For casual Oscar viewers, it's all about the acting categories. The chances to glimpse five famous faces squaring off against each other for a minute's worth of acting clips followed by a 45-second acceptance speech are often the only moments of excitement John Doe gets to experience over the course of a 3-hour telecast full of craftspeople he's never heard of and movies he's never seen.
But to those of us who actively follow the awards season in its entirety, the acting categories are usually the most boring of the night, whereby the winners are so firmly established before final ballots are even submitted that it hardly bears discussion.
Such is the case, as ever, in Best Supporting Actress, which has been dominated by one name and one name only since August! But even if the awards narrative feels stale and predictable by this point, at least we can find some satisfaction in the fact that the performance itself is actually quite an atypical Oscar winner, with the more "obvious" Oscar roles relegated to also-ran status.
Let's start with some of those "obvious" roles...
...And by "obvious", I mean "obviously going to be nominated", which is a descriptor you can always apply to Meryl Streep. The living legend and greatest actress of her generation has reached the point in her career where she'll be nominated by default with every part she takes on. In the case of Into the Woods, most people saw the nomination coming as soon as she was cast. The witch is easily the showiest role in Stephen Sondheim's busy fairytale musical, complete with one particularly weepy song of which Streep acquits herself quite nicely.
If she were still hunting for her third Oscar, she may even have been a default winner. But with The Iron Lady still fresh in memory, I imagine most voters will be Streeped out... for now.
Another obvious nominee is Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game. Despite there being a wealth of interesting supporting female performances to choose from this year, the acting branch can be pretty lazy with regards to actresses riding the coattails of a Best Picture frontrunner (see Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech, Berenice Bejo in The Artist, etc.). But let's not detract anything from Knightley's work as Joan Clark, the lone voice of female support to The Imitation Game's troubled hero. She brings more genuine feeling to the role -- written more as a tidy feminist metaphor than as a human being -- than it frankly deserves.
She should have been nominated in the lead actress category for the magic she spins in Begin Again, but since that was never going to happen, I suppose this will have to do.
However, as though to counter balance all these obvious Oscar performances, we have an actress whose nomination was easily the biggest acting category surprise of the year. Laura Dern, as the deceased mother of Reese Witherspoon's Cheryl Strayed in Wild, was merely on the fringe of the awards radar all season long, with most prognosticators leaning the way of Jessica Chastain to fill out the category. Well, A Most Violent Year clearly did not get out of the gate early enough, allowing Dern to swoop in at the last minute. She's a graceful, joyous presence in this film, even though we only meet her flashback. A victory for a film this small and relatively under-seen is improbable to say the least, but it is great to see the lovely Ms. Dern back at the dance for the first time since 1991's Rambling Rose.
Will win: Patricia Arquette in Boyhood
Runner-up: Emma Stone in Birdman
Should win: Patricia Arquette in Boyhood
Should have been nominated: Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer