Rooney Mara

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The race for Best Actress has not yet gotten started but looking over the year’s slate, finding five nominees should be easier than it’s been in a while. It already looks like a competitive season, with most of the big performances yet to be seen.  Already, Rooney Mara in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Julie Delpy in Before Midnight and Berenice Bejo in The Past have made an impression, but the year ahead will also bring us leading roles by Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Emma Thompson, Nicole Kidman, Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett, to name a few.

The race for Supporting Actress also looks strong so far, with performances by Octavia Spencer in Fruitvale Station, June Squibb in Nebraska, Kristin Scott-Thomas in Only God Forgives, and Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now already having been seen, and Catherine Keener in Captain Phillips, Julianne Moore in Carrie, Amy Adams or Jennifer Lawrence for American Hustle,  Carrie Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis, Oprah Winfrey in The Butler, Naomie Harris in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (again, might be campaigned as lead) still to come.

All in all, that makes 2013 a better than decent year for actresses, but particularly for those older than 40.  Is there a winner yet or even a frontrunner? Most would probably say Meryl Streep for August: Osage County, and indeed, Streep is the best there is. With two lead Actress Oscars and one Supporting, Streep could very well win her third lead Oscar as she approaches Katharine Hepburn territory.  But Cate Blanchett has never won lead, and neither has Annette Bening, and either of them could lean toward achieving that honor this year, theoretically. All of the other major names that might be in the race have already won at least one Oscar — Roberts, Kidman, etc.

Usually the two most exciting Oscar categories are Best Picture or Best Actress. There isn’t usually enough oxygen in the room for both to burn with equal passion. This year, Best Actress might be where all the heat is. But let’s go through the contenders that rise to the top so far, bearing in mind that other names and other performance could break through.

The Powerhouses

Meryl Streep, August: Osage County, who should bring the roof down in August: Osage County, might be looking at her 18th Oscar nomination and potential 4th win. Streep, who is probably the best actor who ever worked in Hollywood, male or female, doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.   Her win for the Iron Lady was recent, and who knows how the critics will respond to Osage County (not to mention theater purists).  Those factors could be potential obstacles. But first and foremost, Streep always fills up the screen and never turns in a lazy or uninteresting performance.

Julia Roberts, August: Osage County, who might be campaigned in supporting to give more room for Streep. But the trailer indicates that Roberts is the lead, and those who’ve seen the play all say Roberts and Streep are both co-leads.  So it will just depend on how the film’s received, how well Roberts stands up to Ms. Streep, and how well the film is liked overall.  Is Roberts getting better as she gets older? She seems to be more comfortable in her own skin and this young Southern woman is close to home for her (though Roberts is from Georgia).

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Another incarnation for Mara, and a lead role for a woman – the rarest thing in mainstream film now.

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Rooney Mara covers Vogue with Garbo-like allure and inside some tidbits about Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, which will hit the Berlin Film Fest (Feb 7-17), it’s just been announced.

In Side Effects, Mara takes on the role of the wife of a hapless insider trader, played by Channing Tatum. When he is released from prison, brimming with plans to rebuild their once-golden life together, Mara’s character descends into bleak depression, apparently fueled by an unscrupulous doctor’s careless administration of prescription drugs. Mara’s nuanced performance illuminates a movie whose unexpected twists and revelations owe a debt to Hitchcock at his sliest.

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Men Who Hate Women. That’s what Stieg Larsson called his book, which then became The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. To know this story is to know Larsson. If you forget about him, the key to this story is lost. The story is about men who hate women and the women who fight back. Larsson was a bit of a hero in this and other battles he personally fought throughout his very short life. He was against the extreme right in Sweden, against racism and misogyny.  After witnessing the rape of the a 15 year old girl named Lisbeth, he never forgave himself for failing to help her.  This, it’s been said, was what motivated him to write his books.  A Swedish film did a great job of turning his book into a movie that was sold in countries all over the world. So why remake it at all?

Because a story about a female avenging those men who hate women is more relevant now that it ever has been. In fact, it’s downright revolutionary. The only kind of women we see are those who are unrealistic comic book heroes, or those who are trussed up as ultimate fantasy fodder for gamers. It’s getting worse, not better.

So, you could do as many a critic will no doubt suggest, not remake the movie. Let it just sit out there in Sweden as “their story.” Or, a popular American director like David Fincher can make Dragon Tattoo redux – he can take this well known story, render it with an obsessive’s eye, redefine its archetypical characters and most importantly, give a much wider audience the chance to experience the film’s gravitational center: Lisbeth Salander.

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Three of the year’s strongest female performances threaten convention, the one that says females are usually cast as supporting, loving, noble characters who give of themselves in the service of the male lead.  It’s not always the case, especially not so in the Best Actress race; what better way to get attention from Oscar voters than to go dark.

But in a year of such uplifting, feelgood films with admirable male leads, it’s interesting that when you look over at Best Actress, the reverse is true. With the exception of Viola Davis in The Help, the females are either not likable, or existing in their own ways on the fringes of the norm.  However, because women are a minority, they are always going to be held to the good role model/bad role model test.  Men, unless they’re Black or Hispanic, don’t really get held to this restriction.  But women – the dark always turns to whether women can be unlikable and still be strong Best Actress contenders.  Such was the case last year with Natalie Portman who played a prickly dancer in Black Swan.  Her ability to drive the story, to earn our pity and to fascinate us with every turn of her head inevitably won out — the warm fuzzies didn’t.

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Rooney Mara has got me by the balls. She’s tasered me, straddled my face, and inked her embodiment of Lisbeth Salander into my head.  Unlike the scumbag recipient of her vengeance in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I’m honored that she’s left her mark on me.  I’m tagged and branded as a fiend for this film, and I don’t care who knows it,  Rooney Mara is the Lisbeth I had in my minds-eye when I read Stieg Larsson’s novel three years ago. Steve Zaillian’s script strips the story down to the lean machine I wish that book had been — but it was never about the story. The Vanger case is only the bait we bite so that Lisbeth can get her hook in us.

Rooney Mara takes that hook and sharpens the barb to deadly perfection.  It’s my favorite performance by any actress this year.

For anyone who feels the same indelible attraction, The New Yorker‘s David Denby articulates Mara’s hypnotic appeal:

Mara’s eyes, mostly unlined and isolated in her face, which has been chalked into a pale mask, express need as well as anger. Despite the spectacular athleticism of the subway scene—a single, continuous line of action—her physical presence is more approachable, more womanly (in the conventional sense) than Rapace’s. When her Lisbeth has sex with Blomkvist, the connection moves a little closer to a regular love affair. It’s true that Mara straddles Daniel Craig and drives toward her orgasm like a teenage boy, but, afterward, she looks at him with something like tenderness. There’s a hint of something more… something like an open admission of need, something like a bond.

Critics have scattered in all directions this year, clutching to obvious choices like ants grappling for the biggest crumbs after their anthill was stomped by last year’s oxen.  When the American Film Institute named The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo one of the 10 Movies of the Year, the film got a lot of prestigious traction.  But then momentum seemed to spin away in more predictable directions. No matter. What we know by now is this: Critics are risk-averse this season. None of them want to be standing with their dicks in their hands like last year, so most of them have been playing it safe.

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Here is something you don’t come across every day.  As we head into an Oscar season that is mostly going to be, once again, about white male protagonists it was refreshing to come across this site, Confessions of a Female Filmmaker and her review of The Dragon Tattoo.  Nicole Davis is a 23 year old filmmaker who has wanted to be a director since she was 13.  Here’s to hoping when the time comes the industry will be open and available for her.  So much of success now is built on instant celebrity but here is a smart up and comer — we wish her the best.  She writes about Dragon Tattoo:

Despite the big names involved in this film,  don’t expect that traditional Hollywood gloss. This film is raw and some people might be a bit disturbed by a few scenes. As an adaptation, the film is great because it stands on its own as a great piece of art. Fincher is a master of capturing the under belly of modern culture, he does it so well in fact, that you wish you could live in the dark worlds he creates.

And about Rooney Mara:

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IndieWire’s bi-weekly feature “Critical Consensus” asks EW’s Owen Gleiberman and Elle magazine’s Karen Durbin about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the culture of Top 10 lists. It’s a great discussion, worth your time to read to to bottom. (We’ll let this post serve as an open thread to share your own reactions to TGWTDT, for those who see it today.) Here’s Gleiberman comparing Fincher’s adaptation to the original, and floating a “feminist conspiracy theory.”

ERIC KOHN: Owen, you’ve awarded Fincher’s movie an “A” in your review, while calling the previous version “dutifully effective” but inferior. What makes Fincher’s version so much better?

OWEN GLEIBERMAN: There’s been a sort of raging pre-release debate, most of it online, about the Swedish version vs. the Fincher remake. And to me, at least, it’s kind of funny that the whole discussion is trapped in a paradigm—the original was “pure and artistic,” the Hollywood version is “unnecessary”—that seems almost exactly the opposite of what’s true. The Swedish film was, of course, very faithful to the book, and it got the job done (I enjoyed it a lot). But come on, people—it’s such a prosaic and rather functional piece of filmmaking. And it will probably be seen, at least in the United States, by about one-thirtieth the number of people who see Fincher’s version. If you really look at it, there’s a kind of indie-rock-snob, I saw it first and I’m cool mystique embedded in the over-lionizing of the Swedish version. As a movie, it lacks mood, style, visual poetry and danger.

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Jeff Wells has gone to bat for Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady:

You can dribble the Viola Davis basketball all over the court and shoot swish shots to your heart’s content, but that won’t change the fact that Meryl Streep’s freakishly dead-on performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (Weinstein, 12.30) seems like a much more likely winner of the Best Actress Oscar right now. As far as I’m concerned it’s a Streep vs. Michelle Williams (i.e., as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn) contest with Davis half-elbowed aside.

There is no doubt that Streep turns in yet another brilliant impersonation with The Iron Lady. At some point while watching her in the film you forget completely that you’re watching Meryl Streep doing Margaret Thatcher and you feel like you are really watching Margaret Thatcher — and all of the good and bad that goes along with that. It’s sort of the same quandary Leonardo DiCaprio finds himself in in J. Edgar. We believe he’s J. Edgar. But then we have to deal with our feelings about J. Edgar.

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Why does it seem like the beginning of October is already too late to push through an Oscar contender?  If you’re a big star in a big movie you’re already on the radar of those who write about Oscar buzz, a thing that increasingly has no there to it.  But if you’ve just given the performance of your life in a movie nobody has seen how does your publicist get enough people to see your performance to find a spot for you in the already crowded acting or Best Picture categories?

This moment in the Oscar race is what I always think of as the Million Dollar Baby zone.  Clint Eastwood brought that film in at a time when there were less media outlets focused on the race, as many of them are now, and when those of us who were focused on the race – it was like me, David Poland, Tom O’Neil and Kris Tapley and a few others – had our radars tuned to The Aviator, which seemed, at the time, like it might finally be Martin Scorsese’s big Oscar win (he would later go on to win big with The Departed, nothing less than one of the best films ever to win the award).  But then people saw Million Dollar Baby. I’ll never forget reading Poland’s site the day after that screening — there was simply no question what movie was going to win and win big.

What I now wonder looking back at those seemingly innocent times, with all of the chatter we have now, so many hunters stalking Oscar prey, where the demand far exceeds the supply, would we have already been well aware that Million Dollar Baby would have been the big Oscar winner? Would it be showing up on Oscar charts as the de facto frontrunner? So much has changed since then.

Either way, and for whatever reason, after Toronto it always feels like the window of opportunity to break through gets smaller and smaller as the days go by.  If you’re not considered a major contender already, by October, your chances are slim.  But they’re not zero.  Late entries can sometimes shake up the race, like The Reader did when it bumped The Dark Knight, altering Oscar history while doing so.

On today’s Off the Carpet column, Kris Tapley looks at the Best Actor race, but specifically at those performances that could be overlooked.  I had no idea he was writing this, and I was writing a similar piece at the same time (great minds…) only mine covers Best Picture and Actress too (albeit not as thoroughly as Kris…).  So you want to head over there to In Contention to read that piece.  

Oscar buzz is now and has always been something undefinable – it’s like sexual attraction: you know it when you feel it.

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There probably isn’t a better actress working in Hollywood who hasn’t yet won an Oscar than Glenn Close.  Charlize Theron, Jennifer Connelly, Jennifer Hudson, Marisa Tomei, Sandra Bullock have all collected their Oscars.  So to say that Close’s Oscar worthy role in Albert Nobbs is a long time overdue is to spotlight the obvious.  Oscar voters like to think that they vote for the most deserving in a given year with little regard to whether they’ve won before or not.  However, their voting history, upon closer inspection, reveals their preferences year in and year out.  What does winning an Oscar really mean? It means that, in any given year, the Academy “liked” the actress, the character she plays or in some cases their actual performance itself enough to vote for them.  It is an anonymous vote with no consequences attached.  No one is ever accountable for their choices because it is THEIR club.  But few actresses have done more to earn a place in that club than Glenn Close, which is why it seems odd that so far an Oscar win has eluded her.   It’s hard to not cry foul when you look at the performances she’s turned in – one brilliant, expressive performance after the next.

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