It's a three-way catfight between Hatsumomo, Nola Rice, and Jadis.
In a film year of dark-horse champions, hope amidst racism and political turmoil, cultural sensitivity, and the magic of witches and wizards, the usually intriguing Best Supporting Actress category of the Oscars is shaping up to be exactly that, maybe even more so now than in recent years. While most pundits are confidently placing ever nice (though sometimes with a streak of mischief, frighteningly so in the 2001 TV movie Sister Mary Explains It All) Diane Keaton (The Family Stone) at the head of the pack, a number of the other potential nominees show more than just a spark of that Bette Davis spirit. Heck, Bette Davis's Baby Jane Hudson would cringe when faced with the baleful glare of the geisha from hell or with the malevolent witchcraft of the frosty witch of Narnia. Among these darker possibilities for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Scarlett Johansson is getting the most buzz for playing a femme fatale in Woody Allen's Match Point. Undoubtedly a big, juicy role, but her Nola Rice would have to take a backseat to another heavily talked-about performance this year. Early reviews of the film say that Chinese superstar Gong Li plays vindictive geisha Hatsumomo in Rob Marshall's adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha with gusto and uncanny fire. For those who have read the book, it's a completely enticing and frightening prospect, as Hatsumomo is chilling enough offscreen. Still a possible nominee despite lack of buzz is respected actress Tilda Swinton for playing the mother of all bitch roles this year: Jadis, the White Witch, who has frozen over the land of Narnia and kept Christmas celebrations off the Narnian itinerary, in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Who can top that?
But have female film villains always been so visible in the race for Supporting Oscar? A quick survey of the Academy Awards' history would show only a smattering of vicious vixens in this category, whether we're talking about winners or nominees. It's hard enough to find nominees whose roles can be considered more than a bit naughty or mischievous. There are few that stand out: chilling child murderess Rhoda Penmark, played by 11-year-old Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed (1956), Angela Lansbury as the manipulative (some may say evil, as Lansbury herself does) mother in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Linda Blair as diabolically driven Regan MacNeill in The Exorcist (1973). Regan can even be considered a mere victim; she's an ideal child sans Pazuzu. Brat-to-the-end Veda (Ann Blyth) in Mildred Pierce (1945), Piper Laurie's fanatical mom to Carrie (1976), and Barbara Hershey's opportunistic Madame Serena Merle in The Portrait of a Lady (1996) may be sadistic and selfish, and may in fact be considered villainous, but calling them evil would be a stretch.
The list of winners gives up even less chilling prospects: among them only Ruth Gordon shines out as satanical neighbor Minnie Castevet in Rosemary's Baby (1968). All right, so that one's sufficiently dark, but that's as far as the rogue's gallery goes; Catherine Zeta-Jones's unrepentive criminal Velma Kelly in Chicago (2002) isn't so much a villain when studied beside Mrs. Castevet. Neither is Rose Ann D'Arcy, the restrictive mother in 1965's A Patch of Blue, played by Shelley Winters.
The Academy and other award-giving institutions have always had a dilemma in placing a clear-cut delineation between a lead and a supporting performance. But cold-blooded females have not had very much difficulty scoring Best Actress nominations, with icons Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford leading the way. Villainous females like Annie Wilks (Kathy Bates in 1990's Misery) don't have problems getting noticed as leads, with often strong, smoldering performances that allow them to steal the show from their costars. While in the past some leads have campaigned for Supporting honors (often because their chances for a nomination in that category were greater), the category is, as the label suggests, for those that offer the necessary back-up to the leads. Sometimes the supporting characters manage to upstage those in the leading roles, but it seems that the Academy prefers their supporting actresses to be sympathetic; it's a well-known fact that long-suffering wives have been greatly favored in this category, with characters played by Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock, 2000), Shoreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog, 2003), and Laura Linney (Kinsey, 2004) among the more recent examples. In fact, in the last ten Oscar ceremonies, only Hershey, Zeta-Jones, and, to some extent, Catherine Keener (as opportunistic Maxine in 1999's Being John Malkovich) showed some sort of villainy, and only because they aren't as nice as all the other nominees (though Dame Maggie Smith as Constance in 2001's Gosford Park wasn't very nice).
Still, female villains that have an underlying passion, a sort of justification for their behavior however vile, may have a shot at a nomination. This could explain why Johansson and Gong are among the leaders in Oscar buzz in their category and may in fact be among the five. Swinton's climb will be more uphill, as her villain is as one-sided (read: evil) as one can get. If the Academy were a bit friendlier to such roles, Kill Bill: Vol. 2's Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) would have whistled her nasty way to Oscar honors, and so would have other dark, sadistic, brilliant but oh so easily dismissed actresses who just happen to have fun being bad.
Pictures taken from IMDb (Johansson and Swinton) and Yahoo! Movies.