Veteran actor J. K. Simmons is considered the overwhelming favorite for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar this year for his performance as abusive jazz teacher Terrence Fletcher in Whiplash, and it’s thanks to a confluence of factors. Simmons, who’s been in everything from TV’s Oz to Spider-Man to M&Ms commercials, is widely respected among the acting community; his performance in Whiplash is very strong and he’s spent a lot of time promoting it. But one factor elevates him, perhaps, above the rest: He’s a villain.
The Oscars’ Best Supporting Actor category has lately been susceptible to the charms of a well-drawn nemesis. For three years running at the end of the last decade, trophies went to Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, and Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Each of these performances were so exultantly evil as to practically necessitate mustache-twirling, and Simmons’s, with its flagrant verbal abuse, is much the same.
Of course, it’s been five years since the streak of villains in this category came to a temporary end; the intervening years saw Christian Bale win for The Fighter, Christopher Plummer for Beginners, Christoph Waltz again for Django Unchained, and Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club. But these performances help show us why Oscar’s villains tend to triumph. With the exception of Bale’s character, who suffers only semi-nobly, all of the past four winners are as uncomplicatedly good as the three who preceded them are uncomplicatedly evil. Not just any villain can take the trophy: Last year saw Leto, playing a near-saint, defeating Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips and Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave, both of whom played their films’ principal antagonists. Both Abdi’s and Fassbender’s performances were uncomfortably real. Abdi’s performance as a Somali pirate was informed by what we understood to be his character’s real-life poverty. Fassbender’s was informed by something that looked too much like madness.
It’s easier to honor a villain when he is charming or cinematically unrealistic. Ledger, Waltz, and now Simmons all played characters whose allure lay in their way with words, drawing viewers in even as they committed emotional, or real, violence. It was a playbook followed by past winners including the murderous Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and the mendacious Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects. As for Bardem’s character, his violence was so outlandishly beyond what we could comprehend, much like Simmons’s verbal abuse, that it didn’t feel like voters were rewarding a sort of evil that could exist in the real world.
Perhaps the only surprise to Simmons’s win is that his type of character doesn’t triumph yet more frequently. After all, a villain role allows a competent actor juicier lines and a thicker air of mystery than anything else on film; it also, no matter how much screentime the actor actually gets, puts him on equal footing with the hero. The award may be for a “supporting” actor, but villains steal the show.