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Oscars Underdogs: Nine Actors Who Deserve Voters’ Attention

One problem with awards races is that there are too many possibilities, so some outstanding performances get overlooked. Here are nine actors who did spectacular work in 2021, but are underdogs in the Oscar race. SAG Awards nominations were announced Jan. 12, but there’s still time for Academy Awards attention (voting is Jan. 27-Feb. 1).

Clifton Collins Jr., “Jockey”
In January 2021, Variety reviewer Peter Debruge wrote that “Jockey” gives Clifton Collins Jr. the role of his career, with the actor “delivering the performance of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.” Around the same time, Variety’s Brent Lang wrote, “An Academy Award nod would be long overdue recognition for Collins, who does consistently solid work without ever seeming to have found that one role to move him out of ‘that guy’ roles and propel him to the A-list.” Debruge and Lang are very smart. Listen to them and see the film before voting.

Jennifer Hudson, “Respect”; Nicole Kidman, “Being the Ricardos”; Penelope Cruz, “Parallel Mothers”
Yes, these three are often mentioned as potential Oscar nominees, but they should be leading the actress conversation. Kristen Stewart was clearly the online/Twitter fave and she deserves a nomination, but Stewart’s challenges were not nearly as immense as those for these three. Jennifer Hudson offers an emotional tour de force plus re-creating Aretha Franklin’s songs, which ain’t easy. Nicole Kidman is playing an American icon and the woman behind that icon; she stirs up familiar memories and explodes them. And Penelope Cruz has what might be her most complex role in Pedro Almodovar’s film, which has enough plot twists for three or four movies, and Cruz keeps the film grounded and always fascinating.

Nicolas Cage, “Pig”
In awards, as in comedy, timing is all-important. When “Pig” opened in July, Oscar mavens predicted a nomination for Nicolas Cage, but eventually punditry shifted to newer, shinier films. In his 40-year career, Cage has often swung for the fences, sometimes over the top (but always fun). In “Pig,” he’s subdued, fascinating and powerful. It’s one of his best performances, if not the best. After all these years, he can still take audiences in a new direction.

Ann Dowd, “Mass”
Like Cage, Ann Dowd for a long time was a front-runner for supporting actress for her devastating work in Fran Krantz’s “Mass,” but the race has gotten crowded. In truth, all four actors (also Reed Birney, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton) are brilliant; a nomination and/or win for Dowd would be recognition for all. “Mass” isn’t an easy topic, but it’s hopeful, cathartic and riveting.

Tim Blake Nelson, “Old Henry”
Could Tim Blake Nelson be the next 007? The idea seems far-fetched but Nelson has made a career of defying expectations. If he played Bond or Spider-Man or Godzilla, he’d make it work. “Old Henry” takes place in 1906 Oklahoma territory, starring Nelson as farmer Henry McCarty, who wears a comically wide-brimmed hat and seems like a squinty-eyed yokel. But as chief villain (Stephen Dorff) says, “There might be more to old McCarty than meets the eye.” That’s true of the actor as well, who shows that he can be a man of action as he takes charge of the crises — and of the film.

Harriet Sansom Harris, “Licorice Pizza”
Harriet Sansom Harris is in only one scene in “Licorice Pizza,” as a casting agent; it’s a great performance as she conveys the character’s curiosity, support, skepticism and amusement as she interviews a too-eager-to-please wannabe actress (Alana Haim). There are many contenders for a supporting-actress slot, so Sansom Harris has an uphill battle. But she’s electric, and worth remembering.

Udo Kier, “Swan Song”
Udo Kier is another longtime industry vet who gets to shine. In “Swan Song,” he plays a hairdresser reluctantly taking care of a former client. In another year, Kier could have been an Oscar shoo-in. He’s terrific, witty and emotional and always captivating.

Also worth recognition: Jessie Buckley, “The Lost Daughter”; Haley Bennett, “Cyrano”; Benicio del Toro, “The French Dispatch”; Richard E. Grant, “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie”; Ray Liotta, “The Many Saints of Newark”; Lily Rabe, “The Tender Bar”; Charlotte Rampling, “Benedetta”; Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie, “The Worst Person in the World”; and Diana Rigg, “Last Night in Soho”

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