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Eleanor Ringel dissects Oscar’s best acting nominees

A scene from "Power of the Dog" featuring Best Supporting Actor nominee Kodi Smit-McPhee with Best Actor nominee Benedict Cumberbatch

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

As careers go, being an actor is one of the most difficult. So whatever else anyone says about winning an Academy Award – Oscar curse and all that – it still helps.

I’m always curious as to what “work” works best when it comes to making the cut as a nominee.

Granted, there are certain choices that are generally accepted as Oscar worthy. Disabilities come immediately to mind – Daniel Day-Lewis as writer/artist Christy Brown (cerebral palsy) in “My Left Foot” or mentally-challenged Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” For women, going ugly – apparently something akin to a disability in Hollywood’s mind – can also work. Think of the “plain” Grace Kelly in “The Country Girl” or Nicole Kidman and her nose as Virginia Woolf in “The Hours.”

But what about real “work,” as in, what do their characters do for a living?

Let’s consider this year’s nominees.

Best Actress: 

Jessica Chastain in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”

A scene from “Parallel Mothers” featuring Best Actress nominee Penelope Cruz

She plays real-life evangelist Tammy Faye Baker. Part huckster, part would-be miracle worker.

Olivia Colman in “The Lost Daughter”

She plays a college professor. Also, a mom challenged by trying to combine motherhood with an academic career.

Penelope Cruz in “Parallel Mothers.”

As the title suggests, she, too, is a mom. But she is also a sought-after professional fashion photographer who balances the demands of single motherhood with such modern-day notions as a live-in au pair and a full-time housekeeper.

Nicole Kidman in “Being the Ricardos”

She’s the world-famous Lucille Ball, as in “I Love Lucy.” Wife, sure, and mother and performer and producer and, maybe…gasp…Commie.

Kristen Stewart in “Spencer”

Wife, mother and princess. As in the doomed Princess Diana. Along with wives and mothers and performers, royalty is usually a sure-fire route to an Oscar nomination.

Best Actor:

Javier Bardem in “Being the Ricardos”

Sure, he’s probably best known as Mr. Lucille Ball, but even without Lucy, Desi Arnaz did just fine as a popular bandleader.

A scene from “Being the Richardos” featuring Best Actor nominee Javier Bardem playing Desi Arnaz and Best Actress nominee Nicole Kidman playing Lucille Ball

Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog”

A cowboy and one mean SOB.

Andrew Garfield in “Tick, Tick…BOOM!”

He’s real-life writer/performer/all-‘round theatre kid Jonathan Larson, famous for creating the musical “Rent.”

Will Smith in “King Richard”

He earns a living as a blue-collar worker, but his real job is as full-time coach and daddy to tennis phenoms, Venus and Serena Williams. Like Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” parenting is the most important thing he does (a rarity in male roles).

Denzel Washington in “The Tragedy of Macbeth”

He’s Shakespeare’s infamous man who would be king. Royalty works for guys, too.

Best Supporting Actress:

Jessie Buckley in “The Lost Daughter”

As the younger version of Colman, she’s the one who shows us the essence of the professional/personal conflict. And unlike Cruz’s character, she does not have access to full-time help.

Judi Dench in “Belfast”

Best Supporting Actress nominee Ariana DeBose dances up a storm in the 2021 remake of “West Side Story”

She’s a granny. It’s 1969 in Northern Ireland.  Not much else she can do.

Ariana DeBose in “West Side Story”

She’s a girlfriend and a best friend. And she dances up a storm. She really doesn’t have time for a career or a family or anything else.

Kirsten Dunst in “The Power of the Dog”

Widowed at the beginning of the movie, she has her hands full running a boarding house. Then she marries Jesse Plemons and has her hands full with her brother-in-law (Cumberbatch).

Aunjanue Ellis in “King Richard”

Though the movie gives her props as a kind of back-up coach for her husband (Smith), she’s mostly the mom and the family’s emotional center.

Best Supporting Actor

Ciaran Hinds in “Belfast”

Best Supporting Actress nominee Judi Dench and Best Supporting Actor nominee Ciaran Hinds in their roles as grandparents in “Belfast”

Married to Dench in the movie, he’s a grandpa.

Troy Kotsur in “CODA”

His work as a fisherman is actually central to his role and to the film.

Jesse Plemons in “The Power of the Dog”

He and Cumberbatch are brothers who co-own the ranch in Montana where the picture is set.

J.K. Simmons in “Being the Ricardos”

He plays real-life actor, William Frawley who played the Ricardo’s downstairs neighbor/landlord in “I Love Lucy.” Oscar likes actors who play actors but not as much as it does actresses who play actresses.

Kodi Smit-McPhee in “The Power of the Dog”

Dunst’s sensitive son (though not as “sensitive” as we’re led to believe), he’s a pre-med student. Among other things…

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


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