The most intriguing performances this year by women were delivered by powerhouse actresses at a time when those kinds of films and those kinds of performances have been selected out in favor of younger and younger women to appeal to the majority of ticket buyers. That majority, however, do not often factor in to the Oscar race, despite how many young people remain fascinated by the Oscars and film awards in general. Our American youth have been weaned on shows like American Idol and Survivor and gasp, The Bachelor. They believe that popularity should always win out, no matter what. And perhaps that is sort of true in the Oscar race. Perhaps it has always been thus, but it is often our job here at AwardsDaily to point out patterns, delightful evolutionary turns in the race that broaden the horizons of film goers, young and old, and offer an array of human experiences, not just those that dwell in fantasy or in the eternal youth we here in America seem so obsessed by.
The actresses this year are so astonishing, in fact, we might see the category filled, for the first time in a long time, with the elders of the craft. The youngest of these, Cate Blanchett, happens to also be the frontrunner. Just behind her is Sandra Bullock, an actress approaching fifty with two films that together earned over $400 million. They are joined by Emma Thompson for Saving Mr. Banks, Judi Dench for Philomena and Meryl Streep for August: Osage County. Right now, these are your best performances by women in 2013.
But there will be major push-back coming from several areas on this point. The first, as is usually exhibited on the more male-oriented websites like Hollywood-Elsewhere, where such a selection of actresses would be referred to “blousy hens.” You see, in their world, although men can grow older women must never age. They like them as young as possible and as naked as possible. Oscar does too, or so their history would illustrate.
But to include one of the very talented younger actress who show a little (okay, a lot) of skin, one of the five above will have to be bumped. The trouble is, I can’t find one we should be willing to sacrifice. People on Twitter keeps saying absurdities like “Judi Dench is the weak link.” But have you seen Philomena? Have you seen her richly drawn portrait of a woman who became a teenage mother, had her baby taken from her by the Catholic Church and yet remains both optimistic and un-bitter about it all. Yes, this woman still believes in not only God but in Catholicism itself. Dench is mesmerizing as Philomena — as the moments she’s reliving, and the moments that are new to her play across her deeply lined, experienced face. Each time that non-botoxed portrait feels something we feel it too. Her face takes us through the story, we are moved by and changed by it. That face. That beautiful beautiful face. So next time you say or hear someone else say “Judi Dench is vulnerable” or some such nonsense just ask them if they’ve seen Philomena. Sure, it can’t really compete with an erection and a panorama of fantasy but this is the stuff that builds what our lives are, what they have been and what they will become.
I’ve also heard that Meryl Streep is vulnerable because she’s won three Oscars already and holds the record for the most nominations. But I would say, have you seen August: Osage County? Have you seen Streep’s absolutely unequivocal performance in that movie? Her vanity gone (as it always is), Streep digs down deep to uncover this miserable, cruel, bitter woman who has moments — tiny glints of goodness that peak through. It is a performance only an actress of her experience and talent could pull off so magnificently. You will not forget Streep in Osage, nor will you forget many of the other colorful, vibrant characters in that film. Julia Roberts has never been better (“Eat the fuckin’ fish fucker!”), Juliette Lewis (I’d forgotten how great she was). Julianne Nicholson, fantastic. These are actresses following in Streep’s footsteps but to deny that Streep gave one of the best performances of the year is to live cloaked in denial. Watch and learn, my friends, watch and learn. The way she stands, breathes, walks, eats (or doesn’t). The way she mourns, ridicules, longs for — how she finds the nausea and makes us believe she’s going to puke right then. Sorry, but that shit’s for real.
Believe it or not I’ve also heard the ludicrous claim that Sandra Bullock is “vulnerable” for Gravity. Are you kidding me? Here is a woman on the brink of 50 who carries an entire movie. There is only one other character and he disappears pretty quickly. It is all Bullock in a part most studios would never have given her in a million years. And what do we see and hear after Gravity became such a success? Sneering that a woman could really pull it off. Yeah so like no one ever says that when a man’s in charge. Did anyone ever doubt Clooney was that great of an astronaut? Yeah, no. Bullock makes us believe she is right there — dangling by a cord in outer space, tumbling through the upper atmosphere, crawling her way back to life. Gravity is about Sandra Bullock’s performance as much as it is about the wild filmmaking. It’s on its way to making $300 million domestic and you’re going to tell me she’s vulnerable?
That leaves Cate Blanchett, the performance of her career in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks. Both of these films are about women — what role women play in controlling their lives and the lives of others, how powerful they are, how dispensable. Neither of them are particularly warm and fuzzy and both seem cloaked in one kind of delusion or another. It is Thompson’s, ultimately, who finds some redemption in her success. Like Bullock’s character, Thompson’s is a woman with a career — not a very popular theme in the Best Actress race anymore. Voters seem to identify with lost souls, or “dumb” women.
Emma Thompson’s PL Travers never apologizes for being the way she is; after all, it’s the world that must change to accommodate her. Though Saving Mr. Banks is distinctly told from Disney’s side of the story; you never really question whether they were doing the right thing in altering Mary Poppins to suit the masses. But Thompson never sugar coats her own vision of the character. She is brittle at times, disillusioned, with minor moments of happiness here or there. Happiness — being dolled out by Disney like a drug — must try to break through her shell. If it can reach her, it can reach anybody. Oh, for the brilliance and intelligence of an actress this good who pulls it off so effortlessly.
After decades of Blanchett’s extraordinary work on stage and her various incarnations on the big screen, she finally delivers her best work as Jasmine. At first there were whispers that it was really just Blanche DuBois dubois redux but if you know the play you know that isn’t true. Oh, sure, there are a similarities but at the end of the day you must pity Blanche. The same can’t be said for Jasmine, who bears the scorn of the hundreds of thousands her husband cheated out of the poor while Jasmine looked the other way. If anything, she’s Marie Antoinette.
These five actresses are in the “best” category. They are the best. Their lives have informed their work. They have never backed away from the challenges each new character brings. They are formidable icons in their own way – and trust me, you need them there because they offer a place where younger actresses can eventually go once their youthful shimmer fades and the target demo no longer gets a boner at the sight of them.
Right behind these five, it must be acknowledged, are wonderful performances by Brie Larson in Short Term 12, Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Colour, Amy Adams in American Hustle (who is the real threat to bump one of the five, though if you asked her I bet she’d not want to do that). Kate Winslet in Labor Day, and Julia Louis Dreyfus in Enough Said are all great too. In some ways it’s been a landmark year for actresses.
I personally don’t see any of the five as vulnerable but perhaps I’m mistaken. I am, after all, just a woman headed for 50 myself, and maybe they impressed me more because I’ve lived this long. Or maybe they’re just really fucking good.