Both Julia Roberts and Viola Davis are endlessly watchable stars who command the screen like few others can. Since I was not one of the lucky ones invited to see Widows when it screened here in LA, I must rely only on what people on Twitter are saying about Davis — but I know her work and I know how mesmerizing she is. I have, however, seen Ben is Back and can validate the raves for Roberts’ performance getting raves in Toronto.
Julia Roberts has been acting a long time. She went from effervescent “it” girl, to “trying to prove herself a serious actress,” to winning an Oscar, to raising a family, doing some comedy here and there. But it’s been a while since we’ve seen this much of her in a movie. In Ben is Back Roberts is in almost every shot. The camera is pinned to her the entire time. She mostly tells this story solo of a mother fighting to keep her son alive on one Christmas Eve.
The movie stops just short of putting blame on the mother for problems faced by her son(an excellent Lucas Hedges). That would be the simplistic explanation for his addiction, rather than what the movie depicts — which is, how can kids resist it if drugs are being handed out like candy by doctors who get kickbacks from drug companies, pharmacies who look the other way, and whole towns that have been hit with an opioid crisis they can’t manage.
Roberts is simply brilliant, taking us inside her conflicting waves of emotion in trying to manage her son. Is she tough enough? Loving enough? She has three other children who also need her attention, not to mention a husband (Courtney B. Vance — who could have been given a lot more to do, ditto Kathryn Newton as her daughter). But she knows this is probably it for her son. He is either going to survive the night or not. He is going to get sober or not. If you’ve ever been close to, or loved an addict you know that they have only two options. Get sober or die.
According to the New York Times, 72,000 people died from overdosing on opioids last year. Writer/Director Peter Hedges wants people to know that a large part of the blame has to be laid at the feet of the drug companies who continue to prescribe pain killers for people who do not need them. He also does a good job showing how your whole life can be a spider’s web that keeps you trapped in a cycle you can’t break free from. Everywhere you go, everyone you know are all somehow connected to that world. Lucas Hedges spends much of the film struggling with both his desire to escape and take drugs and his desire to come back to the world of the living, with his mother and his beloved dog.
Can Julia Roberts break through and become one of the nominated five? Can Viola Davis, who has received raves for her performance in Widows? Well, let’s look at the Best Actress race so far.
Who seems most solid for a nomination right now?
The strongest contenders right now seem to be:
Lady Gaga, A Star is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Nicole Kidman, Destroyer
Viola Davis, Widows
Glenn Close, The Wife
Julia Roberts, or Olivia Colman for The Favourite, or Yalitza Aparicio for Roma are going to have to knock out one of more of these five.
And all of this before we even get to the performances no one has yet seen, like Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Kiki Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk, Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots…
At this point, I suppose it might come down to three things. 1) How much walking the line and kissing babies are they going to do, and 2) how aggressive will the publicists be, and 3) which, if any, will the critics push as they are wont to do at times? Remember their efforts for Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Rampling, etc.
The critics will need someone they feel cool about pushing. Thus, likely someone who is otherwise being “ignored.” Who will that be? It’s hard to say.
I guess, if I had to pick right now, I’d go with:
- Lady Gaga, A Star is Born
- Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me
- Viola Davis, Widows
- Saoirse Ronan, Mary Queen of Scots
- Julia Roberts, Ben is Back
Why Julia over everyone else? Well, for one thing, it’s just a guess. For another thing, she delivers the goods and then some, for a third thing — girlfriend’s got a lot of friends in town. She’s plugged into the George Clooney/Brad Pitt/Matt Damon/Tom Hanks/Mike Nichols faction of the Hollywood tribe. So yeah.