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.
But this year feels entirely different. Our lives are different than they were a year ago. Our tastes, or perhaps our needs are different. How will that impact this year’s race in the Best Actress category?
The three frontrunners right now are Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, Viola Davis for The Help and Michelle Williams for My Week with Marilyn. At least it feels that way. Davis because she stars in a $160 million dollar film that is expected to make the Best Pic cut, especially after its showing at the SAGs. But Streep is giving her a real race, bittersweet for both women, probably — for Davis, Streep is her lifelong idol. For Streep, she’s the one who pleaded with Hollywood to give Viola Davis a movie. Well, she got that movie.
Meryl Streep this year is getting the full Weinstein treatment. One of the reasons he does as well as he does in the Oscar race is that the Oscars are mostly driven by actors. And Weinstein does right by his actors. He will go all out. Streep is on the cover of Vogue this month. She was on 60 Minutes. She was bestowed with a Kennedy Center honor. For every negative that has come up, she has come back with a positive. For an actress who is rarely in controversial films, Ms. Streep finds herself in one this year — and much of that controversy has little to do with Streep herself and more to do with Thatcher. On the other hand, that very controversy might finally give Streep that third Oscar win, that second Best Actress win, that has thus far eluded her.
Looking back at Oscar history, when the only Best Actress candidate in a Best Picture nominee doesn’t win she loses to a vet usually who has never been honored. While I used to think Viola Davis had the thing sewn up, watching the Meryl Streep publicity machine rolling full steam ahead I don’t know if that’s possible anymore. What Streep has lacked up to now is that kind of push. She isn’t going to do it for herself because clearly this is a woman who does not care about winning another Oscar. She really doesn’t. She is a gracious, intelligent, humble person — if she wanted to win again, she’d probably have won again by now. One of the coolest things about her is that you know she wants Viola Davis to win. You just know she does.
Streep’s biggest problem appears to be the unlikability of Margaret Thatcher, particularly whether she is a good role model for women. But is that really fair?
Recently, Thelma Adams proposed the notion that Margaret Thatcher was an unlikely feminist but a feminist nonetheless. We all hashed it out over Facebook with both opinions strongly supported. The first, that Thatcher, despite her ideology, climbed the ranks of the male-dominated British political society and that feminism should be determined by one’s political beliefs.
What we have here is a controversial woman in power (and a meaty character onscreen) whose rise was all the more remarkable because she was a grocer’s daughter who attended Oxford University, where she got an incredible education in both academics and class snobbery. Thatcher as written (and in reality) was a woman, wife, mother, and leader who drove her own destiny. She was a women’s libber role model without embracing the feminist movement.
Adams makes her point very well when she adds:
Resistance to The Iron Lady as a whole, rather than simply a single Streep performance, reflects unspoken but existing conflicts. Liberal viewers are not supposed to like this woman, but if we get wrapped up in the story as we should, then we do. If we deny her humanity, what does that say about our own politics? If women can’t recognize her struggle to make a difference outside the home simply because her beliefs are at odds with ours, what does that say about our notions of inclusiveness? Love her or hate her, Thatcher was the rare decisive woman in power who fearlessly took unpopular and difficult stands that she thought right, darn the costs of popularity among voters, the media, and her colleagues.
I took the opposite position because, frankly, all roads like that inevitably lead to Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. They are, to me, anti-family, anti-rights, anti-mother, and therefore, they work against what feminists fight for. But I’m willing to admit I’m wrong. I agree that Streep will heap the resentment built up from years of hatred against Thatcher. To its credit, The Iron Lady doesn’t try an image makeover, as The Queen (successfully) did. But I don’t think resentment against the Queen for her treatment of Diana can equal resentment towards Thatcher for her treatment of Ireland. What I do know is this — it may be every bit as feminist to hate Thatcher, and Streep’s portrayal along with it, because it means you aren’t making allowances simply BECAUSE she’s a woman. Isn’t this why Lynne Ramsay isn’t being considered a Best Director nominee? Because no one wants to give her allowances for being a woman?
The Iron Lady has more problems, though, than Thatcher’s image. Neither the movie, nor Streep, can seem to decide which side its on. And therefore, we can’t really either. In the absence of any strong point of view we are left with: it took stones to take on that job, but the only thing that really mattered to her in the end was her husband. Yeah, so what else is new?
Moving on to Charlize Theron in Young Adult, another supposed woman acting outside the norm of typical female characters — how disappointing to find that being a complex character meant drinking until you pass out, ignoring your dog, and trying to steal another woman’s man. There was nothing interesting or exceptional about Mavis, as conceived by Diablo Cody, except that she wasn’t nice. Aren’t women always supposed to be nice? Adams, on Facebook, said that it was refreshing to see a female character who wasn’t. But in their quest to present a not nice woman they created a one-dimensional character and thus, not a believable one. While I appreciate movies about men who are monsters, there has to be more to them than just the one thing. Like Michael Corleone in Godfather II. He has Fredo killed at the end. He’s a monster. But he’s also a guy who cares about his kids, loved his wife, loved his dad — he had complexities within him that were at odds. Mavis doesn’t appear to — and in the end, that makes for a boring central character. Give the audience SOMETHING to work with. As a result, the only character worthwhile in the whole movie is Patton Oswalt. In their attempt to give a woman a diverse part, they end up flipping the film back in the direction of the male character, by default, because human beings aren’t interested in one-dimensional assholes like Mavis.
Nor are we particularly interested in one-dimensional assholes like the girl that Buddy marries. She’s boring too because she’s too perfect. Somewhere between those women is a great character. Diablo Cody has said that she is Mavis – and went on and on about narcissism in our culture. And indeed, there are moments where Mavis, passed out on the bed, is watching the Kardashians. That narcissism, though, is never really explored in the movie. She doesn’t spend a lot of time on herself – like endlessly checking Facebook to see who liked her comments or photos, putting up pretty pictures of herself everywhere and checking comments. Narcissism is everywhere in our culture and yet it’s barely explored the least bit in Young Adult. But it is funny on occasion.
Having said that, both Meryl Streep and Charlize Theron knock it out of the park with their performances. Brilliant turns by both women in films that could have been better. Streep is particularly good as the aging Thatcher — acting with her whole body. She plays the leader from her younger days up through her last days. There is no question that Streep can nail the accent and the mannerisms. But there is deep emotion coming through in every scene, even though critics of the film have said that the one thing about Thatcher is that she wasn’t an emotional person in the least bit. This is why it’s interesting to have an American play her as opposed to a Brit. Don’t we Americans display our sloppy emotions all over the place where the Brits are known for keeping their stiff upper lip and all of that? Theron is so capable of going deep — there are two moments in Young Adult that hint at that depth. They are her best moments in the film. If they hadn’t undone what they sought to discover about her, the movie would have been truly great. Going dark as a filmmaker for Reitman doesn’t necessarily mean nihilistic. There was true hatred on display for Mavis by both the writer and the director. Only the actress found the humanity there, what little was the to unearth. And Theron is simply brilliant at uncovering that.
So you’ll say: but that was the point – she was supposed to be A, B and C. And I am saying, yeah, got that. It just wasn’t worth two hours of my life to sit through it.
Streep and Theron are only two strangely complex, not entirely likable Best Actress contenders. The other two are Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin and Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs. Both are dwelling in uncomfortable emotional territory and neither really wants to give back much to the audience to relieve them of what they might be feeling. Michelle Williams’ Marilyn is so tender and real that we end up feeling that funny way Marilyn made us feel: like we want to protect her.
But Michelle Williams does more with Marilyn than paint her as simply vulnerable and half crazy; she finds what made Marilyn so compelling — that, despite it all, in her own weird way, Marilyn was in charge. She maintained control in a passive aggressive way by keeping people waiting and waiting and waiting, by flubbing lines and wasting money. On the one hand, yeah, she was so out of it that she couldn’t keep her place. On the other hand, it was her quiet way of saying “fuck you” to the people who were barking orders at her. At least, that’s how I’ve always interpreted Marilyn’s behavior. Michelle Williams is the first actress I’ve seen even get near Marilyn’s darker edges. It is a deceptively simple performance until you start digging down deep into it.
Williams captures Marilyn’s sexuality, innocence and madness very well, but she also captures Marilyn’s intelligence, vulnerability and subtle wickedness. It is a fully realized, truly brilliant portrayal of an American icon. In short, she nailed it.
However, you can’t say that she plays an unlikable character in any way – she plays maybe the most likable. The only possible drawbacks are Marilyn aficionados who hold her accountable for her inability to really look like Marilyn – but really, who does?
Tilda Swinton’s mother character is waste deep in a big muddy sinkhole — she’s raising a monster. She knows she’s raising a monster but she’s twisted up with self-doubt, wondering if it’s HER fault. Diving into “bad mother” territory is always risky. Here, Swinton isn’t a “bad mother” but she’s a mother not entirely comfortable with being a mother. And let me tell you, there are plenty of them out there – the reason is that we’re sold a false bill of goods by corporations and advertisers that motherhood is all flowery quilts, hanging mobiles and smiling, laughing babies. Guess what, it isn’t. It’s many nights feeling like a failure because your kid won’t stop crying, or if they come home with bad grades, or become bullies or get bullied. It is always the mother’s fault. And even if it isn’t her fault she invariably blames herself because it can’t possibly be the fault of the situation. The situation is “perfect,” or so they would have us believe.
Swinton is so marvelous when it comes to playing this self-doubt, terror and loneliness of those early days of parenting. It really isn’t until she has her daughter in Kevin when she can connect to that “mothering instinct” we’ve heard so much about. Why, because there’s WAS something WRONG with Kevin. In our mother-blaming society, though, that can’t be a reality anyone discusses so Swinton’s self-doubting mother doesn’t do anything about her son’s bad behavior until it is too late.
This is dark and dangerous territory for the fearless Swinton and the equally fearless writer/director Lynne Ramsay.
Finally, Glenn Close plays someone who is impossible to like because she is so locked in, so tightly wound up and sewn up that she never lets us in. Close has long since shut herself down due to a violent act that happened to her when she was younger. Her emotions have been utterly on lockdown, and that makes it hard for the audience to relate to her. That makes her a long shot for Best Actress — we need something to hold on to. But on a pure performance level, Close’s work here is astonishing. She never once drops character, she is always clear about what it is she wants to say, even when basically handing the film over to her co-star, Janet McTeer. Again, Close, like Swinton, like Theron, like Streep are dwelling in dangerous waters here — playing unlikable, remote, removed characters. Interesting turn of events for a category that is mostly about likability/fuckability/lovability.
Other darker portrayals this year include Rooney Mara in Dragon Tattoo (covered well already by Ryan), Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Kirsten Dunset in Melancholia.
It’s hard to know which direction Oscar will go this year. Personally, I find it hard to believe anyone denying Viola Davis this win, not just because she’s overdue for recognition, not just because she’ll be the second black woman in 84 years of Oscar history to win Best Actress, and not because she plays a likable character, and not because her performance stands out not just in this film but in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but also because she’ll be leading one of the only $100-million babies into the race. And if Sandra Bullock can win for that, Davis can win for that. How many other films in the race , starring men or women, have gotten there? And to have gotten there without being a sequel, an animated film or an effects-heavy film? A black woman headlines that movie — there’s a first time for everything.
But it could turn out in the end that voters want to finally reward Streep for all of her devotion and brilliant performances over the years, even if they can’t quite bring themselves to like the character she plays. Many believe Streep is long overdue for her third Oscar, but second in the lead actress category. Jodie Foster and Hilary Swank both have two in lead, but both of them starred in Best Picture winners when they won their second. Streep never picks those kinds of projects.
The Oscar race this year is wide open in every category. When was the last time that was true?