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Shifting Landscape of Best Actress


At tomorrow night’s Golden Globe ceremony you will see two competing Best Actress contenders likely win: Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence, who are in two different categories.  These award shows can sometimes build momentum in one actress’ favor propelled by how well they do in front of a crowd accepting the award.  Speeches can sometimes make a difference, though not always.  Both are beautiful young women with very bright futures ahead of them. But we will likely end the night still not knowing who will win Best Actress and that’s because the state of the Best Actress race has suddenly shifted.

When Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild were nominated in the Best Director and Best Screenplays categories, the chances for Emmanuelle Riva and Quvenzhane Wallis to win skyrocketed. The frontrunners are still the two bigger stars, Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty and Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. The fifth contender is another potential dark horse, Naomi Watts for the Impossible.

My first instinct when I heard the nominations was to say that Emmanuelle Riva, the oldest ever Oscar nominee, is the biggest threat. But Wallis and Beasts is hard to resist. If you loved that movie you will love her in it. And if she won she would also make history as only the second African American actress to win Lead. In 85 years.

Riva, on the other hand, is 86 years old. One year older than Oscar himself and her birthday is on the day of the Oscars – she will turn 87. How do you resist that?


My money is still on Jennifer Lawrence at the moment, with Chastain right behind, and the reason for this is that if you’re going to make the long shot prediction you wait until closer to the ceremony. Lawrence is not only beloved for her work, her beauty, her humor, but she fits into that category that is irresistible for many voters — they want to give her character an award. This is where the irrational takes hold with the way the Academy votes. They get so caught up in the movie they believe, however irrationally, that they are awarding the characters themselves.

Let it be said that, to my mind, both the women rescue Silver Linings Playbook. The surprise nominee of Jacki Weaver was my favorite thing about the movie. She doesn’t say much but she has such a comforting presence overall and plays the polar opposite of the mom she played in Animal Kingdom. Lawrence makes what would be a fairly typical whore with a heart of gold into someone interesting, lively and unpredictable. The movie is loved by both men and women and doesn’t seem to settle better on either side. That helps her, to say nothing of her $400 million dollar box office smash, the Hunger Games.

Moreover, with FOUR acting nominations, Silver Linings Playbook is very likely to win one of those. If it isn’t Lawrence it’s going to be Weaver, De Niro. Cooper would have to beat Daniel Day-Lewis and if that happens the Academy will have to forfeit its credibility card for all time. That makes it down to the supporting categories and Lawrence. De Niro could so win this thing, by the way.


Wallis is such a threat, though, that there’s already a smear campaign against her. Remember that you can’t attack someone that cute and young directly so you have to attack them indirectly and the attack-du-jour appears to be that it’s “child abuse” to have let her star in the film and then run for awards. A laughable notion once you see the happy little sprite at awards shows keeping things in perspective, climbing all over Benh Zeitlin during photo shoots, a total ham. Having worked with children myself I can tell you straight up, that’s a happy healthy kid.


Wallis’ one of two performances that carry two Best Picture nominees. The plot turns on them and it has nothing whatsoever to do with their relationship to men. Wallis, perhaps some, because she’s the daughter of Dwight Henry, but Beasts is a movie about her imagination, her inner world and it’s a wow. A whole big lot of wow. It has been said that no skill is involved where she is concerned and that it’s the director who got that performance out of her. But I’d say the opposite is true; the director got out of her way to allow her to give that performance. That is why Zeitlin is a genius and why Wallis gave a great performance.


The other actress who anchors her film is Jessica Chastain, who takes on that rare leading female role you rarely see anymore. You just don’t see it. The fanboy/box-office driven entertainment industry has marginalized women to supporting roles, even when they’re leading roles. Jennifer Lawrence’s character, as good as she is, is a supporting role – functioning only to support the man. People always say well she gets something too – she gets the man. Yeah, that’s because it is a really popular notion that getting the man is all a woman should want. So Bradley Cooper gets the girl, too, but he gets so much more.

Chastain is “not the girl who fucks.” She says that at the outset and is the central figure in Zero Dark Thirty. She is the hardcore CIA trainee whose been bred to hunt down Osama Bin Laden. She’s been trained to withstand “enhanced interrogation techniques” and in the process lost a sense of identity, her own humanity, and any idea of where she might go next. Who is she, the movie asks us at the end? The most telling scene that toys with our notions of gender is when the detainee is stripped naked and has soiled himself – Jason Clarke leaves the room and even the Al Qaeda suspect believes that Chastain’s character should offer up humanity to him but she just says, tell us what we want to know and he’ll stop. It’s a shocker of a scene, especially in 2012. We’re tricked into thinking, because she’s a pretty redhead and a woman that she’s supposed to be “nice.” But she isn’t. She does the job she was trained to do, just as a guy would.

Will the controversy hurt Chastain’s chances? Without a doubt. She’s up against four more likable characters. She’s also hurt by the fact that it’s a procedural — and she has only a small handful of “Oscar scenes.” Anyone who’s seen her work from last year, particularly The Help, knows no one can do those Oscar scenes like Chastain. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, she’s the closest thing to Meryl Streep I’ve seen in Hollywood. I think she can do anything. If she doesn’t win the Oscar this year, she will have many opportunities in the future.

It is a story that isn’t going away either. Part of the phenomenon is the rise of protest groups and mobilization in the post-Occupy world where internet brings people together like never before and has turned the far-reaching Anonymous into a kind of people’s army. For more on this watch the Hacktivist documentary currently streaming on Netflix. They protested the premiere and they will protest screenings and you can bet they’ll protest the Oscars.

But let’s pretend, for a moment, that it wasn’t controversial. Could Chastain have won? Will she still win? I think she had/has a great shot at it. The only thing is, up against an actress and character people LOVE (Lawrence, Riva, Wallis, arguably Watts) it’s a little tougher.

Naomi Watts The Impossible

Naomi Watts is overdue, to my mind, for an Oscar by now. Her great work in Mulholland Drive alone makes her overdue. She’s been kicking around Hollywood for years, even before she got her big break. But what Watts has that others don’t is tremendous support from some very big, well connected names. Angelina Jolie, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr. That’s nothing to ignore nor to sneeze at. Sometimes it takes a gated community village to get an unlikely win the win and this could finally be Watt’s year.

Watts gives a hell of a performance in The Impossible, with half of her leg torn off by the Tsunami she must find the strength to survive, for her family’s sake and namely the sake of her one surviving son, the BRILLIANT Tom Holland.  Throughout the whole thing, you never doubt the authenticity of the moment and that’s due to Watts — she makes us believe that the horror is playing out before our eyes is real. And that could, at last, win her the Oscar.


Emmanuelle Riva probably gives the most accomplished performance in Amour, as she plays wife whose life fades away in rapid decline. She must go from functioning to not functioning throughout the entire movie and the frustration with herself, the anger at inability to even say a sentence is shattering. At 86 years old, Riva is in full command of her instrument, mind, body and soul.  If it were me, I could not choose anyone else.  But we know that other factors are at play in the Oscar race – star power, popularity and mostly how much they like the movie. Now that Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour have those pivotal director and screenplay nods,  these actresses are no longer dark horses – they are suddenly front and center.

Right now, I still think it’s Jennifer Lawrence’s to lose. But we’ve a ways to go yet, Oscar watchers.  Stay frosty.