The Tightest Oscar Race: Jennifer Lawrence vs. Lupita Nyong’o for Best Supporting Actress

Will it be Jennifer Lawrence for her turn as a saucy Long Island housewife in American Hustle, or Lupita Nyong’o for her poignant, tortured performance in 12 Years A Slave?

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The Oscars are coming. Yes, the 86th Academy Awards will go down on Sunday, March 2, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. Ellen DeGeneres will be hosting the show for the second time (her first was in ‘07) and, with the recent passings of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Harold Ramis, the In Memoriam segment is going to hit particularly hard.

American Hustle and Gravity both lead with 10 Oscar nominations apiece followed closely by 12 Years A Slave with 9. While the Best Picture Oscar is still pretty much up for grabs, the tightest race among the acting nominees is in the category of Best Supporting Actress—pitting America’s Sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence, who took home the Best Actress Oscar for last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, against newcomer Lupita Nyong’o. Who will—and deserves to—prove victorious?

Marlow: I’m torn like Natalie Imbruglia on this one. On the one hand, Jennifer Lawrence delivers a very fun, over-the-top turn as Rosalyn Rosenfeld, the vengeful housewife from hell, in American Hustle. She’s like a bull in a china shop and every time she pops up on screen with her wild updo and “sweet and sow-ah” topcoat, your interest in the film is piqued. On the other, there’s 12 Years A Slave newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who delivers the year’s most devastating performance as Patsey, the prized cotton picker of sadistic slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who’s subjected to a seemingly endless string of abuses, from a horrifying rape sequence to the most brutal whipping ever put to screen.

The scene where Nyong’o asks Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to kill her is played so subtly and brilliantly. And, while Nyong’o has scooped up the SAG and a number of critics awards, Lawrence, it seems, is the odds-on favorite to win, having taken home the Golden Globe and BAFTA. If you put the two performances side-by-side, you’ve got to give it to Nyong’o, who is an absolute force of nature onscreen. 12 Years A Slave boasts outstanding turns by Ejiofor and Fassbender, but it’s Nyong’o’s portrayal that sticks with you the most. This match-up is almost like a younger version of the 2012 Best Actress Oscar race, which pitted Meryl Streep’s turn as Maggie Thatcher in The Iron Lady against Viola Davis’s as Aibileen Clark, a black maid in Civil Rights era Mississippi, in The Help. Of course, Streep emerged victorious on Oscar night. Will Nyong’o succumb to a similar fate?

Kevin: This race is absolutely a battle of the It Girls, the fresh face taking the industry by storm and the Hollywood darling whose relentless charm offensive hasn’t stopped. Best Supporting Actress, perhaps more than any other category, is one susceptible to industry buzz, which only crystallizes this as a race between Lupita and J. Law, who have been trading off magazine covers and endearing TV interviews as often as they’ve been trading acting wins this season.

It’s a shame that buzz and campaigning plays such a part in Oscar voting, because it means the chances of Sally Hawkins eking out a surprise win for her, in my mind, superior work in Blue Jasmine are slim to none. Nyong’o was shattering in 12 Years, but her screentime was short and, in my opinion, her character never developed enough for us to invest in her beyond the disgust of the horrors we witness being inflicted on her. Lawrence is a freaking hoot in American Hustle, who takes her Big Scenes and sets them on fire. It was the best performance by a woefully miscast actress in decades. (Seriously, that accent…) Hawkins, on the other hand, goes beat-for-beat with Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, partnering with the Best Actress frontrunner in a precarious pas de deux of two brittle women on the edge of shattering. It’s actually Hawkins who has the more difficult task: she’s not allowed to break. She has to hold it together. It’s a brilliant, underrated performance.

But alas buzz does play a crucial role in Oscar voting, which means that it will be Nyong’o or Lawrence who takes the trophy. It’s actually a hilarious race to predict, because these two actresses, talented as they are, have wildly different public personas. Which one will the Academy be more seduced by? There’s Nyong’o, who repeats the same “this is me having a personality!” stories about her father’s reaction to her starring in a movie with Brad Pitt at every award show, red carpet, and interview. Who talks endlessly about acting using words like “the craft” and “the process” and “the work,” while we, blinded by her class and grace, pretend such speak isn’t insufferable. Then there’s Jennifer Lawrence, with her crassness, her hipness, her stories about pooping her pants. Which will be more successful: gravitas or fart jokes?

I think that, perhaps scarred by one too many supporting trophies given to actors and actresses who prove to be one-hit wonder flashes in the pan after their film debuts, it’s going to be Lawrence, already a proven star, who wins. Poop-talk prevails.

Marlow: The Academy still owes Hawkins for not even nominating her Golden Globe winning (and brilliant) performance in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, but she barely pulled off being nominated, so it’s definitely a long-shot. You mentioned actors who’ve fallen off the face of the planet—or at least Hollywood—since winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, as well as the politics of Hollywood, and the troubling thing about it is that these—in recent years—have been mostly black actresses. It seems like Hollywood has plenty of roles for the Angelina Jolie’s and Tilda Swinton’s of the world, but has trouble placing actresses like Mo’Nique (who won in 2010 for Precious) and Jennifer Hudson (2007 winner for Dreamgirls).

There’s a dearth of roles for black actors—both male and female—in Hollywood, which is, in 2014, unforgivable and needs to be addressed. Now, these past examples shouldn’t hurt Nyong’o’s chances, but they might, and that’s ridiculous. The sad reality is, even though the Academy has a black female president, most of its membership is comprised of old white men, and old white men tend to vote for older men and younger (white) women in the acting categories. I think the Academy will ultimately go with Lawrence because they’re dinosaurs, and because everyone loves Jennifer Lawrence, who can really do no wrong. I would like to mention, though, June Squibb’s lovely turn as the crabby, no-nonsense granny in Nebraska, which deserves serious kudos as well. She’s the sweetest.

Kevin: If we’re giving shout outs, Julia Roberts deserves one, too. It was a trip to see America’s Sweetheart dare to be as tart as she was in August: Osage County. But back to the issue at hand: old, white people.

The old, white guy thing is a serious problem for the Oscars. It’s that thing where the least cool people in the room act like they’re the coolest people in the room. It’s maddening, and the biggest reason why people feel like the Oscars are irrelevant. Such a non-diverse group of people can’t possibly reflect a diverse movie-going population’s tastes.

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If Jennifer Lawrence wins, which I suspect she will, it will once again be attributed to the allegedly pervy nature of the old, white guy Oscar voters—the ones who have overwhelmingly showered Hollywood’s young, hot, and preferably blonde starlets with Oscar trophies over the past few decades. I’m not sure if Lawrence’s win will really be because of that, though, but rather because she’ll be swept up in the baffling love for American Hustle. The race thing is icky waters to tread into, especially since, with Mo’Nique, Hudson, and The Help’s Octavia Spencer, women of color have actually been quite successful in this category. At the end of the day, Best Supporting Actress is all about who is the biggest scene-stealer and that’s where Lawrence pulls ahead. Nyong’o leaves an unshakable impression in 12 Years a Slave, but Lawrence runs away with American Hustle like a garishly dressed bandit. That voters left that film—an assault on the senses, with its over the top hair and costumes and smoke and mirrors to distract us from the performances—still raving about Lawrence just goes to show how much of an impression she makes.

Marlow: I agree that Lawrence will take it home, and think that the pervy nature of the old, white guy Oscar voter will contribute. Who can forget good ol’ Jack Nicholson hitting on her on live TV—in front of George Stephanopoulos—after winning last year? These old fellas really love her, and with good reason—she’s a total freak of nature; one of the most preternaturally gifted actresses to come along in quite some time. Roberts was, indeed, great in August: Osage County, but the movie was such an outrageous mess (see: The Iron Lady, too). Still, the “Eat your fuckin’ fish!” scene was definitely worth the price of admission. I’d be lying, too, if a part of me didn’t want Lupita to win because I know that in the back of my mind, backwards-assed Hollywood is probably going to have trouble finding a place for her, so this will grant her that shining moment. But alas, J. Law FTW.