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Like a Hurricane: The Actresses Own 2010

It’s been said before, but let it be said again, 2010 is marked by an uncharacteristic tsunami of women. Sure, there are still some male-driven films that have risen to the top of the pile, namely Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech, Jessie Eisenberg/Andrew Garfield/Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, the brilliant James Franco in 127 Hours, (though I haven’t yet seen it) Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in The Fighter, and the upcoming True Grit with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin. But let’s face it, this year it’s raining women.

The Oscar for lead actress is going to be competitive this year, which always makes for an exciting Oscar run. Even before I’d seen Black Swan, I felt like three women had a real shot at taking it: Natalie Portman, course, Annette Bening and Jennifer Lawrence.

Natalie Portman versus Annette Bening – this is a familiar dynamic. It feels a little like Marion Cotillard versus Julie Christie, or Halle Berry versus Sissy Spacek. One is a Category 5 hurricane, and one is a cool breeze on a lake. Both have their value, both are vital and necessary – it is just a matter of what the voters are looking for this time around. Unlike Spacek and Christie, though, I do feel Annette Bening gives a career-best performance with the Kids Are All Right. But, as thoughts of Black Swan continue to flood my consciousness, I can’t help but think Portman’s is the more difficult, the more affecting, and ultimately, the more sympathetic. It is also, I dare say, one of those moments in an actor’s career you don’t turn away from. If it is Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, or even Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote – if it is on that level, if the actors agree with that assessment, Portman cannot lose.

What we know about Bening already is that she is way overdue. She may be the Sean Penn (Milk) to Portman’s Mickey Rourke. She may so embody her character that she deserves to win, but moreover, her status in the industry is such that she becomes the more compelling choice. The irony that they are both straight actors playing gay characters is not lost on me either – it is considered a difficult transformation. Funny that it isn’t considered that much of a transformation when it’s a gay actor playing a straight character.

Finally, as my friend Tom O’Neil is always saying, when confronted with older versus younger, Oscar almost always chooses younger. Not to put too crude a point on it, but we must combine the forces of the general obsession with youth coupled with the majority of Academy members being straight, white middle aged men and you don’t have to be a rocket science to figure that out. This is why the “f*ckable” aspect is almost always the immovable object in the Best Actress race. It isn’t everything. Sometimes the performance is powerful enough, the actress popular enough (particularly in the era of Sally Field) to overcome it. Lately, though, the pendulum seems to swing in one direction.

Some comparisons:

Julia Roberts — Ellen Burstyn
Halle Berry — Sissy Spacek
Charlize Theron — Diane Keaton
Hilary Swank — Annette Bening
Marion Cotillard — Julie Christie
Kate Winslet — Meryl Streep (probably doesn’t really count)
Sandra Bullock — Meryl Streep

The one major exception to the rule seemed to be when Helen Mirren won, though Mirren is absolutely f*ckable by most anyone’s standards.. So, we have an unfair advantage to Natalie Portman just on the surface of it – her looks, her youth. But a lot still has to happen. Black Swan has to open, and it has to be met with rave reviews. It has to not have any sort of major backlash. And finally, Portman has to work the line like Marion Cotillard did. She has to bloom on the red carpet — she has to become a black swan, in other words. The normally reserved and poised Portman might have a slight problem with this. Does she have the desire to win this thing, the same desire her character had to dance Swan Lake? Does Bening?

If Annette Bening is out there as Jeff Bridges was last year, it being at last “his time,” she has a much better chance of slowing the momentum Portman will gain in the next few weeks, as Black Swan opens. Bridges was everywhere. He was unavoidable. He was on every talk show, being lauded at with a standing ovation at every awards show.¬† Is this Bening’s time? Will she at last be celebrated and rewarded for her entire career with this, her best role? Or will she become like Michelle Pfeiffer, Sigourney Weaver, Glenn Close and the countless other brilliant actresses who have yet to win for their body of work? What defines that moment in time and what doesn’t isn’t something that can be explained: it just is.

In looking back over the past Oscar winners for Best Actress, sometimes it’s more clear than others when it was the performance, versus when it was “the time,” or when it was both. But more importantly, what becomes clear is that what gets the vote is usually more about how much they end up liking the character.

Sissy Spacek for Coal Miner’s Daughter vs. Mary Tyler Moore for Ordinary People — The Performance
Sissy Spacek can do no wrong in my book and she thoroughly deserved to win for this. But something about Moore’s performance continues to pull me back. It was anything but likable, the complete contrast to her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for instance. By all rights, that performance should have won. But it couldn’t have because, in the end, they liked Sissy’s Loretta Lynn more.
Katharine Hepburn – On Golden Pond – The Performance, and Her Time,
Likability of Character and Actress (not that she ever needed another Oscar). Her only challenger would have been Diane Keaton in Reds, I suppose. But even that.

Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice – The Performance (full stop). Her main competition would have been Jessica Lange, who won in Supporting anyway, and then went on to win lead much later because it was “her time.”
Shirley MacLaine – Terms of Endearment – The Performance, and Her Time. She had some competition with Meryl Streep, turning in yet another great performance in Silkwood, but also Debra Winger from Terms and Julie Walters from Educating Rita.
Sally Field – Places in the Heart, Likability of Character and Actress. This one gets my “oh for godsakes” prize for WTF happened there. She had no real competition, likable character, good performance. If there had been a better one, though, she wouldn’t have won. The closest you get to a more deserving actress would have been Judy Davis for A Passage to India (Davis still has never won, despite the many times she should have).
Geraldine Page – The Trip to Bountiful – Likability of Character and Actress. Whoopi Goldberg probably deserved it for The Color Purple but I think Jessica Lange might have been the main competition.
Marlee Matlin – The Performance, Likability of Character and Actress, and no real competition.
Cher – Moonstruck – Her Time, Likability of Character and Actress. Any of the other four actresses would have been a better choice, but most especially Holly Hunter for Broadcast News (although Glenn Close is phenomenal in Fatal Attraction).

Jodie Foster – The Accused – The Performance – Her Time. And no real competition.
Jessica Tandy РDriving Miss Daisy РHer Time, Her Time, Her Time. Her only real competition was Michelle Pfeiffer for The Fabulous Baker Boys and that was just okay, not great.  Maybe Isabelle Adjani.
Kathy Bates – Misery – The Performance and Her Time, and there was Meryl Streep popping back up yet again for yet another great performance in Postcards from the Edge.
Jodie Foster for The Silence of the Lambs — The Performance, Likability of Character and Actress although this is one where I think Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis split their votes – both of them were more deserving than Foster, and you all know how much I love The Silence of the Lambs (“his pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue.”)
Emma Thompson – Howards End – Her Time, Likability of Character and Actress – she really no competition, though. And here is another case where they just liked her a lot, liked her character.

Holly Hunter РThe Piano РThe Performance РLikability of Character and Actress Рthis was a great year for actresses, and in fact, Emma Thompson gave a great performance in Remains of the Day, but her Oscar was already won.  Angela Bassett would have been another worthy winner.
Jessica Lange – Blue Sky – Her Time. And she had ZERO competition.¬† Jodie Foster had already won twice. If she hadn’t, she would have won for Nell.¬† Susan Sarandon for The Client? Really, AMPAS?
Susan Sarandon – Dead Man Walking – Her Time, Likability of Character and Actress. To my mind, Elisabeth Shue gave the better performance. I feel like Sarandon won for this because she hadn’t won so many times before.¬† It was a very good performance. But Shue’s was beyond good. Here is a very good example of what might happen between Bening and Portman.
Frances McDormand – Fargo. The Performance – Likability of Character and Actress – This was a very small part to win an Oscar on.¬† It is still one of the more memorable incarnations ever put to screen. It helps if you happen to love the Coens, and it doesn’t always follow that a great performance must be emotionally wrenching. Sometimes it can just be great. Her biggest competition was probably non-star Brenda Blethyn for Secrets & Lies, maybe Emily Watson for Breaking the Waves.
Helen Hunt – As Good as it Gets – The Performance Likability of Character and Actress – but this too gets the “oh for godsakes” prize for WTF happened there. What happened was that she was incredibly likable and f*ckable, and she had no real competition.

Gwyneth Paltrow – Shakespeare in Love – Likability of Character and Actress. Everyone who reads AwardsDaily must know how much I love Shakespeare in Love, and especially all of its stars. I have no problem with Paltrow winning, but it is absolutely the standard vote of liking her, and wanting to sleep with her that had her beating out Cate Blanchett for Elizabeth, the far more deserving performance.
Hilary Swank – Boys Don’t Cry – The Performance (full stop)

Julia Roberts – Erin Brockovich – Her Time, some competition from Ellen Burstyn and Joan Allen.
Halle Berry – Monster’s Ball – The Performance, Her Time (and the time for any black actress to win lead)
– her competition was fierce – Nicole Kidman for Moulin Rouge, Sissy Spacek for In the Bedroom, Renee Zellweger for Bridget Jones’s Diary…
Nicole Kidman – The Hours – Her Time.
Kidman delivered many great performances before she won for this. It was good, but a supporting part and supported by a fake nose. Her competition was mainly Julianne Moore in The Hours (deserved to win), and Renee Zellweger for Chicago, who was also very good.
Charlize Theron – Monster. The Performance (full stop).
Hilary Swank – Million Dollar Baby – The Performance, The Film.
She beat Annette Bening again for Being Julia, and Kate Winslet for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but otherwise, not much competition.
Reese Witherspoon -Walk the Line – The Performance, Her Time.
It was good enough to ride the wave. Felicity Huffman for Transamerica was her main competition.
Helen Mirren – The Queen – The Performance, Her Time.
No competition.
Marion Cotillard – La Vie en Rose – The Performance (full stop).
Main competition was Julie Christie for Away from Her.

Kate Winslet – The Reader – Her Time. A Jeff Bridges moment. A good performance, not her best. No one begrudges her win. Her main competition would have been Meryl Streep in Doubt (thought there was some rumbling about Anne Hathaway).
Sandra Bullock – The Blind Side. Her Time.
Her competition was Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia. Passable to decent performance, extremely likable character and actress.

Sandra Bullock won the same way those before her won, especially Winslet, Cotillard and Mirren – by working the line, doing lots of press, showing up happy and bubbly and deserving. Bullock gave great speeches whenever she won. She was always funny, looked great and mainly acted gracious and humble before the powers that be. It didn’t hurt that she was the $200 million girl.

But you have to admit, being the World’s Greatest F*ck doesn’t hurt either. Many of the women that have won in the list above did so by stripping down, making love while also giving a great performance. There are exceptions, of course. But you have to admit, there is a commonality there.

This year, the three actresses – Bening, Portman and Lawrence – can wrestle the beast if they decide to play.

If we’re going on sheer performance, all three women are still in fierce competition. But the fact remains that Natalie Portman delivers what is probably the best performance by any actor this year, male or female. It isn’t just that she becomes someone else. It is the way she connects with the material, much the way Jessie Eisenberg does in The Social Network – becoming such a necessary part of the film’s success that losing them would make the whole thing collapse. No one else could have played Nina. We don’t know what direction the race will take.

Still, of the three of these women, Jennifer Lawrence plays the most likable, admirable character – someone who is a teenage hero trying to do nothing but save her family. She went above and beyond what was necessary to bring Ree to life and there is always the chance that she could win as a dark horse. Bening and Portman give strong performances. Being has time on her side. Portman has the bravura performance of a lifetime. It seems like an easy call to make, but of course, as we know, there are always surprises waiting as we head into the thick of Oscar season.

The other two slots may go to Nicole Kidman for Rabbit Hole and Lesley Manville for Another Year, unless she goes into supporting, in which case I would probably think Julianne Moore for The Kids Are All Right, or Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine the fifth slot.

Here are some other performances to keep in mind:

Michelle Williams – Blue Valentine. Tender, sweet, heartbreaking — but Williams goes deeper than that. She must find in her the competing emotions of disgust and guilt as she tries to fight her own evolution out of a relationship. Great work by both Williams and Gosling.
Nicole Kidman – Rabbit Hole. Kidman frees herself for this role, and it’s supposed to be a real tearjerker. She’s a big star, even still, which makes her worth considering.
Lesley Manville – Another Year. One of the strongest performances of the year, even if the buzz seems to be quieting a bit since it made a splash at Cannes. This is the problem in the day and age when all of the critics and bloggers go to Cannes, fall in love with films, and then months pass – by the time Oscar season runs around there isn’t much left to talk about. But the performance is the performance, and Manville’s is one of the best.
Tilda Swinton in I Am Love
– Swinton plays a woman under the influence of love and lust. In an extremely graphic sex scene that makes Blue Valentine look like a Disney movie, Swinton pulls out the stops. But is there time for her to be recognized? If the Academy members know there is some Postman Always Rings Twice kind of sex in it they might put it in the old Blu-Ray.
Naomi Watts, Fair Game – a powerhouse performance by Watts, who captures Valerie Plame’s conflicting emotions perfectly.
Sally Hawkins, Made in Dagenham – Hawkins plays one of the most heroic characters in the race. Is it enough?
Hilary Swank, Conviction – Swank did months of research to play Betty Anne Waters. Reviews were mixed and the heat seemed to settle on Rockwell, despite Swank’s willingness to publicize. But she’s a two-time Oscar winner, thus, a threat.