It is said that well behaved women seldom make history. That is true of most of the strongest performances in the Best Actress race this year. They are women who take matters into their own hands, going outside the law or the system to achieve what the system would never have offered them.
Twisted up with grief and torment, Frances McDormand’s Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, wakes up one day with the truth that no one is going to bother trying to find the perp who raped and murdered her daughter. They didn’t have the best relationship. Mildred’s limitations as an imperfect, impulsive, angry person infected every aspect of her life. With a husband chasing a 19-year-old, a well-lined face. and a growing frustration with the stifling backwoods culture of Ebbing, Mildred reaches her breaking point. Her big red billboards say what she needs to say as loudly as possible to cause maximum embarrassment for local law enforcement. She can’t bring her daughter back. She can’t make the haunting images of what might have happened to her go away. She’s wracked with guilt that she wasn’t there to protect her child and lives with that irrational torment. But she can sure as shit bring the monster that did it to justice. Or else die trying.
McDormand’s Mildred is such a shocking character to emerge in cinema in 2017. She is anything but politically correct and definitely needs sensitivity training with the words she uses. She is not meant to be our role model for head of the PTA or town mayor. But there she is anyway, a real life complex character written by Martin McDonagh, to rage against a slow-moving police force and a town that has taken way too long to confront its own racism and ineffectual law enforcement.
McDormand’s work over the years have given us so many unique, memorable characters, like Dot in Raising Arizona, Mrs. Pell in Mississippi Burning, the hilarious Linda Litzke in Burn After Reading, Olive Kitteridge, and of course, Marge in Fargo, her only Oscar win. How do you even reconcile an actress who can do Marge and Mildred? They sit on opposite sides of the world. Mildred can’t settle in to a calm and serene life like Marge can. Mildred flails around, insults people, alienates them. Marge mothers and nurtures them, but still gets the bad guys in the end. McDormand has the array of the human experience inside her and she brings that sensitivity, observational detail and intelligence to her work, carving out distinct, memorable characters as works of art.
While McDormand’s point of view is that of a valiant mother, two other actresses this year play characters who must escape the clutches of mothers who threaten to destroy them, even when their intentions are good. Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding in I, Tonya is born with a talent and a desire to skate her way out of the extreme poverty she’s born into. Like Mildred, Tonya is gifted with a shit existence from the start. There is no real way out of it except to ignore the barriers placed in front of her and just do what she does best: skate her way out of it. So skate she does, all the while being held back, smacked around by her broken, diseased mother (an excellent Alison Janney). Robbie has never before had a chance to show us she was this good of an actress. That’s because she has never been required to do all that much except play the impossibly pretty girl. To prove that she can act she had to do something about her blinding beauty. Disguising herself with weird hair, weight gain, braces — sure, that helps. But Robbie pulls off this performance with far more than makeup. She finds her inner Tonya, her face awash in a battle between her own self-confidence and her fears of inadequacy. In every frame of the film, Robbie’s face displays that internal war. We find ourselves rooting for the part of her that knows she is better than the character description given to her at birth. She was never going to be let into the world of class and sophistication. Like Mildred, she is who she is and there isn’t anything that’s going to change that. What an inspiring surprise Robbie’s work is in this film.
The third character in this year’s race whose mother looms large is Brooklynn Prince as the adorable Moonee in The Florida Project. We live life through her eyes, a child whose happiness is made entirely of her own creation. No Magical Kingdom required. Disneyland is a place where princesses are rescued and live happily ever because of a handsome prince. Well, Moonee is being raised by one such young woman (an excellent Bria Vinaite) and there is no prince charming coming to rescue them. She loves her mother and her mother loves her, but there is just no way Halley can give little Moonee any kind of normal life where she’ll thrive. But both mother and daughter must work outside the system to eke out a little bit of fun and happiness. They flirt with disaster. The Florida Project is a film about broken people, people who live in extreme poverty in a country that should be looking out for them. Moonee isn’t a well behaved kid but she isn’t a bad kid either. Like Tonya Harding, hers is never going to be an easy life. We hope she makes it. We don’t know if she will.
Another character full of promise is Jessica Chastain’s Molly Bloom, a Russian Jew with a name out of a James Joyce novel whose Olympic dreams of being a competitive skier were cut short with an injury. But she was always too smart to just sit around. What do you when your brain is addicted to the adrenaline of a superstar athlete and now has to pretend law school is interesting? As ill fortune would have it, she accidentally finds herself in the world of high powered backroom poker games. As a high achiever, she brings that gift to working the games, making them more profitable and exciting than ever before. But she isn’t the one making money. There’s a guy, of course. Once he’s out of the way, Molly runs her own games. She’s making piles of cash, living a life she could never have imagined. But we know how this ends. We know that in our world women like this are almost never allowed to climb so fast, or acquire any real power. Partly of her own doing (drugs, carelessness) and partly due to a culture that was not prepared to deal with the likes of her, Molly takes a stumble. She does it on her own terms, refusing to name names, refusing to finish out her life the tragedy everyone seems to want. Chastain has never been better — in an already impressive career. Her work, like McDormand’s, is an array of opposition. Frail or troubled women like those in The Help and Tree of Life; sturdy, fiery badasses, like Miss Sloane; and now, Molly Bloom. It’s as though these parts could never exist without Chastain to play them. In the end, Molly’s story is a lot like Tonya’s and maybe Mildred’s. She learns to live with herself, as is, imperfect perhaps, but shining like a crazy diamond all the same.
Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito has never been the kind of person who would ever think of breaking the rules. She exists, as does her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), toiling a invisible cleaning women emptying trash cans and cleaning the piss off of toilets. You get to know a lot about people when you clean up after them. For Elisa, love is something meant for other people, “normal” people, people who can, at least, speak. Elisa can’t. She must listen until she meets the creature pulled from the water captured by Michael Shannon. Elisa is brought unexpectedly into the world of love, bonding with the one life form that responds to her. But if the movie ended there she would not be a subversive heroine, just a lovestruck protagonist. Elisa, with the help of Zelda, must jailbreak the creature, hide him from the government and return him to his natural home. She is caught between her selfish needs and doing the right thing. But in this world, the suffocating oppressive America of the 1950s, doing the right thing often meant going against law enforcement and the government. There is no question for Elisa. Love trumps all. The Shape of Water is one of the most romantic films in the race this year, but it’s romance comes from its subversiveness — both in how it depicts the well of desire within most women, how unquenchable it can sometimes be, and how it depicts an America that did not allow for different kinds of people. Homophobia, racism, fascism, paranoia — Del Toro combines these themes behind the central love story to illustrate how in times of oppression, standing up for what’s right often requires subversion.
Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King finds herself a great tennis player with bigger ambitions than living in the women’s tennis diorama American sports laid out for her. Like Tonya Harding, she finds that to compete at anything in America women are expected to follow a certain set of rules about how they should look and talk, what kind of men they’re supposed to marry. Battle of the Sexes is only partly about the cultural event of the day when the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs became banner headlines. Really, it’s about a woman breaking free from the dishonest life she’s bought into and discovering that being gay is her salvation and not the curse that she’s been taught to hide. It would become one of America’s biggest cultural touchstones back then — for women in sports, for feminism, for gay rights. This moment in time that captures a young and slightly confused woman who can hit the shit out of the tennis ball but who must act subversively to find happiness or love. It’s hard to imagine it now since the gay community has revolutionized social consciousness and abolished those strict rules about staying in the closet. If 1973 Billie Jean King could have seen what the country would look like thirty years later she would never have believed it. Rather than deny what she knows to be true about herself she begins an affair that will eventually carve a path towards a more truthful, courageous out and proud identity.
Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird finds herself caught somewhere between being the kid her parents want her to be — accepting an ordinary life in Sacramento — and chasing an inner whirlwind of big dreams of big places, of people who pursue and achieve different things. She isn’t content to simply find a husband, a decent job, take out a mortgage and raise a family — not that there’s anything wrong with that. But for lady Bird, the fire within her cannot be extinguished and it will take her places, whether people approve of it or not. She is called Lady Bird because it’s two things at once. It’s “lady,” which can be interpreted as a somewhat pretentious or highfalutin term for a woman and “bird,” which is a metaphor for someone who wants to fly, but maybe launches out of the nest before she’s ready. The two things at once describe this odd, imperfect person we’re introduced to by the brilliant Greta Gerwig, out of whose mind and heart and past this Lady Bird has flown. It’s just one mistake after another, one rule broken after another, one stumble after another. When will Lady Bird’s life settle into something that will keep her safe? her mother worries. The battle between them, how the mother has to be the uptight bitch while the father gets to be the understanding pal rings so true for so many. Still, without misbehaving, without doing everything wrong, this character would go nowhere. She would have to snuff out her internal combustion engine, learn to live with it. Gerwig has said that her Lady Bird is that rare teenage girl who is bursting with confidence. And that certainly comes through, although it comes off at times as pretension and arrogance. But that’s really the point. We’re just not used to seeing these kinds of women on screen. We’re much more comfortable with the completely opposite character Ronan played in Brooklyn. Polite, pretty, slightly daring but no live wire. She leaves home like Lady Bird does but she’s really doing it because she has no other choice. Lady Bird is doing it despite every reason why she shouldn’t. What a fascinating character Gerwig and Ronan have given us — complex, strange, diffuse and only by the end do we see her vulnerability. We know then what might be in store for her and we’re glad she’s prepared for whatever might hurdle at her on her flight.
While this year’s Best Actress race is full of so many contenders from early in the year, like Salma Hayek in Beatriz at Dinner, and Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman, and even Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper, the women that seem to be capturing the zeitgeist or buzz or excitement right now are the ones who push outward from the barriers that hold them down — characters who do not accept the lot they’ve been given. They reject it outright and in so doing challenge a system that has long since been invested in locking them out.