By Daniel J. Hoag

The second in the Haiku Review’s Oscar Spotlight series focuses on the category of Best Supporting Actress, which is likely to be the closest acting race this season.

Amy Adams, The Fighter
This is Adams’ third time competing in the Best Supporting Actress category; she was previously nominated for 2005’s Junebug and 2008’s Doubt.  As Charlene Fleming, thick-skinned girlfriend to Mark Wahlberg’s titular pugilist,  Adams goes head-to-head with some heavy-hitting actors.  Charlene finds herself at odds with her beau’s drug-addled brother and manipulative mother (played by fellow nominees Christian Bale and Melissa Leo); she even gets into a front-porch smackdown with several of his scrappy sisters.  Somehow Charlene manages to remain level-headed despite the epic family dysfunction around her, and Adams makes it look effortless.  In a cast full of fierce performances, she proves that she’s more than a contender, she’s a champion.

Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
As Elizabeth, the eventual queen and supportive wife to the stammering Duke of York, Helena Bonham Carter manages to bring charm, poise and humor to a part that could have easily been overshadowed by the more flashy roles played by her fellow nominees Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.  A previous Best Actress nominee for 1997’s The Wings of the Dove, Bonham Carter gives a performance that’s both subtle and radiant.  Even when her husband lacks confidence, it’s clear that Elizabeth has enough strength for the both of them.  Her encouragement is practically palpable; she’s knows how vital it is to both man and country that he overcome his speech impediment.  And for her efforts, Bonham Carter may just get to make a speech of her own, come Oscar night. 

Melissa Leo, The Fighter
In a film with one of the best ensembles in years, Melissa Leo stands out as Alice, a mother of nine children who amazingly found the time to manage her son Mickey’s boxing career.  Overbearing, overcontrolling, and sometimes downright manipulative, Alice was at times a great source of discord for Mickey.  She also did little to steer her other son, Dicky, away from the drugs that were destroying his life.  In the hands of a lesser actress, it would be easy to dismiss Alice as a villain, but Leo’s bravura performance allows viewers to see the heart and love for her children underneath her course exterior.  Just watch the scene where Alice is in the car with Dicky after she picks him up outside the crack house he’s been at; as he sings to her, her hardened façade just melts away, and so does our resistance to her.

Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
There was a lot of specualtion that fourteen-year-old Steinfeld would be nominated in the lead actress category, since her role is hardly a supporting one.  But downsizing her part may have upsized her chances at winning, since the two front-runners in this category are both in the same movie, a situation that frequently leads to vote-splitting and come-from-behind victories.  If anyone could muster up the grit to lasso a win it’s Steinfeld, who more than holds her own against the likes of Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.  Steinfeld beat out over 15,000 girls for the role of Mattie Ross, a young woman hell-bent on seeing the man who killed her father hang for his crime.  It took real fortitude to convince crotchety-old Rooster Cogburn to help her out; it’s looking more and more like she’s convinced a few Academy voters to do the same.

Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom
As the matriarch of the criminal Cody gang, Jacki Weaver rules this Kingdom.  At one moment she can seem like nothing more than the overly affectionate queen bee to a pack of mama’s boys (let’s face it–those overly-long full-on-the-mouth kisses with her lads were a bit creepy, n’est-ce pas?); the next she’ll be ready to throw one of her own to the wolves if it means protecting the clan.  Weaver’s role may not be the showiest in the movie–which many are hailing as the Australian Godfather–but there’s little doubt by the end of the film that she’s the one to whom everyone is pledging their allegiance.  Come the Big Night, will Oscar be doing the same?

Who deserves to win?  This race is a tough one to call; both Amy Adams and Melissa Leo are excellent in The Fighter, but like Christian Bale, Leo’s method performance is the more attention-getting of two.  Then there’s Hailee Steinfeld, who was the best part of the already great True Grit.  Should the fact that her part was definitely not a “supporting” part help her or hinder her?  With such a difficult decision, the Haiku Review falls back on something most Academy voters will claim not to be affected by (though we know better, don’t we) and that is sentiment.  The Haiku Review has a soft spot for Melissa Leo, dating all the way back to her time on the excellent 90s series Homicide: Life on the Street.  Amy Adams is one of those actresses you just know will win an Oscar someday, and Steinfeld’s got plenty of time ahead of her to get back on the proverbial horse.  Let’s reward the veteran Leo for knocking us out in The Fighter.

The 83rd annual Academy Awards take place on Sunday, February 27th, 2011.