Sunday, September 25, 2011

Best Actress Contenders

Serious Contenders:

Glenn Close - Albert Nobbs
Glenn Close's passion project has been described (I forget by whom) as Boys Don't Cry for BBC1. After the initial hype, based on Close's reputation as an actress & the striking authenticity of her transformation when the first photos leaked, some were disappointed by the film when it actually opened & demoted Close's performance from Oscar-assured to perhaps-not-a-nominee. Others, however, insist the Oscar is still hers to lose. Why? Mainly because she is one of the most reliably astonishing actresses working without an Oscar on her mantelpiece, partly because she is well admired in the industry as a hard working actor / producer / philanthropist, and lastly because of her performance. What some seem to complain about is precisely what others celebrate about her performance - it is quiet, subtle & restrained in a film that is quiet, subtle & restrained. Close has done enough (Patty Hewes is an obvious, recent example) to prove she has no trouble expressing strong, volatile characters, so if she plays Albert as a buttoned up gentleman who keeps everything inside, it is deliberate and what the character requires. Perhaps the absence of a big showy scene where it all comes spilling out is what put some off, but there is nothing stopping a subtle performance from being brilliant. Mainly because she is Glenn Close, she is still the front runner.

Viola Davis - The Help
She is the co-lead with Emma Stone, so it is still slightly unclear if Viola Davis will be campaigned as lead or supporting actress, but her performance as a fully-rounded woman, who happens to be maid in narrow-minded 50s suburban America - expected to raise the kids while the mothers have tea parties, but not quite human enough to share the same toilet - should get her nominated either way. In lead, she'll face off against Glenn Close, Michelle Williams & probably Meryl Streep for the win. In supporting she'll probably be the one to beat. Either way, it's good to see her deliver on the promise of her riveting single-scene performance in Doubt.

Michelle Williams - My Week with Marilyn

Still hot on the radar after last year's nomination for Blue Valentine, Michelle Williams takes on a Hollywood icon and has everyone waiting with bated breath to see if she can breathe life into the ultimate platinum bimbo. Marilyn Monroe was certainly not as ditsy as the persona she played so well, she merely knew how to show people what they wanted to see. Williams is an intelligent and sensitive enough actress to know that Monroe was all about what was going on behind the curvy exterior, but she'll have to marry that with a physicality with far more strut and flash than the brittle, withdrawn characters she's made her name playing. There is no reason to doubt she'll pull it off & when she does, the Academy should be falling over themselves to praise her.  

Meryl Streep - The Iron Lady 
It's Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher, which should equate to Oscar, but - it's in a film by the director of Mamma Mia! and feels a touch too obvious a next move for Meryl, in my opinion. I'm feeling more of a Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age kind of highly impressive but ultimately hollow hammy-ness than a Helen Mirren in The Queen kind of subtle, instrinsic transformation. Which is to say that she will obviously be nominated, unless the movie really blows, but we will know deep down that she shouldn't win.

Tilda Swinton - We Need to Talk About Kevin
It is a strange thing that the Academy was so eager  to award Tilda Swinton for her supporting turn as nervous villain Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton, but gave her no attention for her sensational subsequent leading roles in 2008's Julia (as an aging alcoholic who agrees to fake-kidnap an acquaintance's son for a share in the ransom money) and 2009's I Am Love (as a rich matriarch falling in love with a man who is not her husband, in grand Italian melodramatic style). It is hard to tell if those oversights will lead to Swinton finally being recognised this year for her gruelling performance as a mother struggling to feel affection for her psychopathic son, or if they are a sign of more overlooking to come. She lost Best Actress at Cannes to Kirsten Dunst, but her performance has been uniformly praised by critics so far.

Rooney Mara - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Aka the girl who dumped Jesse Eisenberg at the start of The Social Network. Rooney Mara's appearance in The Social Network was brief, but pitch perfect, so it's easy to see why Fincher was excited to transform her into the ultimate cyberpunk anti-heroin, Lisbeth Salander, for his American adaptation of the smash-hit Swedish novel. Mara's soft features seem more suited to restrained period drama, but she seems to have jumped at the chance to unleash her inner raging goth and, from the testimony of those who have seen the first eight minutes of footage released by Fincher, her performance is  furiously intense and right in line with Fincher's dark, gritty sensibilities. The Academy overlooked Noomi Rapace in the same role (and it's sequels) last year, but it is rare for a foreign language performance to be nominated. If Fincher's film is a hit, the Academy may want to take notice and show recognition for the most infamous literary heroin of the decade.

Elizabeth Olson - Martha Marcy May Marlene
Yes. An Olsen sister. Elizabeth Olsen has become an overnight indie sensation thanks to the Sundance raves for her performance in the very strange psychological thriller, Martha Marcy May Marlene. The logical assumption is that she should follow in the footsteps of recent Sundance it girls who ended up with Oscar nominations: Carey Mulligan for An Education, Gabby Sabide for Precious & last year's Jennifer Lawrence for Winter's Bone. The difference is that all three of those ladies were in films that went on to be Best Picture nominees. Martha Marcy May Marlene seems far from a Best Picture contender, so Elizabeth Olsen may be the one to break the Sundance track record.    

Charlize Theron - Young Adult
Jason Reitman's last two films were both far better than they looked on paper, and he directed both his stars (Ellen Page, Juno & George Clooney, Up in the Air) to well-deserved Oscar nominations. Now he has teamed up again with Juno scribe, Diablo Cody & signed up Oscar winner Charlize Theron to play the lead  - a divorced & maturity-stunted fiction writer who returns to her hometown to steal her high school boyfriend from his wife and kids. It could all go horribly wrong, but I have enough faith in Reitman & Theron to trust that there will be plenty to appreciate. Theron is usually at her best when she releases a heavy drama together with a silly action movie (Exhibit A: Monster / Italian Job; Exhibit B: North Country / Aeon Flux; Exhibit C: The Burning Plan / Hancock). This year, she has no silly action movie in the wings, but Young Adult is something different to the films the have put her on the map - a comedy / drama that gives her the chance to create a character with humour, depth & no uglifying make up.

Maybe Contenders:

Keira Knightley - A Dangerous Method
From the evidence in the trailer, Keira Knightley plays her part in A Dangerous Method - a sexual hysteric who becomes the object of Carl Jung's obsession, and then desire - with every ounce of ferocious intensity she can muster. This could be either a good thing, or it could lead to a showy performance that loses the character's humanity. The early critical response has been kind to Knightley, so the chances seem good that she may finally get her second Oscar nomination after trying so hard in every film since Pride and Prejudice.

Felicity Jones - Like Crazy
This year's actual Best Actress winner at Sundance, in a romantic,complicated & charming performance as a British girl attempting a long distance relationship with her American college sweetheart. Poignant first love & first heartbreak.

Rachel Weisz - The Whistleblower / The Deep Blue Sea

Rachel Weisz has been very busy since her divorce from Darren Aronofsky. And she is just about due a lead actress nomination, six years and at least five exceptional performances after her supporting Actress win for The Constant Gardner. In The Whistleblower, she plays Kathryn Bolkovac, a true-life civil servant turned anti-child-trafficking crusader. Judging by the trailer, the film seems a bit paint-by-numbers, but Weisz adds enough nuance, edge & complexity to keep things authentically human. Oscar has a good track record of rewarding strong-willed ordinary woman who saw wrong & couldn't keep quiet (Silkwood, The China Syndrome, Erin Brockovich, Norma Rae), so if they hit the right chords, The Whistleblower could be right up Oscar's alley. If that doesn't work, The Deep Blue Sea sees Weisz take on classic stage heroine Hester Collyer - a woman of privilege in post WWII England leaving her marriage, and possibly her sanity, behind for her young RAF pilot lover. Directed by period stalwart Terence Davies. We'll have to see if either film makes a big enough impact to get her performances noticed.

Kirsten Dunst - Melancholia
Best Actress winner at Cannes, but in a difficult, divisive film further mired by director Lars Von Trier's controversial Nazi comments & subsequent banning from the festival that made him. The only Von Trier Actress that has been recognised by the Academy is Emily Watson for Breaking the Waves, back in 1996. A nomination for Dunst is possible, if the critics get behind her when they dish out their awards, but at this stage seems unlikely. 

Jodie Foster - Carnage
The apparent standout performance in Roman Polanski's mildly received adaptation of the Tony-winning four-piece play. My feeling is that the film as a whole will sink away without much notice, but Foster is a two time Oscar winner, so maybe she'll have enough leftover goodwill to get noticed.

Not Gonna Happen:

Saoirse Ronan - Hanna
A kickass, smart, in-the-moment performance, channeling in equal parts Jodie Foster's innocence in Nell & Uma Thurman's vengeance in Kill Bill. Actresses as young as Saoirse usually do well as Supporting Actress (see as proof her own Oscar-nominated performance in Atonement, the only in cast of sensational performances), but not so much as Lead Actress. In an arty, violent, engimatic film, her chances at an Oscar nomination are even further diminished, but her performance remains one of the most memorable & intelligent of the year,

Kirsten Wiig - Bridesmaids
The comedic & emotional core of Bridesmaids, her Annie is an epic screw up - at least at the time the film finds her - way off course in her life & not taking it gracefully. As co-writer of the screenplay, Wiig sends Annie into an unrelenting series of missteps & bad decisions, but manages to win us over anyway, flying her screw up flag with heroic abandon. But I can only imagine that Wiig is too entrenched as that skit actress from SNL to seem like a legitimate Oscar contender, especially not for a broadly comic performance in a crude comedy about women acting inappropriately.

Carice Van Houten - Black Butterflies
The Tribecca film festival had wonderful things to say about Carice Van Houten's performance as brilliant, tempestuous South African poet Ingrid Jonker and awarded her Best Actress of their festival. But the film is, unfortunately, unlikely to find a big enough audience to even allow Van Houten to face off against the big names in this year's Oscar race.