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Oscar 2014: Video Evidence, Supporting Actor

Who deserves to win?


Jared Leto, ‘Dallas Buyers Club’

[This is the first entry in “Video Evidence,” a series of video essays championing the most deserving Oscar nominees. For the full list of video essays, see the Oscar index main page.]

Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Total screen time: 21 minutes (19%of film screen time)

Leto is the clear favorite to win: he’s swept most of the early awards for his role as Rayon, a transgender AIDS patient. But if you really look at this performance, it reveals itself as the least deserving of an Oscar.  Leto has less screen time (nineteen minutes) than anyone else in this category, but more importantly, his performance is the least inspired: basically he dresses in drag and stands around as a cute and harmless sidekick for Matthew McConaughey’s character to learn about sexual tolerance. Once upon a time, straight actors playing gay was considered edgy, but in 2014, Leto’s performance amounts to a bunch of polite cliches on what it means to be queer. It’s such a conventional depiction of a transgender person, that you have to wonder what a real trans performer could have brought to the role.




Barkhad Abdi, ‘Captain Phillips’

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Total screen time: 32 minutes (25% of screen time)

That point of authenticity of background and what it brings to a role is made all the more valid when you look at Abdi, who plays the Somali pirate Muse in Captain Phillips. Just like Leto, Abdi has to deal with a role that’s littered with stereotypes. First he’s a conniving pirate and a dark-skinned menace; later, he’s a naive and helpless third world victim. This duality reflects the contradictions of how Hollywood looks at Africans, but Abdi is able to make it work because, ironically, he doesn’t play up the part. Abdi has a flat, non-actorly approach that is refreshing and gives his antagonist an unexpected dignity. He stands apart from the stereotypes and in doing so makes his character feel more real.


Michael Fassbender, ’12 Years a Slave’

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Total screen time: 30 minutes (24% percent of screen time)

As formidable an actor as Fassbender is, here he plays a fairly one-dimensional villain that doesn’t really do anything you don’t already expect of a sadistic slave owner. But to his credit, Fassbender fully invests himself in this monstrosity, literally throwing his whole body into it. It’s a physically imposing performance, but the key drawback to this strategy is that it doesn’t fully convey what might be inside: the male insecurity and racist paranoia behind his cruelty. The performance rarely rises above caricature.


Jonah Hill, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Total screen time: 37 minutes (22% of screen time)

Hill might embody the closest thing to a soul inside The Wolf of Wall Street. No doubt he does his fair share of scene-stealing in this three-hour orgy of excess, with his drug-taking, goldfish-eating and penis-exposing hijinks. But there’s also a surprising amount of delicate acting that gives his character pathos, a sense of desperation in wanting to belong among the gods of finance and escape the pathetic loser that he might really be.


Bradley Cooper, ‘American Hustle’

Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Total screen time: 41 minutes (32% of screen time)

There’s definitely a case for Jonah Hill or Barkhad Abdi as best supporting actor, but ultimately I have to go with Bradley Cooper in American Hustle. Maybe I’m swayed because he has the most screentime and has the most to do among the contenders, but the point of the matter is that he delivers a performance that’s remarkably complex even when it’s bouncing off the walls. As FBI agent Richie DiMaso, Cooper has a tricky assignment: playing a character who acts like he’s in control while constantly at risk of losing it. It’s as if the two sides of his brain are fighting for the steering wheel, driving his performance in crazy directions. One scene in particular shows Cooper acting out these joyride thinking patterns. As Richie tries to turn a lady crook into his informant, Cooper is able to convey his character’s intelligence and assertiveness, but also a recklessness that’s both dangerous and irresistible to him.

If you isolate Cooper from the rest of the film, you’ll find a dynamic performance that’s as tragic as it is funny: a hard-driving but fragile egotist who got in way over his head and fell while reaching for the sun. He is Icarus with a bad perm.

Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets as @alsolikelife.

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  • Caaro says:

    The name is pronounced “Let-o” (as in ‘let us acknowledge that you are ill-informed”
    ‘) not ‘Lee-to”.

  • kelly says:

    ummmmm who cares who is on screen longest or shortest, that doesn’t matter. judi dench was in shakespeare in love for 8 minutes, and still won. and beatrice straight won for 5 minutes. so obviously that doesn’t matter. And he did not just stand “around as a cute and harmless sidekick”, did y’all even see the movie?? Abdi and Fassbender were terrific, but no match for Leto

  • Kevin B Lee says:

    Caaro – Let-o the record show that I mispronounced his name. Also, I mispronounced the character of Barkhad Abdi’s character, it should be Mus-eh.

    kelly, the screen time figures are there as a point of reference. Some people find it interesting to compare the actual minutes the actor appears on screen to the overall impact they make on the viewer. If Leto did the most for you then his relatively limited screen time actually makes his use of screen time more impressive.

  • Dallas Buyer says:

    I think you’re understating what Leto did, and overstating the importance of the actor being able to directly relate to the character they’re playing. Good actors are good actors. Maybe there’s a transgendered person out there with enough acting skill to carry the part, but I don’t hear you suggesting Captain Philips should’ve used a real pirate, 12 Years a Slave a real slave owner (they still exist), Wolf of Wall St. a real stock broker, or American Hustle a real FBI agent.

    The scene where Rayon went to see her father was heartbreaking and powerful. There were times I forgot that was Jared Leto on the screen.

  • Jackie C says:

    Re: Dallas Buyers Club, you know there is a difference between transgender and gay, right?
    I don’t want to come off as overly pc, but I think that’s an important distinction to make just in terms of the way real people identify themselves, and considering the considerable amount of prejudice the trans* community faces that is distinct from other GBLT identities.

  • elisa pagati says:

    Jared Leto !

  • Craig Thornton says:

    Most of the writing here is smart, but I too find the Jared Leto analysis completely off-base. I think he should win and will win. The thing I find most interesting about this performance is that his gayness and cross dressing are secondary to just being a believable person. Also mentioning that he is a straight actor playing a gay actor is kind of amateurish. If he were gay and you didn’t like his performance what would be your reasoning? Plus how do you know Leto is straight?

  • Christian says:

    It’s interesting that Kevin tends to mirror my same exact thoughts but we definitely diverge on this category. I loved Bradley in SLP but I felt he was too showy in this performance and he delivered no substance. I haven’t seen Abdi but I felt Leto was way above the rest. Fassbender didn’t bring anything unexpected or nuanced to his role and Hill was serviceable but nothing special. Leto all the way!

  • Carter says:

    You do realize that Jared Leto not being a trans-gender is what makes it “acting” correct? If it had been a real trans-gender there wouldn’t be anything special about the performance because it would have just been a transgender person acting like them self. I agree that there were some cliches. But i think it was sort of the direction the director wanted to go in. Thats what makes McConaughey’s rugged manly and (originally) homophobic character sympathizing and becoming friends with a transgender who is THAT cliched and flamboyant so remarkable, in my opinion. You also completely ruled out his best scenes. No shown clips or mentions of the scene where he talks to his father, or the scene right before he has to go to the hospital where he says “I don’t wanna die” and begins crying. Its rare to see that kind of reaction to death in a movie because 95% of the time main characters that are being killed off show this nobility and strength and tell others not to worry for them and all that nonsense. In this scene he captures perfectly the reality of how people actually feel when they know their about to go: Terrified. Not showing or discussing any of these two scenes makes me wonder if you even watched the whole movie.

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