Much of the work women find in film these days isn’t in lead, but in supporting, certainly in the movies that are most often considered for Best Picture. Both Boyhood and Birdman featured women in supporting, rather than leading, roles. The woman around the man, the woman behind the man, the woman underneath the man, the woman confronting the man, the woman seducing the man, the woman raising the man, the woman marrying the man. This is where so many filmmakers feel comfortable putting women. The problem gets worse when female characters are required to “always be good” in films, always portrayed in a positive light to right the wrongs our culture has imposed upon women. Just look at the fuss over Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl. Women must never be portrayed as bitches even though so many are (Yours Truly wears the badge proudly). If women are not given the same freedom as men to play failures, cunts, murderers, presidents, inventors – how then are they to be portrayed? Well, as supporting characters.
If you go back to the films of the 1930s and 1940s and even into the 1950s and 1960s you will find the most glorious portrayals of “bad women,” particularly in the pre-code days. Who wants to see movies become a book of etiquette for “good women” because that makes it 1) unrealistic, and 2) boring. Can you imagine if Terms of Endearment were out now, the kind of lengthy think pieces that would be written about both characters in terms of whether Aurora was a stereotype or Emma was a stereotype — there would have been no room for the film to simply exist and breathe on its own without a town meeting on whether or not they were portrayed correctly. Of course, there are reasonable complaints – black women always playing maids, for instance. Women always playing hookers with hearts of gold. Women represented as moist cuts of meat on a platter every time the camera hits them. These things are to be avoided at all costs and do not factor in when we’re talking about diverse portrayals. If you’re seeing it everywhere all of the time chances are that isn’t an example of under-representation. But when a film comes along where the female is complicated and strange, evil or even bitchy, that doesn’t immediately mean it should all be flushed down the toilet because it’s painting women in the wrong light.
This issue will not likely come into play much this year – as there won’t be that many female performances to choose from (as usual) in the leading categories. The supporting categories always offer up more freedom for women to play lots of different types of characters. Already the category is full up with great performances. There will no doubt be a long list as you can match the many lead male performances almost always with a corresponding female supporting performance.
One of the most surprising things that happened this year was that Kristen Stewart became the first American actress to win the Cesar for Supporting Actress. Surprising because the French don’t give out those awards to us Americans — never before, in the 40-year history of the Cesar. In one of the strongest turns for women overall, Stewart shines opposite Juliette Binoche in The Clouds of Sils Maria, one of the few films to examine the complicated relationships between women. Stewart is brilliant as the assistant who is plugged into the modern world helping to protect the aging (and self-involved) actress she works for. She represents integrity in an industry that has mostly forsaken it. The two actresses dig deeply into the play within a play, working out the stage relationship between the characters which then reflects on their own relationship. Stewart must therefore be considered among the strongest contenders at the moment for Best Supporting Actress.
Right up there with her is Elizabeth Banks in Love & Mercy. In what really could be considered a leading role (and might very well turn out to be), Banks holds her own in a film that features two bravura performances by Paul Dano and John Cusack. But don’t take my word for it, read this lovely David Thomson tribute at Thompson on Hollywood about Banks:
“Love & Mercy” is an old-fashioned film, I know, about a woman saving a troubled man, not simply because she loves him, or likes his music, but because she possesses a nuanced detailed power of sympathy that waits for someone who needs rescue and who has taken up the odd challenge of selling Cadillacs as a way of finding him. There is something of Doris Day with Sinatra in “Young at Heart” here, or of Elisabeth Shue with Nicolas Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas.” We are not accustomed to such generosity, or to stories that place so much value in love or such belief in rescue.
Melinda could have been a sentimental stooge. She could have been a mere sexpot or a bimbo. But she has the moral force of Cary Grant saving Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious,” and it comes from the assurance with which Pohlad knows he only needs to photograph Melinda’s face thinking about Brian and the fairytale ordeal in which she must overcome the dread spirit of Eugene Landy. Her scenes are with Cusack (who is brilliant) and the chemistry in which their two ardent but wounded and uncertain faces dip closer together is deeply touching.
The Sorrentino film Youth delivers two powerhouse supporting performances, both by previous Oscar winners. Rachel Weisz, who plays Michael Caine’s daughter and Jane Fonda in one long “holy fuck” scene that ought to get recognition, or at least attention. Weisz is also in The Lobster and fantastic in it, of course. Fonda can be seen in the Netflix series Grace & Frankie. Fonda is once again defying the notions of what it means to be an actress closing in on 80, much like Katharine Hepburn did. While Fonda wants to be seen not as an old woman but as a vital woman still. At the same time, as Youth proves, she isn’t afraid of looking “ugly.” Probably it’s this aspect of her performance that might get her the most attention. It is also what she says about the business that will turn heads. She may obliterate Weisz but Weisz has the much bigger part. Youth has yet to screen for critics or run the fest circuit so its fate is still up in the air.
Speaking of up in the air, it’s difficult to know whether Rooney Mara will be put in supporting for her work in Carol or put in lead. Since the Best Actress race is traditionally “thin” these days it makes sense to put Mara in lead. But if she’s put in supporting, she has a better chance to actually win the prize, which she very well may do. It is unlikely she would win in lead with Blanchett alongside her splitting that vote.
What other performances are coming up that might get some attention? Well, look for Best Picture contenders and work your way back from there. Many of them are just too mysterious at this point to know which performance might be “the one.”
Amy Ryan in Bridge of Spies
Jennifer Jason Leigh in Hateful 8 (lead or supporting?)
Melissa Leo/Shailene Woodley in Snowden
Jessica Chastain in The Martian (lead of supporting?)
Olivia Wilde, Nicole Beharie, Hailee Steinfeld in The Keeping Room (which is lead and which are supporting?)
Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Meryl Streep in Suffragette (but probably Duff)
Emma Thompson, Sienna Miller in Adam Jones
Ellen Page or Julianne Moore for Freeheld
Keira Knightley for Everest
Rachel McAdams in Southpaw
Kristin Wiig in Diary of a Teenage Girl
Diane Lane, Ella Fanning, Helen Mirren in Trumbo
Mamie Gummer in Ricki and the Flash
Right now, this category is mostly a mystery, but for a few slots that could be filled right now. If Rooney Mara goes supporting she’ll be the biggest threat to win (at the moment anyway).