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Mahershala Ali or Dev Patel – Why Supporting Actor Is So Tough This Year

Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and Dev Patel (Lion) are in a very close race for Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and Dev Patel (Lion) are in a very close race for Supporting Actor

Every Oscar season us awards watchers generally find ourselves in two camps; getting bored or frustrated when everything seems inevitable and freaking out when there are open races just days before the big show and fretting over our predictions. Despite a steamroll for La La Land in many categories, Supporting Actor isn’t one of them and after BAFTA it’s turned into a real horse race.

We know that Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) won over two dozen critics’ awards going into the industry and televised awards. In four of those, he’s gone head to head with Dev Patel (Lion) and won two: Critics’ Choice and the Screen Actors Guild. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Nocturnal Animals) shocked and beat them both at the Golden Globes (he’s not Oscar-nominated) and Patel won BAFTA earlier this month. So, who has the upper hand? Has Moonlight plateaued right as Lion is taking off?

Prevailing logic and history give the odds to Ali. SAG is a much better precursor than BAFTA or the Golden Globe, so there’s that. Also, with everyone in Moonlight being part of an ensemble (the film won the most Ensemble critics’ awards) it’s also the best opportunity to reward the film’s performances and its non-nominated cast with a win. Ironically, even though Moonlight lost the top SAG prize, Ali still won as a cast member of the film that did win, Hidden Figures. Hampering Ali’s chances are the fact that he’s only in the first third of the film. Even his departure is off-screen and only fleetingly mentioned. Ali is a respected actor in film and television and has been given this year’s ‘overnight success that took 15 years’ distinction. He also benefits from the about face the Oscars took this year with non-white acting nominees. Ali would be the first non-white winner in Supporting Actor since Morgan Freeman for 2004’s Million Dollar Baby.

Enter Patel. His situation is kind of the opposite. His character is played by first-time actor Sunny Pawar in the film’s first half but then Patel takes over playing the adult Saroo and carries the film to its tear-jerking end. That could impact voters immensely, not only emotionally but also for those looking for a place to reward the Best Picture-nominated Lion. Like Ali, Patel benefits from the huge diversity push (not to mention Weinstein’s over-the-top FYC ads highlighting immigration) and would be the first non-white winner here since Morgan Freeman and the first of Asian origin (Patel is British, his parents are from Kenya and of Indian descent) since Haing S. Ngor from 1984’s The Killing Fields. At 26, he would be one of the youngest winners in this category, the youngest since Timothy Hutton in 1980’s Ordinary People.

But here’s the other, and possibly bigger clincher: every year since Oscar year 1998 has seen an acting Academy Award winner portray a real-life person. That isn’t happening in Supporting Actress or Lead Actor. It’s highly unlikely to in Best Actress (unless Natalie Portman pulls off an epic upset) so that leaves Supporting Actor. In this race, only Dev Patel plays a real-life person. The Academy is drawn to stories of real people this could very well be the deciding factor for many voters, not simply the quality of the performance. Could that be enough to keep that near 20-year history going or will see it break this year?

Here is where the Gold Rush Gang sees the Supporting Actor race five days before the Oscars. Will that change for FINAL predictions?

1 Mahershala Ali, Moonlight 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 50
2 Dev Patel, Lion 2 2 3 3 2 3 2 3 2 2 36
3 Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water 3 3 2 2 3 2 3 2 4 3 33
4 Lucas Hedges, Manchester By the Sea 4 5 4 4 4 4 5 4 5 4 17
5 Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals 5 4 5 5 5 5 4 5 3 5 14

About Erik Anderson

Erik thanks his mother for his love of all things Oscar, having watched the Academy Awards together since he was in the single digits; making lists, rankings and predictions throughout the show. This led him down the path to obsessing about awards. Much later, he found himself at GoldDerby, led by Tom O’Neill and then migrated over to Oscarwatch (now AwardsDaily), headed up by Sasha Stone before breaking off to create AwardsWatch. He is a member of the International Cinephile Society, GALECA (The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics), the International Press Academy and is the founder/owner of AwardsWatch.

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