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Oscarwatch: Best Actress, is Naomi Watts a Game Changer?


Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg was mostly dismissed on Twitter yesterday when he suggested that Naomi Watts could not only get nominated for Best Actress but also might win.  But there has been such a groundswell of support, and Watts has gone unrecognized for so long, that she just might become a force to be reckoned with this year.  There are several reasons for this – the first is that the two strongest contenders, Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty and Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook are both relatively new on the Oscar scene. Usually you have to built up clout, either Oscar cred (Renee Zellweger) or career cred (Sandra Bullock).   Playing Oscar pool year after year, if you’re in it to win it, can eventually land you a win, if the performance is good enough and if you’re likable enough.  But just being in a great film that everyone liked isn’t enough.

The model for Jennifer Lawrence winning is probably Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love. A very good performance in a movie everybody liked but let’s face it, voters fell in love with her that year.  That’s how she beat Cate Blanchett, the more deserving contender, for Elizabeth.  They fell in love with her – critics were waxing dreamy prose about Paltrow’s breasts and good cheer – she is an enthusiastic fan of Shakespeare and the lead character and wants only to be the love of his life and perhaps act on the stage as a woman. A WOMAN! On the public stage!

The model for Jessica Chastain winning is possibly Jodie Foster for Silence of the Lambs, but not really, since Foster had been acting since she was a kid and had already won a Best Actress Oscar for The Accused.  Chastain reminds me of Meryl Streep not so much for her performance in Zero Dark Thirty but for her whole body of work and her ability to utterly disappear into a character.  Jennifer Lawrence, as Tiffany in Silver Linings, has hit the exact right role at the exact right time and let’s face it, it’s hard not to fall in love with her.  Chastain is in the best reviewed film of the year and is the only central character in any Oscar frontrunner that is female. Think about that one for a minute.  That is huge.  Still, Oscar doesn’t pick winners that way. The voters are under no obligation to forward any political agenda; they vote for who and what they like.

It probably isn’t even worth going there, to imagine they would honor, say, Emayatzy Corinealdi, who gives one of the best performances of the year in Middle of Nowhere. One black actress in 85 years of Oscar history has won an Oscar.   You have to be a star to get nominated for Best Actress and most of the films at the multiplex — hell, on all of the critics lists as well – are stories about white people and if they aren’t, they’re still stories about men. Corinealdi is in a film about a woman. The odds are against a nomination. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be in the conversation.  Alfre Woodard just wrote a “consider this” for EW:

In Middle of Nowhere, we experience an exquisite, intimate tale of a woman in progress — as told through the vivid screenplay and deft direction of Ava DuVernay and the breakout performance of Emayatzy Corinealdi.

These are the kind of women artists rarely heard in modern day cinema. They are women of color telling a universal tale in a very specific way. And it is important that their work in Middle of Nowhere be seen by those of us who truly care about film.

To speak of Corinealdi’s work in this Sundance award-winning drama is to speak of discovery and revelation. You watch the film and wonder how a talent like that has gone undiscovered for so long, then revel in the joy that is watching her portray “Ruby.” Corinealdi imbues the film’s heroine with a carefully modulated combination of vulnerability and strength, humility and gusto, defiance and dignity.

The Gotham Awards bestowed her with its Breakthrough Performance Award last month, while the Spirit Awards and Image Awards have both nominated her for Best Actress. My hope is that voters and viewers will embrace and enjoy Emayatzy’s wonderful work in Middle of Nowhere. She is a bright new actress who singlehandedly occupies nearly every frame of this beautiful film with guts and grace. A performance deserving of celebration.

Quvenzhané Wallis will likely become the tenth black actress to be nominated for Lead.  Ten in 85 years.   I suspect that most people are underestimating Wallis’ chance to win.  Voters might love Beasts of the Southern Wild and they may hate it. Since it doesn’t qualify for SAG or WGA, and it didn’t make a splash at the Globes, it’s hard to know.  But if it were me voting I’d have a hard time not voting for Wallis. She is young, and would have a better chance if she were nominated in supporting.  The outcome of this race is uncertain.

The locks in the category right now are Chastain, Lawrence, Wallis and two open slots. One appears to be owned by Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone and the fifth is probably going to Naomi Watts, who has tremendous support from the acting community.  This was necessary since the film wasn’t going to be a critics’ darling; The Blind Side got a Best Picture nomination and a win for Sandra Bullock without the critics.  It can happen when there is passion outside the bubble, or within the Hollywood community.

Naomi Watts has only been nominated once for an Oscar, for 21 Grams in 2003.  She had her biggest break when David Lynch cast her in Mulholland Drive.  Her willingness to go deep would become her trademark but it was really showcased in the Lynch film more than any other. She won the National Society of Film Critics, the National Board of Review but did not receive an Oscar nomination.  After that, she was ignored for her work in King Kong, Eastern Promises, The Painted Veil and Fair Game. It was not until this year, with The Impossible, that Watts really started to put the campaigning into overdrive.  It’s true that in the Oscar race you have to want it — you have to be willing to kiss a lot of ass on the Oscar walk.  Think about Marion Cotillard during La Vie en Rose or Jeff Bridges during Crazy Heart.  If you aren’t out there, voters forget about you and the moment passes.

If you don’t grab it while it’s right in front of you it will fade away, that’s the idea behind fighting for an Oscar win.  You have to fight because there is so much competition.  The master at this is Harvey Weinstein and the Weinstein Co. They know what it takes to win, which is why they had Meryl Streep out at the AARP as part of her campaign run to win, finally, for The Iron Lady. Streep, like Winslet, like Watts, is simply too polite to grab the brass ring. She makes the assumption, like all reasonable people, that if you’re good enough the awards will come. But they don’t.   Oh sure, for every Jeff Bridges there is a Mo’Nique, who does no campaigning and still wins. But if Mo’Nique had been getting nomination after nomination and continuing to lose? You can bet she would be out there campaigning too.

When it was time for Kate Winslet to win at last she really had to basically come out and say it. She had to sex it up and work the circuit, even though she is so well respected that she deserved to have won before The Reader. But The Reader, like The Iron Lady, was tailor made for an Oscar win for Winslet. Christ, Nazis? Nudity? Even with all of that it isn’t enough. You have to get out there and let voters know you want it, finally. And if the lady asks for it, the lady shall be rewarded.  If you want to win an Oscar, I’m sure actors know and believe, you get Harvey Weinstein to win one for you.  And he – and his kick-ass team – can usually get her done. This amounts to a combination of knowing what Oscar voters like and knowing when it’s time to step on the gas.

For their Consider This section in EW, Reese Witherspoon wrote the following for Watts:

Hi Naomi,

I know we don’t know each other well. I hope it’s ok that I am reaching out to you, because I simply could not contain my enthusiasm about your performance in The Impossible.

Wow. Just wow. I was blown away by the film. The story of survival and the incredible images of the tsunami and the performances of the entire cast were astounding. By far, one of the best films I have ever seen in my life.

I could not speak for 24 hours after seeing the film. It was more than a movie. It was a mediation on life and family and humanity. It was fortifying.

But the life-breath of the film is you.

Your brutal physical performance, the ferocity of your mothering spirit and the soul touching moments where you hold on to life with every part of your being were incredible.

Not since I saw Meryl Streep’s performance in Sophie’s Choice have I been so moved by an actress’s performance. It also reminded me of Sally Field’s Norma Rae as well. Such strength and absolute vulnerability in the same performance. A mother who is determined to teach her child what it means to be a good person even when facing her own mortality. You showed every side of Maria’s story.

If I have anything to do with it (and I will literally tap dance on Sunset Boulevard for you!), you will be holding every beautiful statue that exists by the end of February.

But more importantly, you have created a performance that will stand the test of time.

Congratulations. And thank you sharing your heart and soul so openly.

A lovely tribute to Watts’ moving performance in The Impossible.  Without this kind of urging, without Watts doing publicity and without the celebrity endorsements by Angelina Jolie and Mark Ruffalo, The Impossible would disappear.  It has been accused of being a film that only cares about the white tourists (the original family, also “white” since they were Spanish) and not the many residents of the island who also died.  What is remarkable about The Impossible, and the only thing (other than the performances) that is remarkable is that this family managed to find each other and survive a tsunami.  The film reassures us that many of the white tourists found their parents and all was well.  But it tells us less about those who lost their babies and parents.

But it wasn’t really the film’s job to give us a whole history lesson on the tsunami. This was a story about one experience by one family there.  It is a rather miraculous story and hard to believe — but that’s why they call it The Impossible – against all odds, this family survived.

Watts is overdue, well liked in the industry and is in a film many celebrities are pushing. I’d say her chances to not only get nominated but to win are pretty good.

Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Naomi Watts, The Impossible
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone