The supporting actress in a film has, in the past, played primarily one of two roles: The seductress who leads a man astray from the leading lady, or the completely homely, motherly type role, either a friend or an older relative of one of the lead characters. It seems that at one point in time, a woman’s importance in a film was based solely on whether or not the men around her found attractive — though obviously, there are exceptions to this rule.
While some of the actresses on this list played roles that fit neatly in this box, many did not. The quality of the material provided is of vital importance to the way a character can be played, but the best performers take what they’ve been given to new heights. And as more meaty roles became available for women, the performances given improved exponentially.
Of course, the Academy doesn’t always do the best job of honoring these deserving actresses, specifically when it comes to those who are not white. Roles for women of color have, fortunately, become more abundant and fruitful as of late, and this year’s Best Supporting Actress category has set a commendable new standard: dor the first time ever, the majority of the nominees in the category are women of color. But before we see who takes the prize home this month, here are 15 Roles That Should Have Won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in their respective years.
15. Angela Lansbury – Sibyl Vane – The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
Oscar Wilde’s novel published in 1890 has become a beloved classic, and numerous filmmakers have attempted to do it justice. However, the most acclaimed and well-known version of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the 1945 film starring Hurd Hatfield as the titular character. The story goes that Dorian is a young man who finds himself drawn to a life of debauchery and deceit, which wreaks havoc on those around him.
The first victim of his reckless lifestyle is Sibyl Vane, a lovely club singer. Sibyl is portrayed by Angela Lansbury, who had just recently burst onto the Hollywood scene with her Oscar-nominated role in Gaslight. Though small, the role of Sibyl was a significant one, and at only 20 years old, Lansbury became a two-time Oscar nominee.
Lansbury has since been nominated just once more, for her supporting role in The Manchurian Candidate in 1962. However, the actress has not gone without recognition: she has won an outstanding five Tony Awards, several Golden Globes, and was nominated for the Lead Actress in a Drama Series Emmy for all 12 seasons of Murder, She Wrote. Lansbury also received an Honorary Academy Award in 2013. She continues to act regularly, and it was just confirmed that she’ll be appearing in the upcoming Mary Poppins Returns.
14. Thelma Ritter – Clancy – With a Song in My Heart (1952)
Telling the biographical story of actress Jane Froman, With a Song in My Heart was a relatively minor film filled with acclaimed performances. Along with starring actress Susan Hayward, Thelma Ritter was acknowledged for her small part as no-nonsense nurse Ms. Clancy, who took care of Froman and her love interest, John Burn, after they survive a plane crash.
As we’ve seen from the recent success of La La Land, Hollywood is all about stories that remark on the industry, and biographical movies that follow performers usually do very well at the Oscars. Ritter’s role was a very small one, but as the humorous character that aids the protagonist, she deserved recognition.
Ritter is one of three actresses to have been nominated a record six times in a single category and never received an Academy Award. (All within 12 years, in fact.) Ritter made a solid career out of playing the supporting female role, and it’s a shame that her 20 years in the business was not more acknowledged. The actress passed away in 1969 at the age of 66 after a heart attack.
13. Natalie Wood – Judy – Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
The tale of three teenage troublemakers, Rebel Without a Cause, has become the epitome of 1950s American culture, and remains popular to this day, specifically as James Dean’s final and most memorable role. Judy, the love interest of Dean’s Jim and the unknowing catalyst of the film’s most pivotal moment, is one of these teenagers. She’s conflicted by the shift of male attention in her life and the ways in which she is perceived as a young woman.
Natalie Wood had been a well-known child actress, and her role as Judy transformed her into a burgeoning young film star, earning her the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination. However, according to her own admission, she was almost not cast, despite an alleged affair with the director, Nicholas Ray.
As many know, Wood went on receive two more Oscar nominations, followed by a hiatus from acting in order to raise her children. She came back with some television success, but ultimately, her career didn’t ever fully recover before her untimely death in 1981, when she drowned while filming on Catalina Island at the age of 43.
12. Judy Garland – Irene Hoffmann-Wallner – Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Judgment at Nuremberg, a 1961 drama based on the real Nuremberg Trials that followed World War II, depicts just a few of the numerous atrocious acts committed under Nazi rule in Germany, which were tried as military tribunals in U.S. courts. One famous case, the Katzenberger Trial, was acted out by Maximilian Schell as a German defense Attorney and Judy Garland as the witness on the stand.
Garland’s character, Irene, was a 16-year-old girl in Nuremberg when she developed a close relationship with an older Jewish man. She maintains that the relationship was not of a romantic nature, but nonetheless, the man was sentenced to death on “blood defilement” charges under Hitler’s anti-semitic laws. The performance by Garland was brief, but incredibly powerful, and the emotion she conveyed was in line with the comeback she was poised to make at the time.
Indeed, Garland was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the part, having infamously lost the Best Actress award several years prior for her leading role in A Star is Born. However, Judgment at Nuremberg was one of Garland’s final films — the actress spent some time on the stage in the last several years of her life, but never regained her star power. Garland passed away in 1969 from an accidental overdose, and despite never winning an Oscar, has gone down in history as one of the greatest performers of all time.
11. Debbie Reynolds – Lilith Prescott – How the West Was Won (1962)
The acclaimed 1960s hit How the West Was Won has gone down in history as one of the most celebrated films of all time. The epic Western follows multiple generations of one family as they cope with the changing landscape in America in the 19th century. While the entire ensemble cast was remarkable, it’s Debbie Reynold’s performance as Lilith Prescott that stood out above the rest.
Lilith is the younger daughter of Zebulon Prescott. She becomes a performer at a dance hall, and later a wealthy widow and ranch owner. Not only does Reynolds portray Lilith over many years, but is in fact the only character to make it from the beginning to the end of the film, signifying a range in ages and tone that’s rarely asked of actors anymore.
Reynolds was not nominated for her performance as Lilith, though How the West Was Won took home three Oscars and was nominated for five more. She was soon after nominated for Best Actress for her role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, but was not honored by the Academy until 2015, when she was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Reynolds passed away late last year after suffering a brain hemorrhage just one day after the death of her daughter, actress Carrie Fisher.
10. Lily Tomlin – Linnea Reese – Nashville (1975)
Though humor is rarely rewarded by the Academy these days, the 1970s satirical musical-comedy Nashville was a stand out at that time. The film shown a light on the country music industry, and a number of the characters were based on real-life country singers. Lily Tomlin’s Linnea Reese, however, was a completely original character.
Linnea is a white gospel singer who sings with a black Protestant choir. Despite being married with two children, she’s pursued by Tom Frank, a member of a folk trio reminiscent of Peter, Paul and Mary. Tomlin’s performance, along with many others, was lauded, and both she and costar Ronee Blakley were nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, losing to Lee Grant for Shampoo.
Tomlin’s comedy career has stretched on for decades, and includes highlights such as her tenure on sketch show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, her solo Broadway run in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, her multiple comedy albums, and her recent Emmy-nominated performance on the Netflix series Grace and Frankie. At 77, Tomlin shows no signs of stopping, and hopefully she’ll have an Academy-recognized film role soon, which would make her a member of the elusive EGOT club.
9. Joan Cusack – Cynthia – Working Girl (1988)
All of the players in hit romantic dramedy Working Girl are fantastic. A cast that includes Harrison Ford, Melanie Griffith, and Sigourney Weaver support the fairly low-key premise: a woman with a great idea has to maneuver the business world, trick her boss and others, but ends up with both the guy and a new job. The woman in question, Tess McGill, is aided by her friend, Cynthia, played by Joan Cusack.
Cusack has, if nothing else, made a career playing the friend, sidekick, or minor background character, often appearing in her more-famous brother John Cusack’s films. In Working Girl, she’s thankfully acknowledged for her comedic timing, receiving a Best Supporting Actress nomination along with costar Weaver.
However, the actress has since been nominated just once more, for her performance in another rom-com, In & Out. As someone who has been consistently acting since she was a teenager, it seems remarkable that she hasn’t yet been cast in a true Academy-honored film. The saving grace for Cusack was her recurring role on the series Shameless, which earned her five Emmy nominations and finally a win for her last season.
8. Annette Bening – Myra Langtry – The Grifters (1991)
Another category that the Academy has a lukewarm relationship with is neo-noir crime thrillers. The Grifters is one such example of film that got it right, with the careful precision of producer Martin Scorsese’s calculated hand in the genre mixed with the raw talent of stars Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, and Annette Bening.
Bening’s role as Myra, the girlfriend of Cusack’s Roy and a long-con grifter who uses whatever is at her disposal to get her way, is a captivating one. Roy’s mother, Lilly, is also a con artist, and she and Myra face off for the affections of Roy. As the antagonist, Myra ultimately loses out to Lilly, but not before putting up a fight.
Both Bening and Huston were nominated by the Academy for their roles, along with nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director. This was Bening’s first Oscar nod, but not her last. She has since been nominated for her lead roles in American Beauty, Being Julia, and The Kids Are All Right. Bening continues to act in acclaimed films, including last year’s 20th Century Women.
7. Joan Allen – Elizabeth Proctor – The Crucible (1996)
Based on Arthur Miller’s play of the same name, The Crucible was a well-acted film that didn’t do particularly well with critics and audiences. Adapted for the screen by the playwright himself, the movie depicts the town of Salem, Massachusetts in the late-1600s, as young women begin to accuse adults of being witches in order to get their way. One of the women accused, Elizabeth Proctor, has been targeted because of her husband’s affair with an adolescent girl, Abigail.
Elizabeth is played by Joan Allen in a harrowing supporting role. Mrs. Proctor lies in order to protect herself and her husband, and blames herself for his affair. In the end, he is the one who is killed, in hopes of salvaging his family’s name. Allen portrays Elizabeth with cold sincerity, toeing the line between vengeful and accepting.
Allen was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, her second in two years following 1995’s Nixon. She was also nominated for the Best Actress Oscar in 2000, for her lead role in The Contender. As long as Allen continues to make excellent choices and play captivating roles, she’s sure to be honored by the Academy some day.
6. Julianne Moore – Amber Waves (Maggie) – Boogie Nights (1997)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakout success, Boogie Nights is a look at the porn industry’s heyday in the 1970s, quickly followed by the cheapening of quality brought on by video production, along with the controversy surrounding excessive drug use and the early days of HIV recognition. The film follows Eddie Adams, aka Dirk Diggler, and the various porn stars he works with, including Amber Waves.
Amongst a great cast, Julianne Moore stood out as a burgeoning actress and celebrated leading lady. Moore’s Maggie was a troubled yet successful star who is soon hit by the ageism that comes with any industry that puts women in the spotlight. Director Anderson has said that he only ever gave Moore one direction on set, which was to say a repeated line just one more time.
Moore has continued to delight critics and audiences in the last 20 years since her first Academy nomination for Boogie Nights. In fact, in 2003, she was recognized for two separate films, one in the Best Actress category and one for Best Supporting Actress. After five nominations, Moore finally won an Oscar for her leading role in 2015’s Still Alice.
5. Kate Hudson – Penny Lane – Almost Famous (2000)
A semi-autobiographical account of director/writer Cameron Crowe’s own adolescence, Almost Famous follows William Miller, a 15-year-old music journalist prodigy who goes on the road with up-and-coming rock band Stillwater in the early 1970s. This opportunity comes to him via Rolling Stone, but it’s professional groupie (or Band Aid, as she prefers to be called) Penny Lane who takes him under her wing and guides him on this new experience.
Kate Hudson as Penny Lane is one of the original Manic Pixie Dream Girls, but there’s a bit more to her than that. Penny is in an off-and-on relationship with frontman Russell while asserting that she’s “retired” and plans to move on from touring with the band to follow her own dreams. We see Penny through the eyes of William, who falls in love with her while trying to write his article on the band for Rolling Stone.
Hudson’s portrayal of Penny earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress at just 20 years old. While this was her breakout role, she has gone on to stay in the public eye, though never to the same acclaim. Hudson is currently best known for her roles in romantic comedies and for her line of athletic wear.
4. Amy Ryan – Helene McCready – Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Mystery thriller Gone Baby Gone was Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, and received general critical acclaim. The story follows a private investigator, Patrick Kenzie, as he unravels a web of lies, beginning with the kidnapping of a young girl. The girl’s mother, Helene McCready, is portrayed by Amy Ryan, in one of her earliest roles.
Patrick is first drawn in by the desperate pleas of Helene, who he soon learns isn’t the doting mother she pretends to be. Ryan as McCready shows an unfeeling and manipulative woman who puts herself above the safety and comfort of her daughter. Though Patrick fights to return Amanda to her home, he learns in the end that this woman doesn’t care enough to protect her.
Ryan received critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for this role, which put her on the map. She has gone on to play memorable roles on The Wire and The Office, showing a range capable of mastering both serious drama and light-hearted comedy. Ryan’s last role of significant note was as a member of the ensemble cast of Birdman, but she continues to act steadily.
3. Viola Davis – Mrs. Miller – Doubt (2008)
The critically-acclaimed Academy honoree Doubt showcases the threat of pedophilia in the Catholic church by focusing on a small school in the Bronx and the women who begin to suspect the congregation’s Father of acting inappropriately towards a male student. The star-studded cast were all nominated for their roles, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller, the mother of the boy in question.
Davis’ role was a small one, but incredibly powerful. The outrage and sadness one might expect in for a woman in the position was nowhere to be found, but instead replaced with a calm, calculated precision. She’s the realistic portrayal of the working class mother, who wants nothing more than to keep her head down and get through this so that her child can go on to lead a better life.
Though she didn’t win, Davis was nominated for her supporting role in Doubt. She hasn’t slowed down since this breakout role, only sped up: Davis was recently nominated once again for her role in Fences, making her the first black woman to ever receive three Academy nominations. With both an Emmy and a Tony under her belt, if Davis takes home the Oscar this year, she’ll be just one step away from an EGOT.
2. Amy Adams – Charlene Fleming – The Fighter (2010)
Amy Adams followed up her Oscar-nominated Best Supporting Actress role in Doubt with another Oscar-nominated Best Supporting Actress role in The Fighter. The film is the biographical story of boxer Micky Ward and his difficult relationships within his family during his rise in popularity. Adams plays his girlfriend, Charlene Fleming.
Charlene is the gritty, no-nonsense bartender who Micky meets while she’s working and they soon begins dating. Adams goes out of her comfort zone to play the tough, swearing Bostonian, and even has her own fight scene in the film when she gets into a brawl with Micky’s sister. According to director David O. Russell, Adams was excited to play such a different character from those she’s played in the past, and rose to the challenge.
Adams lost the Oscar to her costar Melissa Leo, but she continues to get better with every film. With an astounding five Academy Award nominations in less than 10 years, Adams continues to wow critics and audiences. The actress will reprise her role as Lois Lane in this year’s Justice League, and is currently filming her first big TV project as the lead in HBO’s upcoming series Sharp Objects.
1. Mya Taylor – Alexandra – Tangerine (2015)
Tangerine was a remarkable and ground-breaking film for a number of reasons. The uncomplicated plot follows transgender sex worker Sin-Dee and her friend Alexandra through a day in their lives, after Sin-Dee learns that her boyfriend is cheating on her. Executive produced by the Duplass Brothers’ company from writer and director Sean S. Baker, the film was uniquely shot on three iPhone 5s smartphones.
Mya Taylor plays Alexandra, a street-wise transgender prostitute. The film’s story was based upon real stories Taylor and costar Kitana Kiki Rodriguez told Baker, who created the script around them. Alexandra is the calm, unaffected sidekick to Sin-Dee’s wild temperament, and Taylor has said in interviews that this character came from her own drama-free personality.
Tangerine performed beautifully at Sundance, and thus began the campaign to have not one but two transgender actresses nominated by the Academy. Unfortunately, these efforts were not successful, but helped to make great strides in the industry’s appreciation of the trans community. Taylor became the first transgender actress to win a Gotham Award, as well as the first to take home an Independent Spirit Award for her performance.
Which Best Supporting Actress Oscar snub bugs you the most? Sound off in the comments
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