The year is beginning with promise, as the years almost always do, because the movies that are released now star women. The “Oscar movies,” as such, star men. That is how we find ourselves in this crazy predicament where the Oscar race for Best Picture is often defined as:
Men doing important things (The King’s Speech).
Men failing at attempting to do important things (Birdman).
Men doing things (every other movie in the race).
Many of these early released films that feature women don’t factor in to the Best Picture race the way things are now because voters only have five slots to nominate Best Picture and those five slots usually go to male-driven films but for an occasional exception like Gravity, Philomena or Zero Dark Thirty here or there.
First up for Best Actress are the two lead roles some of us have already seen, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett from Carol. Mara picked up the Best Actress prize in Cannes but it seems likely both actresses could find themselves hovering within sight of a Best Actress nomination. It would be better for the chances, though, to separate them as lead and supporting. In supporting, Mara might actually have a chance at the win. One of the marvels of Carol is how much director Todd Haynes’ spends on the internal worlds of these women before cutting straight to the sex stuff. In fact, the sex isn’t the main course at all, as might be the temptation here. Other things about these partners matter so much more as we watch them fall in love. It isn’t so much an uncorking of eroticism as it is a discovery of who they are. That, of course, inadvertently makes it all the more erotic. Either way, both women are given a full range of emotional expression here.
The third strong Best Actress contender right now has to be Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road. Although not your traditional “Oscar performance,” Theron has the benefit of creating one of the most iconic females in action films along the lines of Sigourney Weaver in Alien. To my mind, Theron’s is one of the year’s standouts but we know our pesky actors branch will likely go for the more “important” or “serious” fare. Either way, she’s on the list at the moment before any of the other movies roll out.
There are two films about women right now that could be headed for Best Actress at least if not Best Picture. One is Suffragette and the other is Joy. Joy seems the more likely, sight unseen, because David O. Russell when paired with Jennifer Lawrence have an impressive batting average — three nominations for Picture three years in a row. And still no win.
Lawrence should top any early Oscar predictions but she is already an Oscar winner. Hilary Swank and Jodie Foster are two actresses who earned lead acting wins fairly close together but for someone as young as Lawrence it would be a rare feat. Even still, you can bet with Best Picture heat driving the thing (unless it’s terrible), Lawrence will be prominent this year.
Carey Mulligan is another actress who has earned Oscar cred with so many brilliant performances already under her belt. She has Far From the Madding Crowd already this year but seems to be the real juice of Suffragette, at least in the trailer:
And look, it’s great women doing great things. Whoda thunk it? Suffragette is directed by Sarah Gavron who has directed one feature and co-directed a documentary. Hey, you have to start somewhere, right? It’s written by Abi Morgan who wrote the Invisible Woman and The Iron Lady. The best thing it has going for it, other than coming out at a time when our country might see its first female president, is what will be a significant push by Focus Features.
David O. Russell’s Joy puts a woman at the center for the first time in the director’s career. It’s no shock that it’s Jennifer Lawrence who has worked well with Russell since Silver Linings Playbook. Joy tells the story of Joy Mangano, the single mother of three who invented the Miracle Mop. It will likely be high satire, as co-written by Russell and Bridesmaids’ co-writer Annie Mumolo.
Two French actresses find themselves hovering in the Best Actress arena and both are already previous Oscar winners – Juliette Binoche for Clouds of Sils Maria and Marion Cotillard for MacBeth. It is unlikely that both will get in but both are certainly worth taking seriously.
It could also be a year for four strong veteran actresses to launch into the race, including Helen Mirren for the box-office surprise hit Woman in Gold, Lily Tomlin in Grandma, Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years and Maggie Smith in the Lady in the Van. Of those, my gut tells me that Smith will have the advantage. But no predictions can be made until the films are seen, of course.
Meryl Streep will have a shot at her 20th Oscar nomination with the Jonathan Demme/Diablo Cody joint Ricki and the Flash where Streep will play a has-been rock n’ roller trying to have a second shot at motherhood. Streep always delivers; thus, she’s a force to be reckoned with whenever she stars in a film.
These are Anne Thompson’s current predictions for Best Actress — factoring in only films that she herself has seen:
Performance by an actress in a leading role
Cate Blanchett (“Carol”)
Rooney Mara (“Carol”)
Helen Mirren (“Woman in Gold”)
Bel Powley (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”)
Lily Tomlin (“Grandma”)
Contenders (plus films she hasn’t seen):
Juliette Binoche (“Clouds of Sils Maria”)
Marion Cotillard (“Macbeth”)
Greta Gerwig (“Mistress America”)
Jennifer Lawrence (“Joy”)
Carey Mulligan (“Far from the Madding Crowd,” “Suffragette”)
Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”)
Maggie Smith (“The Lady in the Van”)
Alicia Vikander (“Tulip Fever,” “The Danish Girl”)
Thompson is floating Bel Powley for Diary of a Teenage Girl. Viola Davis is starring in Lila & Eve alongside Jennifer Lopez about two women pursuing justice outside the law. I don’t know about you but, Oscars or not, I can’t WAIT for this one.
Other names on the fringe besides those mentioned here include Vikander also for Ex Machina, Rinko Kikuchi for Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Greta Gerwig stars in Mistress America, another madcap goofball performance by Gerwig which may or may not capture the attention of voters. Z for Zachariah stars Margot Robbie as “a young woman who survives on her own, fearing she may actually be the proverbial last woman on earth, until she discovers the most astonishing sight of her life: another human being.”
Mia Wasikowska stars in Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak about “an aspiring author who is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds…and remembers.” Saorse Ronan stars in Brooklyn, which was already seen at Cannes. Anne Thompson presumably saw the film but does not list Ronan on her predictions.
Patricia Clarkson will star in Learning to Drive in which she plays a woman learning to drive with teacher Ben Kingsley. Already seen is Emily Blunt in Sicario starring opposite Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. A strong performance from Blunt is likely, but we will have to wait on the reviews to see how far she can go with it.
Casualties of the year thus far (killed by the critics) include Emma Thompson for Effie Gray and Jennifer Connelly for Aloft, Kate Winslet for A Little Chaos.
Choosing five Best Actress contenders won’t be that hard as the months roll along. It is about the performance but it is also about the friendships and alliances in Hollywood, as with any other category. It is about publicity and it is about buzz and backlash. How annoying was last year’s epic fail of critics who pounced on Jennifer Aniston’s dramatic turn in Cake. They blamed her for being a successful movie star who dared to help produce a film to star in that would showcase her range. This is really what almost every actress in Hollywood must do to not only work but to get any attention whatsoever for their work.
More and more actresses from other countries are obliterating American actresses who seem to either lack the prestige factor or are discarded as the next fresh new face comes along. The critics, though, felt the need to bolster Marion Cotillard once work got out of an imaginary controversy involving Harvey Weinstein and the film The Immigrants. A mini revolution was held and the critics stubbornly pushed Cotillard and shat on Aniston. Cotillard, as you can see from this year or any other doesn’t have a hard time getting roles. She works because she’s absolutely great and deserves all of the praise and success she has coming. But. It’s harder for actresses over here in America to get the same kind of cred as Cotillard does from critics. The role in 2 Days and 1 night was better than Aniston’s role in Cake but I don’t think Cotillard’s work towered over Aniston’s. So color me unimpressed with that shit show went down last year.
If I had to pluck five names out of a hat based on what I know about how the race works and a vague sense of what some of these films might be I’d go with these five names:
Cate Blanchett, Carol Rooney Mara, Carol (but she might go supporting) Carey Mulligan, Suffragette Jennifer Lawrence, Joy Meryl Streep, Ricki and the Flash
Alts. Charlize Theron for Mad Max, Lily Tomlin in Grandma, Maggie Smith, the Lady in the Van
That’s just spitting in the wind, of course. There is no real way to tell how the race might go as there are months and months left.