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Make the Case: Best Supporting Actress Is a Showdown Between Complicated Moms

Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf have been neck-and-neck throughout awards season. So which mother figure will emerge at the Oscars? We have some thoughts.

Neon/A24/Ringer illustration

As we approach the Academy Awards on March 4, conventional wisdom and conversation will most likely focus on Oscar front-runners like The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. So in our recurring column Make the Case, The Ringer will focus on the less heralded—but possibly more deserving—Oscar nominees.

For months, I have been saying the same three words to anyone I know who has just seen Lady Bird for the first time: the airport scene.

Technically, it happens outside an airport, in the infinity loop of asphalt that rings Sacramento International. Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf) has just dropped her daughter off to board the plane that will take her thousands of miles away, to an East Coast college. Her husband will walk Lady Bird to the gate for a proper goodbye, and Marion will just drive around because, well, you know how much it costs to park at places like that. This is the public identity Marion has spent the whole movie cultivating and wearing like a porcelain mask: The you-might-not-like-it-now-but-it’s-for-your-own-good-mother, constantly calculating the cost-benefit analysis of raising a middle-class daughter in an increasingly inhumane economy. And so in place of a goodbye she says a terse, “Dad’ll walk you to security, then,” and puts the car in drive.

Most filmmakers would follow Lady Bird to the gate. Greta Gerwig, brilliantly, keeps the dashboard-mounted camera on Marion as she circles the parking lot. (It’s an incredible shot, and Metcalf says they got it in just two takes.) We watch Marion’s face, and there is so much going on there to watch: first that tough, outward-facing mask that is cracked by a trembling lip, before crumbling into a full-on ugly cry. There’s a quick cut back to the road, and when we rejoin Marion there’s suddenly something heartbreakingly childlike about her expression—she smiles a little, hopeful, like maybe it’s not too late to change her mind.

“There it is, there it is,” she mutters to herself under her breath when she gets to the gate, bolting out of her illegally parked car and risking a ticket that would cost far more than a parking pass, but no matter: Her only daughter is going away to college. Then she sees her husband alone and realizes it was too late to change her mind. She collapses into his arms and sobs. The whole scene is nearly wordless, an anomaly for a movie with so many shouting matches that a video recently went viral of someone screaming every word of the trailer, and yet (or maybe for that reason) it just might be the most memorable scene. Metcalf’s work in this sequence is some of the most remarkable screen acting I’ve seen in a long time. It was the moment, when I first saw Lady Bird this fall, that I nearly said aloud, “Give her the Oscar.”

She’s nominated for it, as she has been for basically every other award in this season’s Supporting Actress category. And yet, at nearly every turn—the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, the Critics’ Choice Awards—she has been bested by Allison Janney, who plays another steely matriarch, LaVona Harding (now LaVona Golden), in the fractured biopic I, Tonya. This year’s Best Actress in a Supporting Role category is strong (rounded out by a deliciously wicked Lesley Manville in Phantom Thread, an underused Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water, and a surprisingly powerful Mary J. Blige in Mudbound), but Janney and Metcalf are the front-runners, for roles that have a bit in common. It seems safe to say that this year’s Supporting Actress Oscar will probably go to a woman playing an obstinate daughter’s unsentimental mother.

I, Tonya screenwriter Steven Rogers wrote the part of LaVona for Janney, his longtime friend (they studied together at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre.) Although Rogers’s script is the result of his own interviews with Tonya Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, he couldn’t track down LaVona, so her real-life perspective is absent from the script. “The woman you see on the screen,” Janney said, “was part [Tonya’s] version of her mother; part Jeff Gillooly’s version of Tonya’s mother, his mother-in-law for a while; and part artistic license from Steven Rogers, because he didn’t have the real woman; and then me coming in there and doing what I [do], putting my spin on it.” (Of the film, the real LaVona Golden has said, in a line that Rogers probably wishes he wrote, “I could care less about that movie than I do about the dirt outside.”)

Janney is a master of the droll, acerbic deadpan, and it makes sense that Rogers envisioned her in the role. Sporting a bowl cut and a pet bird perched on her shoulder (as the real LaVona did during interviews for a 1986 documentary about Harding) Janney has a morbid kind of fun with LaVona’s lines, cracking them like hard candy on molars. When young Tonya pees herself on the ice because her controlling mother hasn’t allowed her a bathroom break, Janney quips, “Skate wet.” When a prim coach tells LaVona there’s no smoking on the ice, she mutters through pursed lips, “I’ll smoke it quietly, then.”

Janney’s good. But by the end of the movie (even though she’s absent through most of its second half), her performance wears you down with its exhausting brutality. Whenever LaVona expresses an emotion more complex than outright meanness, Rogers’s script quickly insists: just kidding! Once you’ve adjusted to LaVona’s cruelty, nothing she says or does feels surprising. Of course she’d show up at Tonya’s wedding and insult the groom behind his back (“You fucked up,” she tells her daughter immediately after the nuptials. “You don’t marry dumb.”) The supposedly climactic scene, when she feigns nice for a minute to try to get Tonya to admit that she knew about the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, is deflated by its inevitability: Of course she was faking and had a tape recorder in her pocket the whole time. Janney does what she can with the part, but LaVona’s viciousness feels flat; we never see the cracks in the mask. I, Tonya prides itself on its lack of sentimentality, without realizing that sentiment is a crime only when it’s a film’s sole register. Causticity can be just as one-note.

The closest LaVona comes to three-dimensionality is a brief moment during Tonya’s first date with Gillooly, which LaVona insists on chaperoning. “Are you a gardener or a flower?” she asks him, sizing up his ability to support her ambitious daughter. “I’m a gardener who wants to be a flower,” LaVona admits, in a rare moment of self-disclosure. “How fucked am I?”

What makes a great supporting performance? Perhaps it is a flower in a gardener’s clothes. An exceptional one knocks a movie thrillingly off balance and draws your attention, a little defiantly, away from where the mechanics of the plot would rather it focus. Especially in the supporting-actress category, it can be an opportunity for an artist who doesn’t fit within the maddeningly restrictive corset of “leading-lady material.” And since movies about mothers (or really about any woman over the age of 30) are a scarcity in Hollywood, the supporting category is all too often where they go to get their due.

89th Annual Academy Awards -  Press Room Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

In recent years, though, the definition of “supporting” roles has been called into question. Last year’s best supporting actress Oscar went to Viola Davis—a win that was inevitable, deeply deserved, and a little controversial. Since Davis had nearly as much screen time in Fences as her (Best Actor in a Leading Role–nominated) costar, Denzel Washington, many people assumed she’d be in contention for Best Actress. (Playing the same character on Broadway, she won a Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play.) When Fences’ studio, Paramount, announced its decision to campaign Davis in the best supporting actress category, it seemed that it was gaming the system: The 2017 Best Actress category was particularly stacked (including Emma Stone in La La Land, Natalie Portman in Jackie, and Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins), while best supporting actress was less competitive. In retrospect, it’s a hard decision to be mad at: Who would have wanted to deprive the world of Viola Davis’s Oscar acceptance speech? For better or worse, though, her win means the Oscar supporting categories are now more confused than ever. “‘Supporting’ acting is now where lead acting goes, either when odds in the lead categories seem grim,” Wesley Morris wrote in a recent New York Times column, “or, in the case of Ms. Davis, when there’s a clearer path to certain victory.”

If it comes down to Metcalf and Janney, the latter’s does seem like a more “traditional” supporting performance. The only possible case you could make against Metcalf is that she’s central enough to the movie to be considered, alongside Saoirse Ronan, as another lead. But it’s too late for that case to be made: Laurie Metcalf is nominated for best supporting actress, and she should win. Allison Janney is a national treasure. I hope someday someone writes her an even better movie role than LaVona, and I hope she wins an Oscar for it. But there is nothing that Janney’s performance is attempting to say—about the sacrifices of motherhood, about the intergenerational effort that makes female success possible, and about the sometimes razor-fine line between cruelty and love—that Metcalf’s doesn’t say with more nuance, grace, and, above all, humanity.

What continues to bowl me over about Lady Bird, three viewings later, is how much specificity it depicts while still feeling relatable to a large number of people. It’s universal, but not in that abstract, annoying, capital-I-Important way. And, on screen, reflections of humanity begat more humanity. A teen in my life dyed her hair pink because of Lady Bird. So many people have laughed with me over the sheer perfection of the cool boyfriend reading A People’s History of the United States (!). My mom and I discussed Lady Bird on the phone last week and, although we were in different states, we both got goosebumps at the same time, talking about a particular scene. Laurie Metcalf was in that scene.

According to an annual study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, in the top 100 domestic grossing films of 2016, “audiences were more than twice as likely to see male characters as female characters on screen.” And this was a year in which female representation had actually increased a few percentage points. I have always found it bleakly amusing how misogyny, culturally-sanctioned hatred of mothers, and the Freudian terror of vaginas is a form of self-hate—even for men. (I have never met a single person who did not begin his life enwombed in a woman’s body.) And yet I have spent most of my movie-loving life being force-fed the delusion that movies about fathers and sons are somehow universal, while movies about moms and girls (no, we do not tend to call them much else) can only offer depictions of a niche experience. As Cate Blanchett put it in her 2014 Oscar acceptance speech, plenty of people in the industry “still foolishly [cling] to the idea that female films, with women at the center, are niche experiences. They are not—audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.”

Complex, unsentimental movies about mothers and daughters are rare, and rarer still are the moments when they’re lauded for saying something universal about what it means to be human. Lady Bird, and Metcalf’s extraordinary performance, asserts a simple truth that we don’t always get from movies: That women—mothers and daughters both—are people. Confused, contradictory people, who can, in a single, solitary car ride, move through as many different emotions as Marion McPherson circling the airport, changing her mind.