If there is one theme that weaves through the five Best Actress nominees this year is their own judgment, how they use it and where it gets them.¬† Meryl, Angelina, Melissa, Kate, Ann.
Thematically, this is a constant in the five roles, but the truth is that the Oscar race isn’t just about the person or the part or the film; it is about the story. And each of these women has a story this year. Kate Winslet is the brilliant young actress with many nominations but no wins who turned in two of her best performances this year.¬† It looked like she would be a double nominee and if she had been, she might have lost the lead actress prize and won in supporting. But the Academy went another way and decided to give her the big win for this part, ignoring the brilliant, inside out performance in Revolutionary Road (probably an oversight that will not be looked upon well in the years to come — she deserved to be nominated for both).
Melissa Leo is the come-from-nowhere character actor who emerged this year in one of the most talked about performances and honoring her with a nod is a career-changer for Leo. Anne Hathaway is the comedic actress who got serious, and is also the girl with a loser ex. Angelina Jolie worked with Clint Eastwood but is also the most covered celebrity on the planet. Finally, Meryl Streep shows no signs of slowing down as an actress, or a human being, and seems to be ready and willing to not only show her age, but ease into the next generation of characters available to her; Streep is one of the few whose popularity was never determined by how pretty or sexy she was but rather her ability to slip in and out of different incarnations.
The five are all white. Streep and Leo are over 40, Winslet, Hathaway and Jolie still fall into the “fuckable” category, no surprise there. But what of the characters they play and what, if any, is the uniting theme? In looking them over, one has to conclude that, weirdly enough, this is one of the best years for Oscar nominated females because these women are all the central characters in their films without necessarily being the support of another character.
Streep’s Sister Aloysius Beauvier has the part usually given to a man, let’s face it. She is the one who decides that justice must be done, she is the leader of the school and she is the bitch in charge. She does not doubt her own judgment in the matter; she goes on experience with very little proof. She does ultimately doubt her faith in God because what God would allow a church to continue its cover-up of the sexual abuses the way the Catholic church has?¬† But there is more there than that; she is meant to be a leader, not a follower – this is why she grapples with her own identity by the end of the film, or one of the many reasons.
While Hanna Schmitz’ judgment is put to the test, it is only done so in retrospect; most of the Germans (and, frankly, the Americans) turned a blind eye or went along with Hitler’s extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust. Extermination continues even today and most of us do nothing about it, not even after seeing proof in news photos. The Reader calls into question Hanna Schmitz own judgment as a death camp guard perhaps unfairly. This is why the film is somewhat controversial in terms of Oscar consideration (which is probably the last reason anyone should analyze it) – the Holocaust-friendly Academy are being asked to sympathize with a Nazi guard, essentially. On the other hand, Hanna Schmitz is vindicated in many ways because of her own ignorance. She also pays for her crimes.
That Michael Berg also willingly held a back a secret to cover his own shame, much the way Schmitz did, shows that this film isn’t about placing blame on the individuals but to expose the darker reaches of human nature, what we’re capable of doing to hide our deepest shame.
Anne Hathaway’s Kym is as imperfect as the other four nominees, as she is vain, insecure, annoying, irresponsible – her life’s heartache is in living with an accident she caused but one that she wasn’t really responsible for because she was just a kid herself. Still, living with the guilt has produced one messed up woman. Throughout the film she pulls herself together but only does so after facing up to something she felt guilty for, a bad judgment call.
Kym is not defined by any man in her life but perhaps by another woman, her sister, who probably has the less showy, more complex character in the film. Once Kym manages to shove aside her own infantile needs, she is able to start thinking for herself and to start inching back towards adulthood.
Melissa Leo’s Ray Eddy is put in charge as the head of her household when her loser husband up and leaves, taking their money with him. She has no job, no education, no prospects – only the long and agonizing path of desperation ahead of her. Christmas is coming. Her kids have nothing. What will she do? Interestingly, the film doesn’t try to make her into a hero but rather, it focuses on her own decisions and why they were the wrong ones.
Leo nails the part, so much so that it’s hard to distinguish between Melissa Leo the actress and the character she plays, even though they are clearly worlds apart. The film hinges on what Ray will do, not how Ray relates to the man in her life; Frozen River is about two women, two mothers, and how they must face up to the fact that there are better ways of earning a living.
The other mother in the race is Angelina Jolie who spends a lot of time being meek and mild as Christine Collins, so much so that she is often frustrating to watch. She makes the decision to just go along with the police, trust government, and look where it gets her. Of the five Best Actress nominees, Christine Collins is more like Hanna Schmitz than any of the others because she feels like someone who is wrongly accused, even though she could have fought harder to make sure that the police got it right. She is also a victim of her circumstances, of the time, of her own lack of confidence.
What I really think about these five actresses, though, isn’t that they were nominated because of the characters they played, though their characters are more interesting than usual. They were nominated because of their stories, the publicity, the buzz around who they are, where they were and where they might be going.