Update: Allison Janney won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the 90th Annual Academy Awards.
We're just about at the halfway point of awards show mania, with both the Golden Globes and the SAG awards in the rearview mirror, and Oscar nominations on the horizon. Usually by this point, I have a clear list of contenders I want to see bring home the little gold man. But this year, I'm faced with an unusual problem: I can't decide who to root for Best Supporting Actress.
I'm hopelessly torn between Allison Janney's powerhouse performance as LaVona Golden in I, Tonya, and Laurie Metcalf's masterclass in acting as Marion McPherson in Lady Bird. Both films celebrate female individuality and hone in on the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship, albeit in wildly different ways. And therein lies my conundrum.
I, Tonya does a deep dive into the toxic, and at times downright violent, relationship that dominated Tonya Harding's childhood, arguing that this abusive upbringing may have played a role in shaping Harding's reaction to the "incident" that would come to define her. The story is specific, but the narrative is one we've seen onscreen before, from Mommie Dearest to Precious.
The tensions in Lady Bird, on the other hand, are the ones we almost never see: normal, everyday interactions between a teenage daughter who's just coming to realize that her mother is a real person with human emotions, and a parent who needs more from her child than she's able to give at that particular moment.
It's worth mentioning that both of these characters are anchored in firmly working class backgrounds: LaVonda works as a waitress in a diner to pay for Tonya's skating career; Marion works double shifts as a psychiatric nurse to try and make ends meet for her family. It's easy to gloss over the cracks in a relationship when there's money to throw around — the lack of it magnifies every perceived slight. These two characters manage to convey human nature in all its flawed complexity.
Janney's performance is laugh out loud funny, but as befits her character, every laugh is tinged with darkness. As an audience, we're laughing with (at?) a woman whose hard edges are more than just a cover for a soft heart. When she's not berating Tonya to push harder, do better, she's stabbing her in the arm with a knife and kicking her out of the house. Janney also had to transform her appearance for the role, and in fact, the blunt-banged wig she sports throughout the film could have been distracting were it not for the strength of her acting.
Metcalf's role, on the other hand, is far more subtle, which is reflected in her more quiet, but no less impactful performance. The only violence in Marion's character is in the way she feels wronged by the cards that have been dealt to her. She loves her daughter fiercely, but doesn't know how to express that to her other than by nagging her constantly. This kind of missed connection is what feels so relatable — we all have moments where good intentions are clouded by broken expressions of feeling.
If I had to pick one movie over the other, Lady Bird would win. It's a movie that felt almost otherworldly in its simplicity, with a sweetness and optimism that has been sorely lacking in Hollywood when it comes to narratives about women. I've seen it twice so far, and still feel myself wanting more — and while I found I, Tonya entertaining, it doesn't have the same pull on my heartstrings. But man, Allison Janney is So. Damn. Good. in it. And then, I think....so is Laurie Metcalf!
What's more, Metalf is an actress who has been quietly excelling at her craft for decades without proper praise and recognition. Janney has won seven Emmys for her roles on Mom and The West Wing, and holds six more nominations, but still remains far less famous than she ought to be given her talent. That's what makes this so hard; as is the nature of a contest, a win for Janney means a loss for Metcalf, and vice versa.
Janney has already swept both the Golden Globes and SAG awards for Best Supporting Actress, over Metcalf. Those are usually good indicators for the final showdown at the Oscars, but as we saw with last year's Best Picture, there's always room for an upset.
In a way, the fact that this debate exists at all is cause for rejoicing. At 62 (Metcalf), and 58 (Janney), the fact that these two actresses are taking on some of the best and meatiest roles of their careers is a sign of progress. As Nicole Kidman pointed out in her acceptance speech at the SAGs on Sunday, that's not something that could have been possible just two decades ago.
Tomorrow, the nominations for the 90th Academy Awards will be handed down. I'm still not sure who I want to see giving that acceptance speech on March 4, but I suspect that if either of these incredibly talented women are involved, it'll be one for the ages.
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