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Best Actress: The Veterans and the Rising Stars


When Emmanuelle Riva won the BAFTA for Best Actress it underscored what we’ve been saying for years — that you have to go all the way to France to find storytellers who are willing to contemplate the idea of women as whole human beings with their own arcs. It’s astonishing to me that we’re headed for yet another Oscar Best Picture win where American women are almost invisible onscreen. It’s no worse than last year, but things sure ain’t getting much better. In Europe they don’t retire women after the age of 40. In Europe, they don’t have to appeal to 13- 18-year-old boys. In Europe, they don’t hide age, or run from it, or sell their citizens endless anti-aging products. But in America, if you’re Meryl Streep and you’re working still you are one of the very few, a rare orchid in the hottie hothouse.

Now Best Actress is down to three. And each role represents a very distinct type of actress and a very distinct type of character. Riva defies everything Hollywood represents and yet has the best chance to win, it seems. Jessica Chastain plays the only part that isn’t defined by a male character. Jennifer Lawrence is the more traditionally accepted female — the love interest, the hottie with a heart of gold. All three actresses do great work. But Riva stands out for reasons that go even beyond the performances.

American storytellers are hit with so many roadblocks. For women and people of color, Hollywood is a World of No. No, you can’t hire an 85 year-old woman and make a movie about her and her beloved husband aging and dying. Who’s going to buy tickets to that?

Riva’s is one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances and it is in keeping with the kind of thing Oscar would reward if filmmakers wrote more characters like that, if America weren’t under the thumb of having to appeal to the wallets of adolescent boys. Amour’s lovely Anne starts out as a healthy, elderly wife and then in the space of a heartbeat begins to abruptly deteriorate. It isn’t just a matter of playing someone who is slowly losing her ability to speak, to move around, or to use the bathroom on her own. It is the array of emotions internally that Riva conveys so magnificently.

Somehow, Mark Boal either didn’t get the memo about Hollywood’s “rules” or else didn’t care to follow them when he wrote Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. She’s the kind of character we now only see on television, on cable, and on the indie scene. But it’s mostly unheard of for an Oscar movie, let alone a critically acclaimed one, to simply be about a female character. Forget any other detail, just that simple fact alone — when was the last time a movie like that won Best Picture?

Jessica Chastain’s character has less of a chance to win because she doesn’t have the opportunity to emote so much. She only has one “Oscar scene” and the rest of the time she is a slow simmering kettle focused on the work at hand. To know how good Chastain is as Maya is to know her real life personality and the roles she’s taken that show her versatility. To that end, Maya is startlingly different from the other parts we’ve seen Chastain take on.

“I don’t do that. I am not that girl who fucks.” Maya is a character whose work is more important to her because she never really had a choice in the matter. She was plucked out of high school to hunt down Bin Laden. How much more voters would have loved it if there had been a love story tied into it? Or at least distinct vulnerability, as was the appeal of Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. She was tough and independent but she was noticeably vulnerable and in need of “saving.” Maya is one of the first characters we’ve seen in a very long time who is defined solely by her work.

A versatile, well trained actress, Chastain came up the ranks by playing supporting roles, always choosing something different to show her range. She has graduated this year to full fledged star. There is no question in my mind where her career is going. One look at her in The Help the same year as Tree of Life shows what she can do. But her role isn’t “Oscar friendly” and thus, she has a harder time winning because of that.

Probably Emmanuelle Riva’s biggest rival would be Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. The only time we saw her go up against Riva, though, was at the BAFTA awards where Riva won. The surprise nominations for Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actress for Amour seem to give Riva an edge but the four acting nominations for Silver Linings seem to indicate that film has an edge of its own. Lawrence won the SAG, which almost always means she will win the Oscar.

Lawrence’s biggest stumbling block is that she’s 22. That’s really too young to win an Oscar. Voters know it, which is one of the reasons she stands in such stark contrast to Riva. But Lawrence fans should realize that she has a lot of years in front of her to prove herself worthy of a win; after all, Meryl Streep won when she was young — but she won in the supporting category. She had to do Sophie’s Choice to finally win lead. That honor should be reserved to those who have reached for a higher peak. How can anyone say Lawrence has done her career peak at 22? No, if she wins it will be one of those situations where voters simply fell in love with her, which is entirely possible.

Silver Linings Playbook was all about Tiffany and Jennifer Lawrence until they sought to refocus their campaign to making the movie about mental illness. They’ve been sending Bradley Cooper everywhere to make this point — his character is the one who suffers from bi-polar disorder and thus, that’s their gravitas hook. Lawrence plays the pretty girl who chases after Bradley Cooper relentlessly until he finally gives in. It is a tribute to Lawrence that she was able to make Tiffany such an interesting character but there is nothing more to her than her ability to save Bradley Cooper’s character. Her needs are way down the list and any sexual liberation she displays is taken down a notch every time Bradley Cooper’s character calls her a slut and a whore. Sure, it’s funny and it works but come on. You can’t have it both ways. If that isn’t enough, she must spend much of the movie in clingy dance-wear bouncing up and down in front of the camera lens. I think most women, not young girls raised in today’s sexist media climate, would feel frustrated and suffocated by Tiffany, who is a supporting character, not a lead. All the same, Lawrence is the girl of the moment. She is beautiful and is doing all of the needed publicity. What I like best about her is that she doesn’t really seem to care if she wins or not. Right now, she still has it all in perspective and that’s a refreshing thing to see “on the campaign trail.”

The roles Lawrence and Chastain have taken this year represent opposing sides of the way women are portrayed in Hollywood. The two women are just as different in their approaches to acting — Chastain paid her dues, went to community college and built a background in theater after refining her craft at the prestigious Juilliard School. Lawrence was plucked off the street to be a model, decided she wanted to be an actress, doesn’t prepare her lines at all before she gets in front of a camera and works from instinct. Lawrence is a big franchise star now in the Hunger Games, Chastain just finished a show on Broadway. They couldn’t be more different, and neither could the parts they play.

Oscar tends more towards the Lawrence side of things. They like their women endlessly fuckable and if a character in one says she’s not that girl well, they’re not going to fall in love with that girl particularly. They will fall in love with Lawrence, both the actress and the character and that makes her a bigger threat.

The other two actresses in this year’s field are Quevanzhane Wallis and Naomi Watts. Wallis seems way too young to win but if she did win, she would be only the second African American actress in the history of the Oscars to do so.   Wallis is the youngest, and Riva is the oldest. Both were in films that surprised everyone when their directors took the place of Ben Affleck (famously) and Kathryn Bigelow.  That makes them both threats, I think.  Wallis a threat because if voters want to reward Beasts of the Southern Wild they might choose Wallis, or they might choose screenplay or they might choose Zeitlin for director. Unlike the Best Picture category, which frowns upon anything polarizing (no great film will ever win again) the other categories have weighted ballots. That means, simply, the actress with the most votes win.  I doubt Beasts of the Southern Wild is going to go home empty handed so Wallis could be that movie’s one big surprise win.

Meanwhile, Naomi Watts might have been able to catch some buzz, finally, for her work in The Impossible.  Theoretically she could win if the other actresses split the vote.  Surely Watts’ and Wallis’ are the two most emotionally wrenching performances next to Riva’s.  Watts winning would be a total shocker.  It’s true she does have a whole movement behind her, something we didn’t see at the SAG awards or at the BAFTA but could prove very powerful among the more elite Oscar voters – with people like Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Junior championing her. When we talk about frontrunners we talk about who has the buzz and who has the statues.  But Watts has paid her dues more than either Lawrence or Chastain and would be a very worthy winner indeed.

Watts plays a woman whose family is flung apart by a tsunami — half of her leg is torn off and she spends much of the movie simply trying to survive, to stay alive for her son. She is very close to death every step of the way and it is a testament to what a good actress Watts is that you never for once question whether it’s real or not.

Watts has been repeatedly overlooked for her work throughout her career, never quite managing to reach that level of stardom her pal Nicole Kidman fought for and won.  But that’s not to say that her work in The Impossible won’t give the other young actresses a run for their money. I think Riva might still beat her, though. But one never knows how these votes will turn out.