Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Actress

Think, for a second, of the Best Actress field that might have been. Brie Larson (Short Term 12), Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said), Adele Exarchopolous (Blue is the Warmest Color), Julie Delpy (Before Midnight). You could also sub in Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) for any of them and still have a strong category. Then take a look at the actual nominees. Basically, there was a wide variety of tremendous performances to choose from this year, and the Academy went with one of the "safer" configurations: all of these women have been nominated at least once before, with no new faces in the crowd.

This seems to be happening often recently within this category. Don't get me wrong: the fact that this is the oldest this category has ever been (the average age is 55, with Amy Adams being the youngest at 39) is worthy of celebration considering Hollywood's younger-leaning tendencies. But it's a shame that truly revelatory performances do get ignored in favor of less-engaging ones from oft-nominated favorites. I guess what I'm trying to say is that instead of "default" nominees, it would be nice to see this field look more like last year's lineup more often, with a wider variety of actresses across multiple spectrums being recognized for phenomenal performances.

Anyway, let's move on the five actresses who actually were nominated. The nominees are:


Amy Adams, American Hustle

Amy Adams is something of an odd Oscar presence. She's often very good in the films she's in, but something just seems kind of weird that she has five nominations in a nine-year period, right? Yet take a look at her performance in American Hustle - her first nomination for Best Actress (the other four were for supporting) - and you can see how she makes a case for the film's stealth MVP. As Sydney, aka Lady Edith, Adams plays up the '70s va-va-voom, sure, with her dazzling costumes and plunging necklines. But she also suggests that Sydney is not nearly as innocent as she seems in the beginning, and that she may, in fact, be better at conning than Irving (Christian Bale) is. She also expertly plays the film's best joke: her (intentionally) awful British accent that absolutely no one questions the veracity of. As for the dramatic weight, just check out the bathroom scene with Jennifer Lawrence's Rosalyn or any of her monologues with Irving or Richie (Bradley Cooper). There's not denying that the rest of the cast does very good, very flashy work. But even though her role has a generous amount of flair to it, Adams sneaks up on you, pulling out one of the greatest performances of her career.

The rest of the nominees after the break.

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Blanche DuBois, the lead in Tennessee Williams' classic play A Streetcar Named Desire, is one of the meatiest roles an actress can sink her teeth into. Jasmine, the lead in Woody Allen's modern-day Streetcar riff Blue Jasmine, is a Blanche for the Great Recession, and Cate Blanchett absolutely devours the role. It's the kind of tour-de-force performance that crackles with incredible energy, the type that feels like you're watching it unfold live instead of on film. Blanchett truly captures Jasmine's descent into madness, and makes the inner clockwork that governs this character slowly grind to a halt as her life unspools around her. Most importantly, Blanchett dominates the film in a way that never overwhelms her co-stars, but rather brings out the best in them in a "rising tide lifts all boats" way. It's a thunderous performance, one that's earned every single accolade it has and will receive this year.

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Back in 2009, I quibbled with Sandra Bullock's first Oscar nomination (and win) for The Blind Side, stating that I wasn't "her biggest fan" and that hers was "the weakest [performance] of the group." Today, I'm much more impressed by Bullock - I realize that I have underestimated her over the years, and she's turned in a number of great performances over the years. That includes this year's Gravity, in which she plays Ryan Stone, an astronaut stranded in space and desperately trying to get back to Earth. More than just a "survivor" role, Stone is also grieving the loss of her young daughter, and Bullock plays these character beats with graceful affect. Out of all of these nominees, Bullock's is the most technically impressive, given the harnesses she was placed in and the fact that the majority of the film did not feature any physical sets or any other actors besides George Clooney. Those technical aspects don't really pop in the finished film (nor should they), and as good as Bullock is, her character isn't all that well-written. I am much more fond of this performance than I was of her work in The Blind Side, it's still the weakest of this group.  This shouldn't be taken as a slam against Bullock, but rather an indication of how great this category is.

Judi Dench, Philomena

On the surface, it seemed like a quintessential Judi Dench role: Philomena Lee, a real-life woman who was forced to give up her son as a teenager, then goes on a quest (with the help of a journalist) to find him decades later. It balances gentle, light-hearted comedy with heavy-hitting drama, both modes Dench is more than capable of handling. What's amazing, then, is how her performance here is exactly what you expect yet still completely floors you. She's a blast through the whole film, delightfully handling the humor with pitch-perfect delivery. But it's the dramatic portions that devastate. The moment she learns of her son's whereabouts is one of the most heartbreaking committed to film this year, and her later scenes in her old monastery give life to the film's themes without explicitly spelling them out. Most importantly, she creates a fully-dimensional character that we feel we've only just begun to know. It's yet another terrific performance from a one-of-a-kind actress.

Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Another year, another nomination for Meryl Streep. Her performance as chain-smoking, pill-popping, (verbal) acid-slinging matriarch Violet Weston earned her a record 18th Oscar nod, and this role is something of a departure for the veteran actress. It's been a while since she's played a role as venomous as this, and she does so with gusto. She clearly enjoys playing this villainous role, but at the same time she doesn't forget to find Violet's (rotten) heart. The material is terrific, and so is Streep, but it's not necessarily transcendent. What I mean by that is that this is a role that Streep could play in her sleep, and though she does great work, it's not among her best. It's strong work, but not the strongest of this field.

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." There's almost no stopping Blanchett at this point. She's steamrolled through the entire awards season thus far, and it seems highly unlikely that she won't make her way up to the podium next Sunday night. If anyone does have a chance of derailing her, though, it's Adams: she's been a consistent runner-up and competitor throughout the season, and if the American Hustle love is strong enough, she could probably pull the upset. However, I still believe there's only a slim chance of that happening.

My ballot:

1. Judi Dench, Philomena
2. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
3. Amy Adams, American Hustle
4. Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
5. Sandra Bullock, Gravity

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