In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see who they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Brian Tallerico makes the case for the best supporting actress performance of 2015, one that arguably shouldn't even be in this category. Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Director and Best Picture on Friday.
Ignoring the category controversy in which Rooney Mara's co-leading performance is instead relegated to supporting to make a win easier, with the five nominees to choose from, there is no contest. Rooney Mara’s work fulfills the promise she showed in films like “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” As Therese Belivet, Mara more than “holds her own” against one of the best actresses working today, Cate Blanchett; she often steals focus and delivers the more subtle, nuanced performance of the two (if one has to choose … Blanchett is great too). Her take on Therese isn’t the obvious choice of the wallflower seduced by the older woman. There’s always something going on behind Mara’s eyes, as she reads each situation in which she’s placed, and chooses to follow her heart.
The “first date” scene between Therese and Blanchett's Carol is one of Mara’s best, despite the now-mocked and rather grotesque sounding order of eggs and creamed spinach. Other actresses would have shrunk in this scene, diminished by the luminous Blanchett and Sandy Powell’s gorgeous costume design. Mara plays nervous without disappearing. There’s a difference. And as Therese's relationship with Carol deepens, so does Mara’s performance, finding notes of passion, insecurity, joy and romance without overplaying any of them. We see performers every year who exaggerate their character beats in period pieces so they can stand out against the luscious production design and details of the era. Mara never takes that route. She walks that line between stealing focus from her co-star and disappearing into the lavish background. In that sense, I suppose, she really does give a supporting performance in that it’s her work that supports, like an emotional foundation, every element of the masterpiece around her.