Because we are all humble sheep grazing the ad-dusted fields of corporate media conglomerates, all awards shows are set up so the most anticipated categories of the night are the last to be awarded. For the Grammys this means we have to wait all night to watch Beyoncé lose to Adele, and for the Oscars this means that Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress all round out the last hour when the world is too wine-drunk to care anymore.
But even if the biggest awards come at the same time every year, are these starry Bests truly the best of the Bests? In every Oscar night there is a point of no return, a point at which the glories of celebrity-watching hit their peak and everything thereafter is a long decline through In Memoriams and Best Picture montages to the show’s overdue conclusion — and that point usually comes hours before it’s time to give Meryl her latest and call it a night. There are occasional late-ceremony surprises, and we’ll never forget Best Sound Editing 2013 for ruining everyone’s chances at a perfect score in the annual Oscar pool. But usually the platonic ideal of Oscar night arrives within the first hour and a half, with the awarding of the year’s Best Supporting Actress. So this year, for enterprising viewers who want to get the most bang for their Oscar buck, we have a recommendation: Forget the rest of the ceremony. Just make it to Best Supporting Actress, and then dip out. You’ll catch the best part of the night anyway.
Best Supporting Actress is one of the most consistently slept-on Oscar categories. Though there are always amazing supporting performances waiting to be seen in independent or female-centric movies like Certain Women or 20th Century Women, Oscar voters typically choose the nominees from within the year’s Best Picture honorees. Fortunately, there have been excellent supporting performances in this year's Best Picture nominees, but this particular habit of the Academy can sometimes result in oddity nods like Jacki Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook or Anna Kendrick for Up in the Air. However, if Best Supporting Actress can be a frustrating Oscar category leading up to the nominations, the unevenness of the award's playing field makes it one of the most reliable producers of great winners. Sometimes voters get blinded by star power or career momentum when it comes to the bigger awards of the night, but it’s usually easy for voters to decide who the best nominee of the year is in smaller categories, and Best Supporting Actress has included some of the most deserving award-winners in Oscar history, from Mo’Nique and Lupita Nyong’o in recent years to Rita Moreno and Dorothy Malone back in the day.
Best Supporting Actress is also one of the most reliable producers of diverse winners. Though there has recently been a push from the Academy to address the issue of inclusion within the ranks of Oscar voters, women — and especially women of color — remain underrepresented in the film industry at large, especially in technical fields. This year, Moonlight’s Joi McMillon is the first black woman to be Oscar-nominated for Best Editing, and Arrival’s Bradford Young is the second black nominee for Best Cinematography. By contrast, there are three black nominees in Best Supporting Actress — a first for any acting category — and the likely winner is Viola Davis, who will almost certainly turn in an Oscar speech to add to the all-time list. Of the last 10 Best Supporting Actress winners, five have been women of color, four have been women over the age of 40, and four were non-American actresses. The only under-40 white American starlet to snag a Best Supporting Actress statue in the last decade is Anne Hathaway, and she at least had the decency to be a basket case about it.
The nutty emotionalism of a Supporting Actress win is another reason the category stands supreme. When a giant star like Leonardo DiCaprio or Jennifer Lawrence takes to the stage to accept an Academy Award, the moment is one career glory among many. Maybe their speech is good, maybe they’ll be able to ask for more money on a future movie, maybe they’ll come up with good anecdotes about how they got hit on by Jack Nicholson after the show for their future Entertainer of the Year interviews, but their career isn’t dependent on the coronation of the Academy. For a Best Supporting Actress winner, however, the Academy Award can be a previously inaccessible gateway to stability and opportunity, and some of the most memorable speeches come from bit players like Mercedes Ruehl or Melissa Leo, who worked for decades without recognition. It might not be the category you paid the most attention to throughout the year or the one that made you rush to theaters when trying to keep up with Oscar predictions, but if you’re looking for the biggest feel-good high to end your night, Best Supporting Actress is the spot. It is a category for weepies, a category for old-timers, a category for weirdo theater people, a category for characters and character actresses, a category for the Whoopis and the Clorises and the Dianne Wiests. In the case of Oscar night, the old adage rings true: There are no small awards, only small award-nominated actors ... like Best Supporting Actress winner Linda Hunt.