Friday, December 16, 2011

The Desperate Women of the Best Actress Race

Leading ladies are not going easy on Hollywood this year. There are no quirky love interests and supportive wives in the Best Actress race. Instead, there is an interesting mix of complicated (and less complicated) characters, and a recurring theme of women forging their identities from under oppression.

Exhibit A - Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:
Golden Globe nominee - Best Actress (Drama)
By now, Lisbeth Salandar is an iconic literary heroine, already brilliantly captured on screen by Noomi Rapace, but now that David Fincher and classical beauty Rooney Mara have brought their rousing vision to the story, a new audience will be confronted with Lisbeth's devil-may-care approach to life, tough-as-nails survival instincts and grizzly revenge tactics. The book was originally titled "Men who hate women" and birthed in response to author Stieg Larsson's failure to intervene when he bore witness to a violent rape. His books  play off against a fairly extensive backdrop of bleak abuse and incest handed out by men who see women as their play things. Lisbeth is the larger than life outcast - and survivor - who calls the shots and plays by her own rules as a hacker, in relationships, in criminal investigations and - eventually - in her own trial. SPOILER ALERT: A key scene sees Lisbeth take gruesome revenge on a rapist, and Larson asks us to justify why he doesn't deserve every second of it. But this is no Kill Bill style revenge porn. It's a painful, harrowingly grim tale of turning the tables on generations and institutions of abuse. A bold statement for feminism and a far cry from the Spice Girls brand of girl power.

Exhibit B - Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs:
Golden Globe, Golden Satellite & Screen Actors Guild nominee - Best Actress (Drama)
Playing another desperate - though far more quietly so - woman trying to call her own shots, Glenn Close went to great lengths to adapt Albert Nobbs, produce it and co-write the Globe nominated song, "Lay your head down."  All of which is to say that Close cared deeply about telling Nobbs' story - although many critics didn't approve of the overall final product. At it's core, Albert Nobbs is a dark, tragic tale of a woman living her life as a man just to have the privilege of working class employment. She mostly succeeds, but only by sacrificing her femininity to adopt a new identity.

Exhibit C - Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady:
Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild & Critics Choice nominee & New York Film Critics winner - Best Actress (Drama)
As Margaret Thatcher, first female prime minister, Meryl Streep has another juicy role to sink her teeth into. Like two of her recent Oscar-nominated roles (The Devil Wears Prada, Doubt), The Iron Lady deals with the limited career opportunities offered to women, and the cost of those who exceed them. As with any elected official, Streep's Thatcher must keep her personal life at home to assume her national duties but, more so than her male counterparts, she also has to leave behind all vulnerabilities and tender edges to become the titular - and much maligned - Iron Lady and command the respect of her male-dominated profession.

 Exhibit D - Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn:
Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, Critics Choice & Independent Spirit Award nominee - Best Actress (Comedy/Musical)
As Marilyn Monroe, Michelle Williams plays an icon of femininity, but as Norma Jean, Williams is smart enough to know that the "Marilyn" persona was as much a grand performance as any of the characters the redhead farm girl played on screen. On one level, Sasha Stone points out that "Marilyn" was Norma Jean's ultimate method performance - one that would convince and beguile Hollywood, the press and generations of admirers to come. On another level, she was a woman giving a demanding, male-dominated world (and the eternal "male gaze") exactly what it wanted - pure seduction and willing naivety - at the expense of her true identity. At least Elton John noticed.

Exhibit E - Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin
Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild & Critics Choice nominee & National Board of Review winner - Best Actress (Drama)
In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Tilda Swinton puts a dark twist on traditional motherhood as a woman who whose initial doubts about motherhood are painfully confirmed when she finds it impossible to relate to, or feel tender towards, her difficult child - much to her husband's disapproval. Her worst fears are horribly confirmed when (SEMI-SPOILER ALERT) he grows up to be a high school mass murderer. Blame turns firstly to her - her parenting, or lack thereof, must after all have caused him to turn out the way he did - and she is cast out for her sons crimes. Nevertheless her maternal instincts do not allow her to give up on him - even in prison. A brave and uncompromising film & performance.

Exhibit F - Viola Davis in The Help
Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild & Critics Choice nominee - Best Actress (Drama)
Aibileen overcomes a different kind of oppression in The Help. Regarded as little more than a household appliance, and not hygienic enough to use the indoor toilet, Aibileen retains her dignity by instilling it in the children left in her care. SPOILER ALERT: She pays the price for exposing the truth, while her young white accomplice gets a job writing for the New Yorker - a much criticised plot point that may be sadly true to the film's period.

Exhibit G - Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene
Independent Spirit & Critics Choice nominee - Best Actress
A sensational debut from the younger Olsen sister, but also an enigmatic portrait of a young woman trying to reclaim her shattered identity after escaping from a manipulative cult.

Exhibit H - Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids
Golden Globe nominee - Best Actress (Comedy)
Kirsten Wiig is a woman on the edge, taking it very, very badly. She cracks jokes women are not supposed to know about, makes terrible  decisions at every turn and carries it all without grace. But she wins you over with her honesty and earns her happy ending - albeit by being rescued by a sweet irishman (although it helps that he is effectively the quirky love interest).

Finally, Exhibit I - Charlize Theron in Young Adult
Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominee - Best Actress (Comedy)
Charlize Theron announces her presence with a relative cinematic rarity - the female anti-hero. For a change, Charlize gets to act her heart out and stay sexy, but she does it playing the bitchy girl you hated in high school - and she hasn't changed. Shallow, callous, selfish and spiteful and none of it played with her tongue in her cheek. Theron embraces the comedy, but mines deep into a juvenile woman-child (the female answer to the Judd Apatow commitment phobic man-child) in all her awful glory.

As for the Best Actor race? Bunch of pretty boys.

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