The Academy Awards are tonight, and while every prognosticator has already declared the races of best leading and supporting actress concluded, it doesn’t mean that a closer look shouldn’t be paid to the actual performances and the actresses in those roles. This is not a discussion of the themes or the movies themselves, just a breakdown of the women up for the awards and a personal evaluation and opinion on the competition.
BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night (Deux Jours, Une Nuit)
Cotillard is always fantastic. I remember the first time I saw her back in 2003 in the French film Love Me If You Dare (Jeux d’Efants) and was quite taken with her and her performance. I am so glad to see how she has grown as an actress and achieved so much success. I am also really happy to see a nomination for acting that is not in the English language. Cotillard in this film is in every single shot of the movie. She plays Sandra, a woman who over the course of a weekend must try to convince as many as her coworkers as possible to forgo a bonus of a thousand euros in order for her to keep her job. Sandra is recovering from a long period of depression and pops Xanax as if it were candy, forcing Cotillard to play the character with a subdued melancholy who expresses mostly only fatigue and resignation. With the exception of a couple scenes in which she is shown crying, there isn’t very much to do for her in this film. And while she is great, it is surprising that this performance received a nomination over Jennifer Aniston’s role in Cake, which surprised me for how good it was.
Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything
Every so often a British ingenue appears on the scene and garners incredible amounts of acclaim – and most of the time it leaves me scratching my head. A few years ago the same thing happened with Carey Mulligan, and I am still waiting on her to impress me. This year Jones has filled that niche. She plays Jane Hawking, wife to the protagonist of the film: Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne). Her role, to be fair, is quite thankless – she must pout, oh so much pouting, while clashing with her husband over religion and faith. If the movie has any antagonists, which it doesn’t in the traditional roles we expect, then she is one of them (the other being the ALS Hawking suffers from). Given that there isn’t much of an arc to her character (she goes from cute object of desire, to spouse who simply doesn’t understand, and ends up in the supportive “I knew you could do it” archetype) it is a bit baffling how much love she has received for the role.
Julianne Moore – Still Alice
The clear front-runner in the race. Not always is front-runner status deserved, and many times it is bestowed more for body of work than for true merit (Sandra Bullock, for example). However, based on this year’s nominees, she is deserving of the hype. Julianne Moore blew me away in this. She’s always been a favorite of mine, but even I was surprised by her commitment to the role. Playing a fifty year old woman diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease can go into the campy territory very quickly. Moore doesn’t allow that to happen. She has too much empathy for Alice to allow that. Instead her subtlety is the strength here – no over the top moments mark this film, simply we are faced with the discomfort and gradual decline in an otherwise brilliant mind who is struggling to face the fact that it is disintegrating and the person suffering of the disease is all too aware of this happening.
Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
It’s hard to talk about this film and Pike’s performance without wanting to go into a myriad of topics and discussions about femininity and feminism, but I will attempt to do so anyways (also because much smarter people than I have already done so quite successfully). Pike plays Amy, a wife and “cool girl” who one day disappears from the seemingly idyllic home she shares with her husband Nick (Ben Affleck). Without going into spoiler territory, Pike’s role is truly a leading one: she must lead the audience (either through deceit or to instill empathy and eventually disgust) and she does so very well. It’s hard to admire the actress playing the role when the role itself can be considered frigid and distant, because so often we want to identify and root for someone, and Amy is not that person. Pike does a very good job, but how one views and sees the film ultimately affect their connection to the actors in it.
Reese Witherspoon – Wild
Another film that hinges so much on how you identify with the lead. In this case Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a young woman who embarks on a redemptive journey of hiking 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail on her own in the summer of 1995. In an effort to combat the demons and poor life choices she has made following the death of her mother, Strayed exorcises them by castigating herself and physically and emotionally purging her previous life with every step of her journey. Witherspoon is front and center in nearly every frame of the film. Sometimes it is hard to feel for the protagonist as she tries so hard to make us understand her pain and agree that this journey offers her redemption and warrants admiration. The last part was my issue: I am supposed to admire Strayed for this journey, for her willpower, for her tenacity – yet I see so much selfishness and ego. The movie left me somewhat cold, as did Witherspoon’s performance (an actress I always have felt gets miscast as too sweet and as an underdog, but whose best role to date is the overachieving unlikable Tracey Flick in Election).
BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
The frontrunner of this category. There seems to be a bit of a backlash towards this movie, or maybe I am just noticing the dislike for it in my own group of friends. I happened to love the movie. Yet, I am a bit surprised that Arquette is the actor in the film garnering the most praise (I thought Hawke was very good). The actress is a good foil to the young Mason (Ellar Coltrane), but I found myself more distracted by her constant haircut changes and her consistent victimhood in the film, than by anything else. Arquette was a bit too passive in this film for my tastes.
Laura Dern – Wild
Everyone thought Jessica Chastain was going to get the nomination, but Dern eked out a spot instead. Not only do I think Dern deserves to be nominated, but I actually think she should win. Dern is the emotional center of the movie, she provides the motivation for Strayed’s journey, and her commitment to the role is what ultimately allows the viewer to like and empathize with the protagonist. Laura Dern seamlessly captures the joys, trials, fears, and regrets of a woman who has never been in the driving seat of her own life, and so often in the film I wished the story focus on her rather than on Witherspoon’s character. Once again the formidable actress gives a perfect performance.
Keira Knightley – The Imitation Game
I must admit that I haven’t ever really understood why people like Keira Knightley. I enjoyed Bend it Like Beckham when it came out, but found the white girl in the film (Knightley) to be a bit strident and unlikable. She is too pretty and proper for the roles that are given to her, and hasn’t really impressed me, with the exception of the film The Duchess which I thought was very well suited to her strengths. In this film Knightley has barely anything to do, aside from listening to the genius that was Alan Turing and smile admiringly and encouragingly in his direction (a filmmaking flaw, not the actress’s fault). She does her usual surprised faces (usually open mouthed) and looks lovely, but nothing of substance is provided for the actress to prove herself with – all that is left is to be another woman behind the genius (see: Felicity Jones).
Emma Stone – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
I feel the opposite about Emma Stone. I have always found her endearing and likable in spite of the less than stellar movie roles she tends to receive. Stone plays the daughter of Michael Keaton’s character Riggan Thomson. Freshly out of rehab, she is tasked with being the bratty, ‘over-it’, and slightly hipster voice of reason to a devolving father losing touch with time and reality. The movie is intense, and everything is exaggerated, as are the performances. I still very much like Stone, yet in this film she is not the most memorable thing about it, in spite of the fact that the camera focuses solely on her face in the last moments of the film.
Meryl Streep – Into the Woods
An actress I really admire, but even I wonder if there is just an unwritten rule that states that if Streep makes a movie she must be nominated for it no matter what (how else to explain The Devil Wears Prada and One True Thing?). I found this movie nearly unwatchable. Every song sounded exactly the same (perhaps with the exception of the slightly amusing duet between the two princes, appropriately called Agony). This said, does Meryl sing well? Yes, she does – better, in fact, than she did in Mamma Mia. Does she act well? She is more cartoonish and over-the-top than usual, but she is playing a fairytale witch after all. The best? No.
Well, if you are anything like me you will be watching tonight with a lot of interest. Let’s hope for a fun show and hope that this year has more great movies and hopefully better overall roles for women (all women – including women of color and trans women), since (as many of these nominations point out) things could have been a whole lot better.