Wednesday, February 4, 2015

One Category at a Time: Actress

Can we call a moratorium on Best Actress always being called a "weak" category? More often than not this kind of talk stems from people who are too lazy to search for talented leading ladies flying well below the mainstream radar, and who balk at the notion of an awards-caliber performance coming from a less-than-awards-caliber film.

Yet nearly every year the Academy comes up with five terrific nominees, and if it seems like the pre-nomination field is thinner than that of the leading men on the other side of the gender divide, it certainly speaks more to the systemic male dominance of the film industry than to the quality of the lesser seen -- though not necessarily fewer -- Oscar-worthy female performances.

In fact, having a category in which the multi-nominated Oscar heavyweights don't figure in as prominently as they would in, say, Best Actor, can be a blessing, as it forces audiences and Academy members alike to seek out titles that could use the exposure. If this crop of nominees can encourage a few more people to go see Wild or Two Days, One Night, then it aught to be celebrated rather than dismissed as "weak".
In the case of Two Days, One Night, the nomination for Marion Cotillard is a particular boon, as the highly acclaimed Belgian drama had failed to make the Best Foreign Language Film shortlist on which many expected it to appear. But the subtitled arthouse picture got the Oscar boost after all when the acting branch dug deep and opted for Cotillard's more critically laurelled turn over Jennifer Aniston's aggressively campaigned work in Cake. This is Cotillard's first nomination following her Oscar-winning breakthrough in La Vie En Rose, and many would argue that it's overdue. She's been consistently impressing critics the world over for the last seven years in both Hollywood and international productions. Her portrayal of a clinically depressed working mother begging her coworkers to let her keep her job is raw, heartrending stuff, and arguably the most accomplished performance of the five, although the low profile for the film will make a win unlikely.

Another former Oscar winner on the ballot is Reese Witherspoon, nominated for her soulful depiction of grief and mourning in Wild. As Cheryl Strayed, who hiked the Pacific Crest trail in the wake of her mother's death, Witherspoon carries the entire film -- and a cumbersome backpack -- on her shoulders from start to finish, and it's a complex piece to act through. Her embodiment of this character encompasses several stages of her young adult life and a full spectrum of emotion. The film didn't really take off on the awards circuit (which is a shame, as it's one of the year's best), but the nomination is a nice 'welcome back' gesture for Witherspoon, who largely stepped out of the public spotlight after claiming Oscar gold nine years ago for Walk the Line. Not that she hasn't been keeping busy in that time producing various projects, including Wild and Gone Girl just this year, but I'm ready to start seeing more of her onscreen again.
Speaking of Gone Girl, that's the film from whence we get our third nominee, Rosamund Pike. Now, even though Pike represents the sole nomination for David Fincher's satirical thriller, I think it's safe to say that the film didn't need the publicity boost has badly as its fellow nominees. Gone Girl was a mammoth box office hit this year, becoming Fincher's most successful film to date, and announcing Pike's arrival as a mainstream movie star that many of her fans have been expecting for a while (remember how good she was in An Education?). Some might make the argument that this dark, tonally shifty neo-noir should have received more love from the Academy, and that Pike's unforgettably devilish performance -- having taken more regional critics prizes than any other this season -- should be a bigger threat to win. But let's be honest: This sort of movie was never going to be the Academy's thing.

The sort of movie that is the Academy's thing -- and therefore places its leading lady in better spoiler position than the previous three -- is The Theory of Everything, represented by first-time nominee Felicity Jones. Jones first grabbed critical attention in 2011 for the Sundance hit Like Crazy, a modest indie that ultimately went nowhere but at least announced her as a newcomer to watch. With the plum role of a famous person's long-suffering wife in an Academy-friendly biopic (one of their favourite roles to recognize), she's been on the awards radar for over a year, and thankfully her work in the film also happened to be good enough to justify that anticipation. While co-star Eddie Redmayne gets to give the far showier performance, Jones has the subtler but no less challenging task of eliciting our empathy and compassion as she falls in and out of love with our disease-afflicted hero. Being the only actress from a Best Picture nominated film might give her an edge in any other year, but this year there's one overdue performer who simply cannot be denied...
Julianne Moore is enjoying her fifth career nomination, courtesy of her layered portrayal of a woman grappling with early onset Alzheimer's in Still Alice. Having been passed over on her previous four Oscar bids (a couple of which you could argue she should have won), it would seem that the Academy is finally ready to give Moore her trophy. It's a testament to her versatile gifts that she's able to grant this tiny, miserablist indie (which is mediocre at the best of times) the distinction of being an 'Oscar-winning film'. She transcends the script's limitations with humanistic grace notes, elevating the material to the point that you can justify watching it for her performance alone. It will be an Oscar earned on merit, not merely as a tribute to a rich career; A career which surely as lots more left in it.

Will win: Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Runner-up: Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

Should win: Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Should have been nominated: Keira Knightley, Begin Again


  1. Any chance that Rosamond Pike could sneak in to the Academy in the dead of night and sneakily change the ballots around, leading to an upset victory?

    1. No. There IS a chance she could sneak in the Academy in the dead of night and facepalm when she realizes that the ballots are tabulated and housed at Price Waterhouse Cooper's until right before the show, not Academy headquarters.