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Best Actress: The Careers vs. the Dark(ness) Horses

I don’t think I am alone in saying that I was initially uninspired by this year’s Oscar season. In 2010, the massive Hamptons Film Festival Oscar mash up that included “Black Swan,” “127 Hours,” “The King’s Speech,” “Blue Valentine,” preceded by NYFF’s “The Social Network” sent me into an Oscar fervor I hadn’t experienced before… one that ended Oscar night in a “King’s Speech” tailspin. Although I wasn’t quite as upset about the loss of “The Social Network” as some (mostly due to the fact that my true passion was behind “Black Swan” and Portman) I felt I needed a break. But that didn’t stop me from going to the theater. At least not at first.

I saw a few goodies at Tribeca Film Festival, followed by a surprisingly enjoyable summer (“X Men,” “Super 8” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) and some even better treats at New York Film Festival: “Melancholia,” “The Skin I Live In,” and “The Descendants.” Although I had the opportunity to see many more (“Shame,” “The Artists,” etc.) I couldn’t get myself in the damn seat. I guess I should’ve sucked it up and taken the opportunity I have been blessed with… but alas… I didn’t. And even with those few enjoyments, that moment all you Oscarwatchers know, when the Oscar season really clicks in, wasn’t happening.

Instead of focusing on this season…I started to explore why I wasn’t interested and why I had been in the past. With the exception of a few “picture” obsessions (“The Crying Game,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Boogie Nights,” “Billy Elliot,” and a sucessful-ish “Brokeback Mountain”) the years I got freakishly into the Oscar ceremony were mostly sparked by a female performance or two.

I have written before about how I accidentally ended up in the Corinth, Mississippi Twin Cinema watching “Moonstruck” when I actually bought a ticket to see “Police Academy 5” (Thank you universe!). And so my Oscar-crazy began. And my first Best Actress obsession. I didn’t really know much about prognosticating (Who am I kidding? I still don’t! Did you see my predictions last year? Disaster!) but I didn’t think Cher would win. For one thing I was a child…and secondly, I just couldn’t imagine the singer/superstar from the 70s who wore those wacky Bob Mackie costumes would be allowed on the prestigious Oscar stage holding that naked golden statue. I was so glad my ignorance was proven wrong.

Several years later, when I was in college, my Oscar crazy waned slightly, but did not completely diminish. I can remember quite clearly, in my Sophomore year, back in 1995 trying to will the Academy to vote for Elisabeth Shue in “Leaving Las Vegas.” And the next year I recall hoping with all hope that Madonna and Courtney Love would both be nominated for “Evita” and “The People v/s Larry Flynt,” respectively. Although my passion for Madonna’s performance has definitely lessened, I still feel Love was robbed.

You could say these two years might have planted the seed for this piece. These three… ok… forget about Madonna, TWO performances were dark, going to places that seemed to take acting out of the picture, portraying such naturalism that we, the audience, felt as if we were voyeurs of reality, not craft. This is a theme I have talked about before and will talk about again, I am sure. This is the style of acting I most connect with. And it seems to be a style the Academy does not. Why are these types of performances rarely nominated, much less awarded?

When Lee Strasberg brought Stanislavski’s method to the stars of Hollywood and NYC many of the “established” stars rejected it. But the animosity didn’t seem to apply to men. People praised, quite highly, men of the method (Brando and DeNiro, most specifically come to mind) but not the likes of, say, Marilyn Monroe. (You might see where this is headed!) Maybe some of you think it wasn’t her method acting, but her beauty Hollywood and the Academy didn’t take seriously. But even Ellen Burstyn, who was the female method-deer equivalent to the “boys,” (ALSO beautiful… she was a model before she was an actor) was nominated many times but only winning once… losing what many believe to have been her deserved 2nd Oscar to Julia Roberts.

With the exception of Hillary Swank for “Boys Don’t Cry” in 1999… and maybe Halle Berry for “Monsters Ball” (although there was a deeper story to her win) the darkest, most realistic of performances…the ones hailed by critics have been ignored by the Academy. I’m not including the ones given by the beautiful actress/star turned “ugly” (aka: Theron, Cotillard, Kidman). I am thinking more along the lines of Naomi Watts in “21 Grams,” to site a success story. At least in terms of a nomination.

The conversation in the most recent years has been the “established” actresses… the Careers (to steal from “The Hunger Games”) versus the young actresses. Cotillard v/s Christie. Streep v/s Bullock. Portman v/s Bening. This year that competition shifted a bit for me. This year, the actual nominees might be the Careers v/s the young actresses with a few stars turned ugly thrown in, as per usual. But what I truly care about are the ones on the edge, loved by many of you, the critics and me…who simply are not in the Oscar lexicon.

First there is Kirsten Dunst in “Melancholia.” I have never seen depression portrayed this way before. I have unfortunately seen depression, first hand, as I’m sure many of you have. Not always a pretty thing to talk about…a bit of a faux pas… but here goes! I have been the person struggling to keep my depressed lover’s exterior at its best when said lover is in actuality falling deeper and deeper. Luckily not at (but getting close to) a wedding. What I saw in Dunst was what I have not seen before… not on film. I was enamored watching her smile through the mud of her sadness. And then as Melancholia comes closer to Earth (so much metaphor!!!) we see the most private of moments: a person seeking an end to her life, realizing it is actually going to happen, achieving a surreal elation right before the end.

And then there is Elisabeth Olsen in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” A performance like this is very difficult to analyze because it is almost always the same descriptive. “Lost in the role.” “Doesn’t seem to be acting.” But the difference here is that I don’t know Olsen’s work. I have never seen her act… never seen her in an interview. All I know is this portrayal. I heard another Oscar pundit say they needed to see more of her work to take her seriously. And sadly this might be the way the Academy thinks as well. But I’m sorry… it’s not the Best Performance by an Actress (that has been seen in many roles therefore we all know what she can and will do) in a Leading Role. Right? This is an individual portrayal. I saw a remarkably sad covering of pain, hidden by a blanket of groupthink insanity. Eventually (although quite delayed…in a way I found brilliantly deliberate while others found slow) the covers come off in an amazing party scene beginning with a tightly wound Olsen in conversation with a bartender, erupting…and ending with Olsen unraveling… exploding… revealing what damage has really been done to her. And it all seems so incredibly real. Realism… I think that is where the Academy seems to shy away. I think they really like to see a transformation. From star to _________. They need an Oscar story. And being the long lost Olsen sister isn’t enough.

Maybe the buffer between these two types of performances lies in Michelle Williams portraying Marilyn Monroe in “My Week with Marilyn.” Williams isn’t exactly Streep… but with what would be her third nomination, she will be closer to a Winslet than an Olsen. And playing someone with the magnitude of Marilyn, it almost seems like she is a Career. Williams doesn’t even attempt to mimic Marilyn Monroe. The way she embodies her is by making us feel the way Marilyn made people feel. She seduces. Makes us laugh while simultaneously arousing us. We are unable to take our eyes off of her. Even in her darkest moments the pain I felt for her was because I had, somehow, fallen in love with her. Just like Colin (who is having the week with Marilyn) does. Just like all the people before me did. It’s not about Marilyn-isms. Michelle’s Marilyn is present. The way I’m sure Marilyn was. So present that it became a fault. A young actor trying to understand the method, falling into the trap of complete spontaneity in all aspects of life instead of saving it for the stage/screen. Which can lead to utter sadness, elation, but often brilliance.

In defense of Streep and the Careers my Awards Wiz contributor Rick Hamilton nailed it for me. He said:

“It is one of the films where Streep completely disappears into the role… Despite her incredible talent, or indeed partly because of it, it is rare not to be conscious that you are watching her onscreen… The looks and mannerisms are all distinctly Thatcher’s, but the performance becomes how well Streep is portraying the Prime Minister without devolving into a simple impersonation”

But Michelle Williams is brilliant because she is not just playing Marilyn. She is playing Norma Jean, playing Marilyn, playing MARILYN! Williams, in the blonde hair, pale makeup and red lips is so unbelievably real. She shows us the method by using it. Williams’s Marilyn is not trying to out act Olivier, as he fears, but simply trying to be a better actress when the world only sees her as a star. And that is why Williams is straddling that line in my internal Career/DH debate. If Olsen and Dunst can’t be nominated, I hope Williams will give those Careers a run for their money.

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Brian Whisenant runs Awards Wiz