash.”

Any of these actors could land a nomination and it wouldn’t be a surprise, making the supporting-actor race easily the most exciting acting race of the year. There is no frontrunner in sight, while the lead-actor categories appear to be two- or three-person toss-ups, and the supporting actress contest all but ended with the reveal of Davis in “Fences.”

The first clues will be which performances are singled out by the Screen Actors Guild’s nominating committee, which concludes its voting on Dec. 11. So far, SAG audiences have delighted in “Fences,” “La La Land,” and “Moonlight,” to name a few. How will they help thin the herd?