While the men characters are doing things like cutting off their arms to survive, creating a social networking revolution, learning to give speeches and becoming king of England while doing so, winning boxing matches, robbing banks and getting the girl – the women are coming apart. Many of them, anyway. There are a few strong oaks in the mix – Ree from Winter’s Bone and Nic from The Kids Are All Right (note that these are both written and directed by women). The stronger female leads, where the women are kicking ass and taking names, don’t seem to be featured as prominently as the crazy ones – Naomi Watts in Fair Game, Hilary Swank in Conviction. This year, we like them shaking and crazy.
Herewith, the top five craziest female characters in the Oscar race:
05. Lesley Manville, Another Year
It is the brilliance of Lesley Manville that her kind of crazy is not one you get inside easily. You have to first get past your own judgment of her. She is a person you would naturally shy away from if you worked with her or happened to bump into her in the market or the bank. If you’re a woman, she will be nervous and competitive. If you are a man you’re automatically a potential date. She never stops talking about herself because she is a black hole of need. If it isn’t happening to her it isn’t happening at all. But if this was all to the performance, it wouldn’t be one of the best this year. Buried underneath, of course, is a vulnerability. Many of our year’s crazy ladies have a soft underbelly, but Manville’s is probably the most heartbreaking. She is really just a girl, someone who never grew up and never was able to satiate her need for approval and love. You really do just want to hug her throughout the film, even if she is ultimately destructive.
04. Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Leo is the kind of actress you never see coming. Every time she shows up in a film she gives a wildly different performance. As the mother of both Dicky and Micky, the king and would-be king of Lowell, Mass, she is perhaps seen as the force that drags both of her sons down. The older son, Christian Bale, because she never holds him accountable for anything. And the younger son because he isn’t the older son. Chain smoking, whiskey swilling, frosted lipsticked with a bad dye job, Leo seemed like the best and the worst of what Lowell’s women aspire to. Is this an unfair depiction of the real mother? I’m not sure. But what she taps into on screen is a running theme this year: mothers living through and for their children in a boundary-crossing, overstepping way. Leo goes so far into crazy, in fact, that it is difficult to reign it back in when Mark Wahlberg’s character decides that he wants his family in his life.¬† She does pull back a bit from both her favoritism of Christian Bale’s character and her need to totally dominate Mickey’s life. Leo is an actress who is never afraid to “go there” and she throws it all into this performance. You won’t likely forget her.
03. Barbara Hershey, Black Swan
Speaking of mothers living through their children, Barbara Hershey plays one of the spectrum of females in Black Swan, all of them seeming to be a part of one whole person. To me, Black Swan so wonderfully captures the difficulty in being female at all – aging, sexuality, the desire and pressure to be perfect – the mother, the slut, the virgin, the daughter, the child, the hasbeen – every fracture is represented beautifully by these dark-haired women. There is Winona Ryder, who does crazy beautifully, and there is Barbara Hershey. Hershey is usually cast as the sweet girlfriend, smiling, happy, spiritual. But here, her inner psycho comes out. Of the many great scenes she has, the best one is when she falls apart over her daughter’s refusal to eat a princessy birthday cake she bought for her. Hershey plays so many different things at once – fakehappy, scared, worried, angry – they all play out on her face during that scene. Of all of the crazy women we’ve seen this year, other than Jacki Weaver, Hershey is the most frightening. She is, after all, the basis for her daughter’s ultimate demise. What a great film. What a sense of the female psyche.
02. Jackie Weaver, Animal Kingdom
Speaking of suffocating, protective mothers, Jacki Weaver, “You’ve done some bad things, sweetie” in Animal Kingdom is one of the most hard to shake. She kisses her sons full on the mouth. She guards them the way a mother bear is the wilderness – what is the most feared animal in nature? A mother protecting her young. It isn’t called Animal Kingdom for nothing. The difference with this, though, is that her sons are grown. When a parent refuses to let go as all three of these mothers — Weaver, Hershey and Leo — do, it can cause irreparable harm. There has to be a point when they let go. The great thing about Weaver’s work, though, is how subtle it is. It takes a while to get to the bottom of her mania. She starts out sweet enough, as though she is the one who needs protecting. But as the film goes on, and her sons are threatened, you see her turn. It’s chilling, right up there with the best bad mothers ever – Piper Laurie in Carrie, etc.
01. Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Poor Nina. All of her craziness resides within until it starts to manifest, like a parasite or a deadly virus. It crawls out of his skin, it feeds her with dangerous illusions about her flesh and her feet. Images of herself looking back at her haunt her every moment. When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back at you. Every time she turns her head and looks at someone, she doesn’t know who she is going to see. She is afraid of the parts of herself that are emerging, her black swan breaking through the skin. Portman is so exact in this transformation. Even though these are her own imaginings, we never doubt they are real. To her. Portman is the opposite of Annette Bening and Jennifer Lawrence. These women are standing strong when faced with challenges. Bening’s character isn’t ever going to be brought down, not by anything. And one could say the same thing about Jennifer Lawrence: if her murdered father and her catatonic mother aren’t going to chase her off into a world of drugs, nothing is ever going to. But Nina is strong in her own way. She can accomplish what is she most desires – to triumph as she dances Swan Lake. ¬† But in so doing, she has to overcome that which holds her back – one crazy mother and her own lunatic fringe.
What does it mean that there are such strong women breaking down? Hard to know. How the Academy and industry responds to them might tell us a bit more about how they fit into the context of 2010. What is interesting to me, though, is the juxtaposition to the male characters. There are some crazy male characters for sure, but someone they are afforded more heroism eventually.
Other crazy females of note this year:
Marion Cotillard in Inception
Michelle Williams in Shutter Island
Olivia Williams in The Ghost Writer