We’re in the last days of Oscar season, and I rather wish I had more time to give every category its fair share of analysis. However, I wouldn’t let any progress impeding time crunch get in the way of me praising this year’s Actress and Supporting Actress nominees. The latter may ultimately more of an intriguing lineup than a great one, but both show the best and worst of how women excel or are routinely undermined in the studio and campaign systems.
I’ve rarely had my own personal ballot veer so closely towards the Academy’s lineup, speaking both to their acknowledgment of incredible independent performances and an increased focus on womens’ stories that feels like a quantum leap forward from last year’s still commendable group of nominees. At the head of the pack is Brie Larson, essentially tackling the female equivalent to Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Revenant performance. Her work here is intensely emotional and physical, giving a nerve-shattering externalization of the prolonged effects of life-altering trauma, and a markedly different take on the joys and dreads of parenthood than Essie Davis’ performance in last year’s The Babadook. None of the other nominees is quite as overtly heartbreaking as Larson, a star of the indie scene who finally gets her spotlight.
It’s a more expected surprise to see Jennifer Lawrence nominated, her having been an Academy favorite since she slammed on the scene with Winter’s Bone. Her work in Joy is yet another expansion on her collaboration with David O. Russell, but it’s possibly her most gracious showcase to date. Focusing on a woman entrepreneur who’s had her life, and in a sense her identity, postponed by her erratic family, we see Lawrence slowly collecting pieces of her scattered identity over the course of the film. A sense of confident resolve, creative ingenuity and, finally, a sense of emotional fulfillment in herself. It’s a performance that wondrously accumulates.
The same should be said for Saoirse Ronan’s multi-tiered work in Brooklyn, which goes through several stages of growth and deterioration over the course of John Crowley’s sweeping melodrama. Beginning awkwardly positioned, both in her Irish hometown and abroad in the titular New York subsect, Ronan’s timid, shifting gaze slowly searches for something emotionally resembling home, until she grows into a freshly charismatic individual, not free of heartache or tragedy, but more intelligently equipped to confront it. It’s an incredibly subtle performance, shifting on a dime and collecting information with disarming grace.
It even confronts the darting subtlety of Charlotte Rampling’s glacially cataclysmic work in 45 Years. Rampling’s performance is one we patiently view from a distance, typefied not just be her eyes or her expression, but by her body, wearing her 45 years of marriage with increased physical stress. Her performance shifts from caring to shell-shocked to vigorously commanding, and continuously around again a couple times over. Her outbursts of emotional are calibrated with such intense specificity, and we get that the character herself is also performing, trying to convince herself of the stability not only of her marriage, but in the life she’s built around her. No other nominee is gifted with this range of exciting modes, and few could carry it with the intensity Rampling gives to it.
While Rampling showcases are too few and far between, it feels like every filmmaker on the planet is itching to give Cate Blanchett their meatiest role. In this year alone she’s done incendiary work in three separate films, and while Truth and Cinderella couldn’t muster the support to make a dent, it’s nonetheless surprising to see the Academy warm to her work in Carol. Like everything else in the film, it’s fragile, coolly suspended work, revealing just enough quivering honesty to communicate her desires, while facing the vast demands of the role domestic society has designed her for. It’s a classic, old-fashioned star performance, but riddled with the thrilling contradictions and inconsistencies that make up a truly uncompromising identity. All that and it’s not even the most disarming work in her film.
Will Win: Brie Larson, Room
Should Win: Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Dream Oscar Ballot
- Cate Blanchett, Carol
- Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey
- Rooney Mara, Carol
- Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
- Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Runners-Up: Cate Blanchett, Truth; Laia Costa, Victoria; Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl; Karidja Toure, Girlhood; Alicia Vikander, Testament of Youth
I’ve already waxed intense poetic about three of these performances, and am about to delve in depth into my feelings about Rooney Mara’s work in Carol, so I guess all that’s left for me to do is suggest that Fifty Shades of Grey has one of the best lead performances this year. Like much else in the film, Dakota Johnson injects a seemingly retrograde character with entirely unexpected sensitivity, sharp sexual and emotional control, and intense lip-biting to no end. If I can encourage my colleagues to take a chance on this unfairly derided work, that’ll be reward enough.
Best Supporting Actress
I’m often politely intrigued to see what ends up in this odd, too often reductive, category. Sometimes they find a small, slender jewel, like Laura Dern’s brief, but spirited turn in Wild. This year, I find myself mostly less than impressed, not for lack of such flinty, impressive performance, but for the frustrating demon of category fraud. It’s an unfortunate irony that Alicia Vikander’s work in The Danish Girl, a true lead according to nearly everyone who’s seen it and the obvious frontrunner, is the only performance here that I haven’t seen. Given the banner year Vikander’s had overall and the direct, sympathetic emotion of her performance, a win seems almost certain. What slivers I’ve seen of her work show a sensitivity and understanding that the film itself doesn’t seem to pick up on.
The other blatant case of category fraud, and miles away my favorite nominee here, is Rooney Mara’s reserved, yet emotionally infinite, work in Carol. I find my feelings on her possibly winning ultimately compromised, though, since I wholly disagree with the studio campaign system that’s resulted in such egregious, unfair misclassifications. Mara’s performance is the engrossing center of Todd Haynes’ film, using her specific, almost microscopic expressions of arousal, attraction, guilt, confusion, anger and reconciliation to subtly guide the film’s emotional throughline. It’s not fair to compare her work to performances with far less time to convincingly make their case.
Quentin Tarantino has no excuse for failing to give Jennifer Jason Leigh much to go on in her key performance as Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight. Hers is one of the voices we hear the least in this three hour chamber drama, her attempts to speak her mind abruptly thwarted by Kurt Russell’s elbow slamming against her jaw. Later, when the floor is ceded to her, she’s left scrambling to intimidate her remaining housemates, but she’s again thwarted from feeling like a true threat to them, let alone to civilization. It’s the character that’s most problematic, though, and not Leigh’s committed, but weirdly under-served, performance.
At least we can rely on Aaron Sorkin to not bestow his actors with half-written, insubstantial characterizations, however stereotypical his stock characters are at this point. Kate Winslet adopted a subtly applied Polish accent to play Steve Jobs’ right hand woman, Joanna Hoffman, but her work goes beyond simple technical embodiment. Winslet does a lot of rapid-fire reacting, to the business woes facing Jobs, to the immaterial ones fussed over by Jobs himself, and most to Jobs’ complete failures as a father. It’s a characterization I have issues with – shouldn’t Hoffman’s primary role be more independent than her use as Jobs’ maternal conscience? – but which Winslet does a great deal to dimensionalize
While Winslet’s mannerisms are perhaps the most impressively calibrated here, I actually find myself increasingly more impressed by the subtle, downplayed work of Rachel McAdams in Spotlight. She obviously has the least considerable role of the nominees, in a film where every character is underplayed in order to direct focus to the issues at hand. That said, I found myself impressed by the small, reserved ways she fleshes out her character as a complete human being with her own personal trials, but troubles that don’t distract or impede her investigative discipline. It’s the kind of work that truly belongs in the supporting actress race; not showy, in service of the film’s greater goals, leaving a tactile impression with what precious little time she has.
Will Win: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Should Win: Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Should Really Win: Jada Pinkett-Smith, Magic Mike XXL
Dream Oscar Ballot
- Marion Cotillard, Macbeth
- Viola Davis, Blackhat
- Pauline Etienne, Eden
- Jada Pinkett Smith, Magic Mike XXL
- Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria
Runners-Up: Rose Byrne, Spy; Nina Kunzendorf, Phoenix; Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anomalisa; Sarah Paulson, Carol; Lise Roy, Tom at the Farm
I struggle understanding campaign bodies’ need to beef up supporting categories with indisputable leads, especially when there’s meaty enough work coming from those with less than a quarter of their films’ screentime. One performance I keep revolving refreshingly around to is Pauline Etienne’s as the core romantic foil in Eden, evolving from youthful charisma to emotional panic to mature adult composure in the film’s decades spanning odyssey. Marion Cotillard tracks a well known Shakespearean character’s descent from crazed confidence to withered mania in a totally unique, unprecedented manner. Jada Pinkett-Smith displays similar confidence and sensuous control in Magic Mike XXL, basically playing the spokesperson for the film’s massively empowered female gaze. There’s just as much sharp confidence in Viola Davis’ bluntly impressionistic, almost soulfully cryptic, supporting turn in Blackhat. While many of these performances are singularly unexpected, I wasn’t surprised to see Kristen Stewart sink her teeth, not to mention her darting, expressive eyes, into the most complex and ambitious role in Olivier Assayas’ lavishly silly Clouds of Sils Maria.