This year’s Best Actress contest has a wild-card slot, and I have a suggestion for who should fill it: Regina Hall in “Support the Girls.”
Oscars voting ended Monday, so it’s too late to pop the confetti cannon in hopes that voters will take note of Hall’s work. But I can’t stay silent, and even when she doesn’t get the nomination, at least you’ll know she’s that good. Truth be told, I’d pick her to win, too.
Based on momentum-building precursors like the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Golden Globes, Best Actress has four sure bets: Glenn Close (“The Wife”), Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”), Lady Gaga (“A Star Is Born”) and Melissa McCarthy (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”). Logically, the fifth position belongs to Emily Blunt (“Mary Poppins Returns”), the only other person to earn both a SAG nod and a Globe nod. But “Mary Poppins” hasn’t been the overwhelming sensation that many expected, and Blunt missed out on a crucial BAFTA nomination last week ― a surprising shutout since the BAFTAs are basically the British Oscars and Blunt is, you know, British.
If we can’t bet on Blunt, that leaves room for Viola Davis, who nabbed the fifth BAFTA slot for her stormy work in “Widows.” But Steve McQueen’s thoughtful heist thriller majorly underperformed in stateside multiplexes, and its awards-season berth was largely over before it began. (We’re still mad about it.) Unless the Brits who penciled her in lobby their American brethren in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Davis is a wobbly bargain.
So, if not Blunt or Davis, who? There’s Yalitza Aparicio, a preschool teacher plucked by Alfonso Cuarón to star in his semi-autobiographical tone poem “Roma.” Or Toni Collette, who turned in career-defining work in “Hereditary” and hasn’t been nominated since “The Sixth Sense.” Perhaps Nicole Kidman for “Destroyer”? Voters love when a woman deglams; Kidman herself did it in “The Hours” and won this very award. Fifteen-year-old Elsie Fisher landed a Golden Globe nom and a Critics Choice Award for “Eighth Grade,” a little-indie-that-could with devoted fans; what’s to say she couldn’t go all the way? Even Saoirse Ronan, a three-time nominee who portrayed the titular monarch in “Mary Queen of Scots,” isn’t out of the question.
These are formidable performances, no doubt. But they’re no Regina Hall.
In “Support the Girls,” Hall plays Lisa Conroy, the tireless general manager at a mom-and-pop Hooters knockoff stationed off a Texas highway. Lisa is the mama bear, the commandant, the support system, the HR department, the wrangler, the everything. Hall has to juggle it all. Through her, we sink into Lisa’s exhaustion but delight at her relentless determination to stay cheerful. She keeps order with her arms outstretched, gesturing to employees in an effort to limit the distance between superintendent and subordinate. They’re her friends, paid hourly wages to serve clients who sometimes resort to misogyny and racism; she cares about their well-being as much as her own. Hall knows how to telegraph every nuance.
“Support the Girls” spans a day in Lisa’s life, meaning Hall gives a different type of performance than anyone else in contention for Best Actress. Her arc isn’t as operatic, so her performance is more intimate. Writer-director Andrew Bujalski foregoes standard exposition, but Hall carries Lisa’s history in her body language. Because she’s the restaurant’s glue, she’s also the movie’s glue. It’s career-best work from someone who has been routinely overlooked by awards bodies that don’t see titles like “Love & Basketball,” “Think Like a Man” and “Girls Trip” as prestige fare.
Lisa knows how to pick her battles, which makes her fairly unflappable. At every moment, she meets a dozen inconveniences head-on, taking each in stride, no matter how personal. The cable goes out on a day the restaurant expects a big turnout for a sports broadcast; she catches a line cook stealing; a server is getting a bit too chummy with an older male patron; her own boss (James Le Gros) is barking at her; she’s wading through a divorce. But Hall scolds with patience, letting Lisa put others’ humanity ahead of their mistakes. That she can be so gentle amid strife is as revealing about her biography as anything else. She’s always done the best she can to appreciate the working-class life she leads, knowing the system isn’t built to reward her tenacity.
Hall connects those dots with precision, delivering her most affecting line ― “I started this day off crying, so if you ask me, laughing is progress” ― with the sort of relieved smile that often masks service workers’ hardship. Her compassion is bittersweet because what she should be feeling is utter resentment.
In reality, Hall’s nomination is unlikely. The low-budgeted “Support the Girls” opened in a piddly 35 theaters, so its awards clout isn’t widespread. But Hall did land an Indie Spirit salute and score prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle and the African-American Film Critics Association, so at least someone’s paying attention.
“Support the Girls” is now available to stream on Hulu or rent on iTunes.