There are always complaints about the Oscar race – the choices are too narrow, the pundits don’t do a good enough job of keeping the options as open as possible, the movies are too boring, the movies are too independent, the movies are bad. But this year, in the wake of the New York Film Critics, it seems like it’s open season on the five frontrunners for Best Actress. This is disheartening to me because of all of the categories in the Oscar race why pick on actress — the one category that has so few contenders? I suppose that was supposed to be the point of broadening the outlook, as Mark Harris does in his excellent piece examining why the New York Film Critics’ choice of Marion Cotillard was, to him, so exciting. What it inevitably turns into, however, is the idea that the chosen five aren’t good enough and should be replaced.
Here’s a great paragraph by Harris:
Best Actress is another story. The bench isn’t deep; it never seems to be. But it should shock even the cynical that the state of high-quality, challenging leading roles for women in Hollywood movies is now so dire that this year, the Best Actress conversation — what there’s been of it — has taken place in a way that has almost no correlation to movies that 99.9 percent of moviegoers have even had the opportunity to see. We’ve been talking about the Best Actress race as if actresses— adult women who are given central, movie-carrying roles of depth and range — are actually permitted to participate in Hollywood’s current economy outside of YA and genre movies. They aren’t. This has become an award for Best Exception To The Rule.
He goes on to describe the way the Best Actress race gets filled this way:
You can say that this consensus reflects weary realism, but I think it’s actually peer-driven; nobody wants to deviate too much from the predictor mainstream, and the aggregated result creates the illusion that the concrete of the race is hardening — an illusion that becomes a reality when distributor campaign teams (which have positioned many of these candidates as favorites with predictors and media folk in the first place) start to believe it and apportion their resources accordingly. It’s a vicious circle of self-reinforcing complacency that only becomes more maddening when it eventually, inevitably trickles down to voters.
Then his piece starts to get problematic for me:
So let’s break those six “favorites” down. Adams sat on several of those lists for months before anyone saw the Tim Burton movie in which she stars, purely on the principle that she’s a five-time nominee and the Weinstein Company is opening the movie in December and, well, Jesus, they have to nominate something, right? Her movie hasn’t opened yet. Neither has Julianne Moore’s or Reese Witherspoon’s, but both have been considered likely nominations since September, when their movies showed at the Toronto Film Festival, because they give very fine performances and also because, well, see rationale for Amy Adams, above. Jones is fine in one of the most depressing niches a Best Actress candidate can ever fill, namely The Genius’s Long-Suffering Wife. (If you don’t believe that’s a problem, take a look at the history of Best Actor nominees and see how many decades backward you have to scroll before getting to a character you’d describe primarily as somebody’s husband rather than as the central agent of the narrative.) And Swank is terrific in a very good, thoughtful, thematically complex Western that almost nobody has seen. That leaves Pike, the only contender this year who holds the center of a big, mainstream, Hollywood studio hit.
You see where he’s going with this? The consensus is WRONG. The actresses chosen are only being chosen because they think they have no other options. I don’t know about Amy Adams in Big Eyes – I am not predicting her to get a nomination but these names are not here because they are necessity picks. They are here because these are strong and interesting characters coming into the world of acting and movies in a time when audiences (and critics, mind you) only want young, hot and fuckable actresses in movies. Mark Harris will go on to name a bunch of those in a minute.
But first, the five as they stand right now–
Julianne Moore in Still Alice – that she’s in the number one spot has put a big target on her bag. Rejoicing on Twitter when she was supplanted by Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night.
Reese Witherspoon – who carries Wild, produced it, starred in two other movies, produced a whole other movie.
Rosamund Pike – a brilliant transformative performance that dares to be delightfully unlikable.
Hilary Swank – true, she’s won twice but her plain spoken hard woman on the prairie is not just a great performance but a great character overall.
Felicity Jones – she plays the wife to Stephen Hawking who is probably the reason he’s still alive.
And Mark’s choices to replace them?
Scarlett Johannson in Under the Skin
Jenny Slate in Obvious Child
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Beyond the Lights (which I have not seen)
Agata Trzebuchowska in Ida
He closes his piece hoping that others take the lead from New York Film Critics with this paragraph:
It’s too easy to dismiss work like this as “not Academy-friendly”; the truth is that there’s a long history of Academy-unfriendly work being nominated when enough noise is made so that voters feel they have to pay attention. Thanks to the New York Film Critics Circle for choosing to make that noise. May the rest of us spend the five weeks before Academy voting closes following their lead.
While Cotillard is brilliant in both films, only the Dardennes’ film is a performance worthy of being nominated to replace any of the names predicted in the consensus. As good as she is in James Gray’s The Immigrant — and she is great, to be sure — it is another frustratingly familiar role women often play in period films – lost, helpless, turning to prostitution. How much more startlingly original is she in Two Days, One Night where she plays a distraught employee (and wife and mother) who must convince her co-workers to turn down a bonus so she can keep her job. That is the kind of complex role in keeping with the five frontrunners as we recognize them now.
What a shame for these veteran actresses who have built careers around the opportunity to showcase these kinds of complex parts that are diminishing by the day here in Hollywood. It is not easy to get any work after the age of 35 now, harder still to get an Oscar worthy performance without having to produce it yourself. The Oscar race is about many things, popularity chief among them. But women in the business are fighting for a foothold, for any power to give them the same kinds of choices men have. There is power in winning awards, power in taking a film to $160 million as Rosamund Pike has done. Power in having a chance to play a woman who pioneered a wagon train across the country to help rescue mentally ill women. These are interesting characters, not just charming likable women. They’re not even role models in the traditional sense but they represent for actresses doors being opened.
One thing that is great about the actresses in the race is that they are complicated. Three of them are downright unlikable, challenging and definitely suffer no fools – that Hilary Swank in The Homesman, Reese Witherspoon in Wild and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl. When looking for these roles starting at the beginning of the year it isn’t as Mark suggests, totally publicist driven. It is much more about finding the best roles that women must fight for. It’s about finding roles that aren’t supporting characters staring adoringly at their menfolk – or period films that depict yet another helpless lost stray cat of a woman. These are meaty, substantial roles any actress would want to play. Why target them? Surely there are three times as many men who could stand to be taken down.
At any rate, here are the best actress winners from NYFCC’s past, with an asterisk* if they also received an Oscar nod and a + if they won:
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine +
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Julie Christie, Away from Her*
Helen Mirren, The Queen+
Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line+
Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake*
Hope Davis, American Splendor, The Secret Lives of Dentists
Diane Lane, Unfaithful*
Sissy Spacek, In the Bedroom*
Laura Linney, You Can Count on Me*
Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry+
Cameron Diaz, There’s Something About Mary
Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves*
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Georgia
Linda Fiorentino The Last Seduction
Holly Hunter, The Piano+
Emma Thompson, Howards End+
Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs+
Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
That’s a strong track record, though none of these are French actresses. What do you think, does Cotillard stand a chance of breaking through and if so, for which role?