Native Detroiter Simmons leads supporting actor race

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Native Detroiter J.K. Simmons has a face almost everybody knows — from countless TV shows, movies and commercials over the years.

Chances are he’s about to get something else everybody knows — an Oscar.

Simmons has dominated the supporting actor awards competition ever since awards season began. His role as a tyrannical music teacher in “Whiplash” has won him the Screen Actors Guild award, a Golden Globe and a swarm of awards from critics groups, including the Detroit Film Critics Society.

So it’s over and done with, right?

Uh, not so fast.

Supporting actor is always a strong category — there are simply more striking roles for men than women — and this year is no exception. Simmons, who’s never before been in contention for a statue, is up against a previous Oscar winner and three previous nominees, all of whom bring strong qualifications to the table. As they say, it ain’t over until it’s over. Let’s look at the contenders:

Robert Duvall for “The Judge” — This is the 84-year-old Duvall’s seventh Oscar nomination with a best actor win for 1984’s “Tender Mercies.” It’s also his first nomination this century and, if the Academy wants to honor this much-admired actor with statue number two, there’s a real sense of now or never. The problem is, good as he was in the film, “The Judge” was neither a critical or financial success. Still, supporting categories are often used to honor veterans.

Mark Ruffalo for “Foxcatcher” — This is Ruffalo’s second supporting nomination, following 2011’s “The Kids Are All Right,” and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better-liked actor in Hollywood. He brings a warmth and grounded sensibility to the role of wrestler Dave Schultz, but it’s not the sort of flashy take that usually wins Oscars. His time will come. Odd note: He’s one of two contenders in this category who have portrayed The Hulk onscreen.

Ethan Hawke for “Boyhood” — Now things start getting closer. This is Hawke’s second nomination as an actor (he also has a couple of screenwriting noms). His co-star, Patricia Arquette, is the favorite for supporting actress and there’s at least a chance that Hawke could be swept forward in a bit of “Boyhood”-mania come Oscar night, especially since he’s worked so many times with “Boyhood” director Richard Linklater. At the very least, it’s a possibility.

Edward Norton for “Birdman” — This is Hulk number two. It’s Norton’s third nomination, and if there’s a “Birdman” sweep instead of a “Boyhood” sweep, he could certainly win. The ensemble cast win for “Birdman” at the Screen Actors Guild Awards shows he has some momentum — that category is sorely needed at the Oscars — and the range Norton continues to show over the years helps. If he does win, look for “Birdman” to go all the way.

J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash” — You couldn’t write a better Oscar story. A veteran working actor takes a chance on a long-shot indie filmed in under three weeks, playing a belligerent music teacher at a prestigious music school ... and it turns out to be the role of a lifetime. Happily, Simmons also turned in the performance of a lifetime, a bristling study of frustration and anger. Score one for underappreciated workers everywhere.

Should win: J.K. Simmons

Will win: J.K. Simmons

The 87th Academy Awards

Hosted by Neil Patrick Harris

8 p.m. Feb. 22