In a cruel feat of awards-season giving and taking away, Glenn Close has been nominated for best supporting actress at this year’s Oscars for her performance as a chain-smoking, tough-loving grandmother in Hillbilly Elegy—and worst supporting actress at the irksome Raspberry (Razzie) Awards for the same role. This makes Close only the third performance ever to earn such distinction, after Amy Irving for Yentl and James Coco for Only When I Laugh.
While the Razzies are worth even less space than I’ve already afforded them here, this does highlight the unique position in which Close finds herself: an Oscar front-runner for a critically despised film. According to Rotten Tomatoes, Hillbilly Elegy has the lowest critical consensus for a film with a nominated performance in almost 30 years—but that won’t necessarily prevent Close from winning.
After all, a negative critical response hasn’t kept other recent performances from nabbing their own victories. Rami Malek earned just mildly favorable notices in Bohemian Rhapsody’s middling to negative reviews—“barely watchable,” raved Vanity Fair—even as his performance was mockingly meme’d in its false tooth-ified woodenness. But Malek’s embodiment of a famous figure also played into an Academy soft spot, and was the centerpiece of a hugely successful film (with a uniquely tumultuous production), eventually clenching him a best-actor win. Similarly, Meryl Streep won her third Oscar for playing Margaret Thatcher in the widely derided The Iron Lady—a film, according to Slate, that would have been “unwatchable” without her. Are you sensing a trend?
Though Malek and Streep’s performances have only grown less esteemed post-Oscars, any derision that existed at the time didn’t prevent either from winning—and both arguably faced stiffer competition than Close will. Jodie Foster’s win at the Golden Globes for The Mauritanian did not translate to an Oscar nomination, likely leaving Borat Subsequent Moviefilm breakout Maria Bakalova as Close’s prime competition after her triumph at the Critics Choice Awards. But we shouldn’t overlook the possibility that the sequel’s bawdiness could diminish her chances with more pearl-clutching Academy members—or fellow nominee Youn Yuh-jung’s chances amid Minari’s momentum. Precursor ceremonies also may have been less inclined to award Close again so recently after The Wife’s run. The Oscars themselves, though, are self-aware enough to know that the big prize is what matters.
Still, in recent decades, few films with a critical consensus to rival Hillbilly Elegy’s have managed to nab Oscar nominations for their stars. Stanley Tucci was a beloved journeyman actor finally nominated for playing an off-type, “literal mustache-twirling” child rapist in The Lovely Bones. Cate Blanchett’s bombastic return to Elizabeth I in the sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age was nominated despite the film’s bad reviews; though some called the performance “without subtext,” other critics lauded her ability to play the lead in a costume drama and Bob Dylan in I’m Not There in the same season, and Oscar nominations for both performances followed suit.
Based on Rotten Tomatoes scores, you would have to go back almost 30 years to find an Oscar-nominated film with worse reviews than Hillbilly Elegy: the completely forgotten The River, for which Sissy Spacek (“as much as a prop as a character,” per Gene Siskel) was nominated. Almost as derided was 2001’s I Am Sam, though Sean Penn was nominated for his turn as a man with developmental disabilities. At the same time, critics deemed his performance an “insensitive” aspect of a manipulative film—a nomination and casting that one hopes wouldn’t happen today.
Tucci, Blanchett, Spacek, and Penn all went home empty-handed on those particular Oscar nights, but none of these actors had a trajectory like Close’s. The Oscars often reward nominees perceived to be overdue for a win and haven’t shied away from handing statuettes to performances less revered than ones for which nominees were previously overlooked. We’re no more likely to remember Glenn Close for Hillbilly Elegy than we are Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman or Kate Winslet for The Reader—but that didn’t stop the Academy from giving either of those roles an Oscar. And while Close has, by now, become famous for all the Oscars she hasn’t won—she’s tied with the late Peter O’Toole for holding the record for most nods without a victory in Oscar history—rarely has her status as an undeserving also-ran been so fresh in the Academy voters’ minds; her nomination for Hillbilly Elegy comes just two years after her unexpected loss to Olivia Colman. And if Malek was awarded in part for turning Rhapsody into a smash with audiences, why wouldn’t Close reap some of the credit for making this film a sizable hit for Netflix during the crucial Thanksgiving season?