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Best Actress 2014 – The Woman and the Woman Behind the Man


There has never been a more scarce lineup for Best Actress than there is right now in 2014. While there might be plenty of opportunities for women to stand behind, prop up and otherwise be there to make sure the “great man” succeeds, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for women to stand on their own.

It isn’t that there aren’t people out there in the world who want to see movies about women – there are. Why, just look at the top twenty box office hits of 2014 so far.

No, sadly, there is something far more sinister going on, probably something that most people won’t admit, and worse, they get hotly defensive at the accusation: the people who drive the buzz, the gatekeepers, the fanboys and even fangirls are less interested in stories about women. The alternative is that movies about women are ALL BAD while movies about men are ALL BETTER. I don’t think that’s the case. Perhaps it just gets down to what kinds of characters people can relate to.

Imagine Whiplash, Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything or even Boyhood with a woman at the center. Just close your eyes and think about it before you start caterwauling. Really think about it. Do you think there’s any chance in hell those movies would be as strong as Best Picture contenders? Be honest with yourself before you immediately write it off. When I think about these films being about women I get excited at the prospect. But I also know that there are only a small handful of films that do consider women to be interesting enough to allow them complexity. Of that group only one is even marginally being discussed as a Best Picture contender: Gone Girl. But Wild, The Homesman, Maps to the Stars, The Clouds of Sils Maria are the other films that center on women but they are, as of now, nowhere near the Best Picture race.

Let it be known that in the two years the Academy had ten slots for nominations it was much much easier for films about women to get in; perhaps they wouldn’t make the majority of voters’ top five, they could at least crack their top ten. Look at 2010 alone: Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are All Right (also directed by women), Black Swan, True Grit. Now look at 2009 – An Education, The Hurt Locker (2 films directed by women), Precious and The Blind Side.

Very soon thereafter, in 2011, 2012, 2013 – things went back to “normal” and we have The Help, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zero Dark Thirty and Gravity. In three years, four films in total that center on a female character versus seven in two years. Kind of weird, right?

Now, we have another year where theoretically and quite probably 100% of the films in the Best Picture race will center solely on a male protagonist and that protagonist will be surrounded by strong supporting female characters who are now being called leads. Remember, you don’t measure it by screen time but rather how the plot turns and on whom.

Over at Indiewire, Wloszczyna’s Big O column is entitled “Stand by Your Man and Grab That Oscar Nomination.” Indeed, this is a familiar trope in Oscar Best Picture lately, and certainly was the case when Lawrence won for Silver Linings Playbook. That role – the supporting wife or love interest – has been traditionally put in the supporting category, like Marcia Gay Harden in Pollock or Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind – but because there are SO FEW films headed into the Oscar race that even have females in them at all let alone LEAD females, it has become necessary to turn supporting parts into leads.

To Felicity Jones’ and The Theory of Everything’s credit, the movie is almost more Jane’s story than it is Stephen’s. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors and it more than explores her own experience being married to a man who changed the world. But. Still. We’re talking about a woman being famous for being married to a famous man.

Is it any wonder journalists and op-ed writers are exploding with commentary about Gone Girl? Is it any wonder I am? The scarcity of a major motion picture aimed at adults – and adult women that isn’t a romantic comedy or a YA film – is astonishing to those of us old enough to remember that it wasn’t always this way. Gone Girl will shatter expectations at the box office and, god willing, be nominated for many Oscars – but hey, it is the only film written by a woman, produced by and starring women – give the collective time to obliterate it from the race. That’s what’s coming next.

You have to go outside the Best Picture race to find the best performances and usually deep into the independent scene. Tommy Lee Jones is the rare director who chose to cast his entire film with women. While it’s called “The Homesman” and it’s about a man who encounters a woman, the film is really about Hilary Swank’s character. It is propelled by one of Swank’s most vivid performances. Her best gift as an actress is when she is cast as a woman who tries hard to be tougher than she really is. She makes us root for her because we admire her true grit.

The Homesman flips the traditional and modern narrative that the woman is there to help turn the man. While Swank’s Mary B. Cuddy does turn Tommy Lee Jones’ character from an indifferent man to a man who gives a damn (sort of – it’s more ambiguous than that) this is a story about what the settling of the West did to women, not what it did to men. Swank’s character, and the film overall, works in opposition to what we’re constantly being told about what kinds of women are popular in film today: hot, young and able to slip in and out of superhero costumes to continue to draw that PG-13 appeal (translation: tween boys can pop a bone looking a them). Hard-edged, unlikable, courageous and imperfect, Swank’s Cuddy is easily one of the most compelling and remarkable characters of the year. And yet – find me one other writer or critic talking about the film? You know what you hear? The sound of dumbed down Oscar prognostication that only cares if it’s going to go or not go.

Reese Witherspoon is the MVP of this year by having her name on two films as producer – Gone Girl and Wild, two films that are based on source material by women. While Wild may not be a perfect movie and does dwell in that irritating genre of women needing to find themselves, it is nonetheless a richly-told tale of the difficult challenge of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Witherspoon delivers one of her most honest performances – raw, vulnerable and occasionally funny. She carries the entire film and much of the time does so with no dialogue. This film says this woman mattered – what she did mattered. Some writers are talking about the film because they know both Witherspoon and Laura Dern are going to go to the big show.

Two of the best female performances of the year are in Xavier Dolan’s brilliant, expressive Mommy. Indeed, I have been remiss in not including Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément. Anne Dorval’s portrayal of the titular character hails from a tradition of focusing on complex women by Dolan. He gave thanks to Jane Campion at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and said how much she inspired him. Her influence is profoundly felt throughout Mommy. Dolan is one of the brightest young lights in film, long may he reign.

And there is Agata Trzebuchowska in the beautiful Ida, Poland’s entry for the Oscars.

Shailene Woodley is having a profitable year and could find herself in the Best Actress race for The Fault in Our Stars, about a young woman dying of cancer. The Fault in Our Stars has decent reviews – look, you’re not going to find any film this year that stars women burning up the male-driven critics polls. You just aren’t. But 80% on Rotten Tomatoes for this is a pretty good.

Jessica Chastain in Eleanor Rigby may or may not have a shot, but the reviews are (of course) not good so far. Chastain is such a good actress she steals almost any movie she’s in – and with Eleanor Rigby there is an entire film dedicated to her side of the relationship. The buzz for the film feels like it flatlined – of course.

Finally, one of the bigger questions of this year is Amy Adams in Big Eyes. Unfortunately the early word on it wasn’t great but that was from the always unreliable “test screening.” Several pundits have earmarked Amy Adams for a nod, which brings the generally accepted five over at Gold Derby to be:

1. Julianne Moore in Still Alice (a performance I have not yet seen but buzz from Toronto says it’s “the one.”)
2. Amy Adams in Big Eyes a performance most of them have not seen.
3. Reese Witherspoon in Wild – carries the film, produced the film – feels like a cake walk
4. Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl – crazy good work from an actress no one thought capable of going that dark.
5. Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything – surely worthy of a nomination, and a performance that does more than it had to since it is about the woman behind the man.

After that, you have:
6. Jessica Chastain in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
7. Shailene Woodley in The Fault in our Stars
8. Hilary Swank for The Homesman (one of the best performances of the year dumped way down at number 8 – for shame)
9. Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year (not yet seen)
10. Anne Hathaway in Interstellar

Only Anne Thompson, who like me and a few other pundits, only predict what already has been seen has Mia Wasikowska in Tracks.

No one appears to have Emily Blunt on their radar for Into the Woods, not yet anyway. Into the Woods will be full of women but everyone is holding their breath because no one knows how it will turn out.

Predicting films that haven’t yet been seen blocks the potential for films and performances that have been seen. It is a silly practice but one that is accepted across the board (for god knows what reason). It also sets up unrealistic expectations for films and performances overall and suffocates the life out of them if they don’t live up to those expectations.

Nominations are built on buzz and hype. Much of it is leftover buzz from the men in the race or the directors who are “hot” right now, or the popular people (high school all over again). The buzz machine can sometimes predict how the races will go but not always. Some of the time – some magical moments in Oscar history – the most deserving performances get in. Amy Adams in American Hustle besting Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks is not one of those times.

We can hold out hope that things – perception, taste, “relatability” – change. I’m not suggesting critics need to like films that are bad simply because they star women. The best female characters are, of course, on television and tend to be in films made anywhere but here in America. But perhaps if they didn’t get immediately dismissed by critics, perhaps if the newly formed mob of self-made critics didn’t lean so heavily in the direction of boy-friendly fare, of stories that mirror themselves, perhaps they could start seeing women as human beings worthy of being the subject of films.

Kudos this year to David Fincher for holding fast to Gillian Flynn to adapt her own novel and to Christopher Nolan who chose to make Murph a female and not a male in Interstellar. It was a bold choice but when you see Jessica Chastain in the role, one that makes sense. Imagination is the only thing that limits us in terms of how we choose to see women in film.

It’s unfortunate that an article about Best Actress has to turn into yet another rant about the lack of women’s roles but there are so few out there it makes it hard to write about anything else. On the upside, last year’s slate was quite promising in terms of complex and interesting female leads. Perhaps it’s just the luck of the draw this year and not a sign of things to come.

My own predictions:

1. Julianne Moore, Still Alice
2. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
3. Reese Witherspoon, Wild
4. Hilary Swank, The Homesman
5. Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

My instincts tell me to:
watch out for Anne Dorval
Keep a close watch on Emily Blunt and Amy Adams.

How about you readers? What are your five predicted nominees of the films that have been seen versus the ones that haven’t?