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Let's Debate: Laurie Metcalf vs. Allison Janney for Best Supporting Actress

Which Actress Deserves to Take Home the Oscar Come Sunday?

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Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Laurie Metcalf and Allison Janney, two wonderful actresses who played complicated mothers of complicated teens, in Greta Gerwig's beloved Lady Bird and Craig Gillespie's electrifying Tonya Harding biopic, I, Tonya, respectively, are neck and neck in this year's closest Oscars race. Janney, having picked up a BAFTA, SAG and Golden Globe, has the slight edge, at least from a gambling perspective. But many critics have continued to stand behind Metcalf, and are predicting she'll take home the prize come Sunday.

Because we care about these things, and like to argue, two writers have taken to this very platform to debate which actress they think should win the Best Supporting Actress award. 

Standing alongside Laurie Metcalf's Marion McPherson, as she sifts through the aisles of a secondhand shop for Lady Bird's prom dress, is Sam Eichner...

And metaphorically perched on the shoulder of Allison Janney's chain-smoking LaVona Harding, is Cait Munro...

Let the whatever-this-is begin. 

Sam Eichner: Before we dive in, and I find myself so deep in my teary-eyed defense of Laurie Metcalf that I can't see up, down or where the fuck the off-ramp is at the Sacramento International Airport, I'd like to say that I have nothing against Allison Janney. Allison Janney is fine. Sometime's, she's even great. Most impressively, she's rarely bad. Her performance as Principal Pesky (yes, that was her name) in 10 Things I Hate About You is iconic, and if it's not iconic, I'm going to say it's iconic, because it should be. Obviously there's The West Wing, too, wherein she says lots of smart things very quickly without ever managing to once run out of breath. Janney is a true writer's actress. Is that a real thing? I'm not sure. But it's clear she's cultivated a highly specific, no-bullshit, sometimes-acerbic, often-sardonic, subtly affecting voice, through which it must be fun to hear written words vocalized. 

And therein lies the rub with I, Tonya, a movie written by an old friend of Janney's with her in mind for the part of the unrelentingly caustic mother of Olympic figure skater Tanya Harding, LeVona. This is my first argument against Janney winning the Oscar over Metcalf: it was just too frickin' easy. LaVona feels like the part she was literally born to play. And sure, she knocks it out of the park—but does a home run really mean anything if it's at a home run derby? (Sports metaphor!!!)

Cait Munro: Alright, this is my first written debate of this style (though I was on my high school's Model UN team, no big deal), so go easy on me. 

SE: Model UN?!? I'm shaking in my boots. 

CM: As you should be. Also, this is a hard one because I loved Lady Bird. Loved it! As a quirky millennial woman who came of age during the early aughts and had an especially angst-ridden adolescence, I am very much the target audience, I think, for Lady Bird. I hated my given name. I smoked cigarettes at school. I fought with my mom a lot. You get the idea.

But this is not a debate about Lady Bird vs. I, Tonya. It's not even really a debate about Laurie Metcalf vs. Allison Janney. It's a debate about Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird's mom (I just had to Google her character's name—it's Marion, apparently, which is such a great mom name) vs. Allison Janney as LaVona Harding. 

And you're right—LaVona 100% feels like the role Janney was born to play, but that's a perfect example of why her performance was so genius. Obviously, IRL, Oscar-nominated actress Allison Janney does not wear giant cokebottle glasses or chain-smoke or call other parents the c-word at an ice-skating rink. But when you're watching her inhabit this character, it's hard to picture her any other way. She managed to turn a wretched, unlikeable character into someone you not only don't want to stop watching, but can't imagine her not being, and that's pretty impressive. 

SE: But to me it's the various accoutrements of Janney's performance—the bird, the glasses, the chain-smoking—which, in addition to the down-the-middle-ness of the part, make her performance so much less compelling. Metcalf has no safety net, no props or ticks or cheeky, faux-documentary interviews to rely on. LaVona, while she's fun to watch be mean, is also more of a one-note character (which is history's fault, more than anything). She's unrelentingly cruel to her daughter. That Janney manages to make her sympathetic at times is no small feat. But at the end of the day, from a pure acting perspective, it seems like a much more significant feat to deliver the kind of complex, nuanced performance Metcalf does in Lady Bird. Marion is harsh, stubborn and tough; yet she's also loving, generous and kind. I think the universality of the movie's appeal—not only to teenagers, or those old millennials who came of age in the early aughts, but to older people, too—is a testament to Metcalf's performance (as well as Gerwig's writing, of course). She is 2018's Everymom. Hers is a performance that will stand the test of time. In ten or fifteen years, I think people will recall that scene when she drives around the airport, trying to stay strong despite the tears she knows are coming, after sending Lady Bird off to college. That's a seminal movie moment. Can you say the same of any scene of Janney in I, Tonya?

CM: That's a fair point. Lady Bird could have easily been a less nuanced, far less universal film were it not for Marion's character. Recently, I've been thinking that you really know you're getting old when you find yourself sympathizing more with the parents than the kids in movies, and this was a situation where I found my alliances were all over the map. 

SE: It's sad how much I relate to that comment. Go on, though...

CM: Aging rears its ugly head in some unpredictable ways! But, anyway, while Marion has her 'mean mom' moments, at the end of the day, she's willing and able to be emotionally vulnerable, which makes her a far easier character to feel for, and ultimately, to play. Marion's emotional walls are solid but penetrable, while LaVona's are rock hard, and Janney gives us only the briefest glimpses into her vulnerabilities. But when she does, we see a person who the American system has completely failed, who just wants something better for her daughter and views skating as the only way for them to achieve it. And, I mean, she's not wrong. Their family is impoverished, undereducated and hard-up in a way that the family in Lady Bird is not. It's a kind of white plight poverty that's rarely shown on film and Janney clearly understands how living that lifestyle hardens a person. 

SE: It should be said that there are some very real class tensions at play in Lady Bird as well—I mean, who doesn't want a house in the Fabulous 40s?—though certainly not to the same degree as in I, Tonya

CM: Yeah, their relative 'poverty' seemed much more a product of the fact that Lady Bird goes to private school and is thus hyper-aware of having less than her classmates. (I say this as someone who went to private school and was hyper-aware of having less than my classmates.) Though, obviously, it's not a contest. Both are good, welcome representations of families struggling to make ends meet and also of those terrible teen years when "grateful" is a concept that mostly escapes you.

Regardless, I'll agree with you that I, Tonya doesn't have the same kind of scenes that really stick with you that Lady Bird does, but it does have some great one-liners, like when the skating coach tells Tonya that the judges want to see someone with a "wholesome American family," and she replies "Well, I don't have a wholesome American family." That's definitely less universal than any moment in Lady Bird, but it's darker, sadder and, for some people, more real. 

SE: There is a political aspect to Janney's performance, and the movie as a whole, that you've hit on, and I think that's a good point. There is a sense, too, that Janney's character is more of-the-moment (despite being so blatantly of-the-'90s) than Metcalf's; her Marion would be an instant classic had the movie come out ten years ago (or even ten years from now). What strikes me about both films is that despite everything else that makes them great—the structure of I, Tonya; the charming pretension and redemptive Dave Matthews Band usage in Lady Bird, to name just a few thingsthe relationship between mother and daughter is a constant, a generator from which the movies source their power, both loud (in I, Tonya) and quiet (in Lady Bird).

I'll say one more thing, and then you can have the final word. Both I, Tonya and Lady Bird are, quite overtly, about their protagonists, Tonya Harding and Lady Bird. But where I, Tonya is always about Harding, Lady Bird, by the end, becomes just as much about Marion. It's the rare coming-of-age movie that's as much about the parents as it is the person actually coming-of-age. LaVona is more present in I, Tonya; and yet I think Marion is more deeply felt in Lady Bird. Certainly, this is more to Gerwig's credit than it is to Metcalf's. But, obviously, the character for which an actress receives an award is inextricable from the actress's portrayal of that character. I, Tonya is Margot Robbie's movie, in which Janney plays a pivotal role. I don't think you can really say the same thing about Lady Bird. And that's a crucial distinction for me.

CM: It's true, they are very different films that ultimately have a lot of similarities, in that they are both complex coming-of-age stories that serve to highlight how much we are influenced by our parents, no matter how much we may resent it or try to fight it. Anyone who has had the distinct pleasure of being either a mother or a daughter will relate to—and probably be slightly triggered by—aspects of both films. I've heard people describe watching Lady Bird with their mom as a kind of therapy session, and while I'm not sure many people would say the same thing about I, Tonya, they might say it made them feel grateful for their relatively sane, loving parent, which is a different kind of achievement. 

I'd also argue that it's much harder to play a character based on real person—particularly someone like LaVona, who we know was abusive and cruel and not a great person—than it is to play a character that is wholly made-up. 

SE: I fundamentally do not agree with this. I think it can be harder, but just as often it can be easier (I mean, Gary Oldman is probably going to beat Daniel Day-Lewis and Timothée Chalamet for Best Actor, in part because he could pull off a solid impersonation of Churchill speaking with a cigar in his mouth).

CM: I hear you. But Churchill, while certainly a role that presents its own unique challenges, is the kind of part that traditionally begets one an Oscar. LaVona Harding? A little harder to pull off. Janney has said that much of her performance was very much fabricated, as they had no way to contact the real LaVona, she's still going up against a lot of pre-conceived perceptions about who that character is and what she represents and how we're supposed to feel about her. And yet, Janney finds a way to make LaVona feel like just that, a character—much the same way Robbie manages to do with Tonya. We forget, however briefly, that these were real people who were part of a very real scandal. And there's definitely something to be said for that, especially considering all the movies based on true stories where that totally fails to happen. 

I, Tonya is ultimately a story of redemption. It may not have the timelessness or the warmth that Lady Bird does, but it's a movie that feels uniquely now, in that it's a story that probably wouldn't have been told in this way until this moment. It's shifted the public perception of Harding by shedding light on the sexism and classism that was behind people's hatred of her, and I think having a better understanding of how bleak her upbringing was has been a huge part of that. A lesser actress might not have been able to drive that point home as effectively as Janney does. 

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