The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Supporting Actor Preview

Three famous lead actors anchor the category along with one very heavy favorite.

Sony Pictures Classics | Fox Searchlight

Welcome to Awards Season! The glitz, the glamour — it's almost overwhelming! But we all know there's really only one awards show and that, my friends, is the Oscars. The Academy Awards arrives early next year, February 22, and nominations will be announced on January 15. Expect the competitive juices to flow as films and distribution companies jockey for a place at Oscar's table over the coming months. What can we expect? Who are the actors poised to take home little gold men come February? We'll look to answer those questions and many others with our Oscar Race previews over the next few weeks. This week, we'll be examining the race for Best Supporting Actor.

The big thing to know about the movies is, as William Goldman said, "Nobody knows anything." So it's silly to anoint anyone a winner this early in the season. But that's exactly what we're going to do here.

With a little help from GoldDerby, the resident internet experts on all things Oscar, we'll break down the Best Supporting Actor category by projected nominees while targeting some of the more under the radar thespians yet to generate buzz. Oscar season is always predictable and unpredictable. For every Titanic, there's a Hurt Locker. So let's see which actors the experts like, and which they're overlooking.

Past previews: Best Picture | Best Actress | Best Actor | Best Supporting Actress

[Editor's note: GoldDerby aggregates the opinions of film critics and experts from publications such as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, iMDB, and Rotten Tomatoes. You can find the data used for this article here.]

Best Supporting Actor

The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Supporting Actor Preview
Sony Pictures Classics

Five men will be nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category. Of the 24 experts polled on GoldDerby, 24 chose the same four actors. That's right, there are four unanimous selections for this category: J.K. Simmons in Whiplash, Edward Norton in Birdman, Ethan Hawke in Boyhood, and Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher. However, one stands above the rest: Simmons, who received 21 out of 24 first place votes.

This early in the Oscar prediction season, it's hard to predict an outright winner, but Simmons may be the closest we've got. As good as Norton, Hawke, and Ruffalo may be, Simmons has a couple things going for him. He's a veteran supporting actor who is positively great in everything and the Academy will feel just as great nominating him. It's rare an actor like Simmons gets a role that's Oscar-worthy in the first place, so the natural inclination will be to vote for him because he may not get another shot. The fact he's going up against a bunch of leading actors will only strengthen his case. The other reason Simmons deserves pole position is the performance itself. We'll get into this more below, but it's a rare example of a supporting role that's just as pivotal to the outcome of the film as the lead performance. 

  • J.K. Simmons

    The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Supporting Actor Preview
  • Edward Norton

    The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Supporting Actor Preview
  • Ethan Hawke

    The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Supporting Actor Preview
  • Mark Ruffalo

    The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Supporting Actor Preview
  • Josh Brolin

    The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Supporting Actor Preview
  • Robert Duvall

    The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Supporting Actor Preview
  • Albert Brooks

    The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Supporting Actor Preview

So let's take a look at the field. The four leading contenders may have things sewn up, they may not. There are still a lot of movies left to be seen this year and plenty of other worthy candidates. These are the top seven: 

1. J.K. Simmons: Whiplash - In the annals of the halls of movie history, there are a slew of intimidating teachers who bring out the best in their students, but perhaps none as complex as Mr. Fletcher (Simmons). In Whiplash, Simmons is the drill sergeant answer to Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. His reputation is immense, his students pious, and in person, well, Fletcher more than lives up to the hype. Simmons makes it happen. The character is on the page, but the bald, intense actor is the one throwing cymbals and demanding perfection with wide-eyed abandon.

2. Edward Norton: Birdman - There's a lot to Norton's role as Mike Shiner in Birdman. He plays a sensationalized version of himself, but to understand it, you need to understand Norton's reputation in Hollywood. He's known as a controlling method actor who can be hard to work with. Riffing off his rep, Norton ups the ante with Shiner, becoming an arrogant, self-centered, though immensely talented, actor who's tabbed for a role in a new Broadway play. It's a supreme tongue-in-cheek performance.

3a. Ethan Hawke: Boyhood - Filmed over the course of 12 years, Boyhood was a marathon of a production for everyone involved. The actors aged in real time over the course of the film and each was challenged to get into character once a year, for a few days at a time, for those dozen years. The process alone is award-worthy. But Hawke, who plays the divorced dad of the film's protagonist, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), also submits an authentic, subtle portrayal of an aging father trying to keep his cool while his kids grow up too fast.

3b. Mark Ruffalo: Foxcatcher - U.S. Olympic wrestling hopefuls train at the sprawling estate of millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) in Foxcatcher, director Bennett Miller's pulsing thriller. Ruffalo plays Dave Schultz, a wrestler and brother of du Pont favorite Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who becomes the target of du Pont, a schizophrenic. Little is known at this point about the subtleties of the performance as Foxcatcher is yet to open outside of festivals. But all indications are the film will yield numerous nominations.

5. Josh Brolin: Inherent Vice - Brolin, who plays the loudmouthed detective Bigfoot Bjornson in P.T. Anderson's Inherent Vice, shows off his considerable comedic chops for the awards voters. His character is boisterous, violent, straight-edged, and utterly sad and Brolin captures it all.

6. Robert Duvall: The Judge - Duvall is the lone bright spot in The Judge, the hammy father-son courtroom drama co-starring Robert Downey Jr. A nomination would be a surprise, considering how bad the movie is, but Academy voters love to reward Hollywood royalty with late career nominations. Duvall could grab one based on sentimentality alone.

7. Albert Brooks: A Most Violent Year - The most mysterious of the contenders because very few people have seen the movie yet. But I'm guessing awards prognosticators all remember how great Brooks was in Drive a few years ago and everyone's betting his new dramatic role will be just as memorable. 

Other potential contenders who shouldn't be overlooked: Christoph Waltz: Big Eyes, Tommy Lee Jones: The Homesman, Michael Caine: Interstellar, Miyavi: Unbroken, Tom Wilkinson: Selma, Logan Lerman: Fury, Neil Patrick Harris: Gone Girl, John Goodman: The Gambler, Alex Baldwin: Still Alice, Domhnall Gleeson: Unbroken

Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.