- Commentist Beer Barrel: Spoilers for Beer and Television – April 28, 2019
- Oscars 2019 Preview and Open Thread: We Got to Move These Acclaimed Motion Pictures. We Got to Move These Short Nominees. – February 24, 2019
- Oscars 2019 Preview: I Have Eaten The Polar Bears That Were In Your Ice Cap – February 23, 2019
The Oscars are almost upon us, with all their unpredictability. You don’t need an oracle to tell you what will happen. You don’t even need a film critic. You need someone who sees into the very souls of the Academy voters. You need a Straight White Man.
I talked a fair bit about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy in my post on the male acting awards, where a large number of actors of color were passed over. The lens works there, but it’s not as good a fit for the women. Yes, this is still a very white group, and I think it’s easy to identify some of the weaker performances in these categories, but there’s a genuine question who you’d replace them with. Tessa Thompson was very good in Creed, I thought, but I come up blank after her. Unlike with the men’s acting categories, it’s more likely that the culprit is an absence of opportunities than an absence of recognition.
Anyway, here are your nominees for the women’s acting awards.
ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight – It seems like it’d be easy enough to dismiss Leigh here, because she’s at the center of so many of the aspects of The Hateful Eight that strike me as deliberate, senseless, and frankly annoying provocation. I can’t dismiss her, though, because she turns in such a great and gutsy performance, sparkling with malice and spite. Anywhere else she’d be ludicrously over the top, sure, but here she somehow manages to ground the film.
Rooney Mara, Carol – It’s probably only due to the bigger, brighter onscreen presence of Cate Blanchett’s Carol Aird that she’s in the lead category and Mara got the supporting nomination. (It may also simply reflect the weakness of supporting actress performances this year relative to the leads.) It sure looked to me like Mara had more screen time, and despite the title, Carol really is first of all a story about Mara’s Therese Belivet. It’s easy to play the ingénue as simply doe-eyed and passive, and I know some critics have accused Mara of doing exactly that. I don’t see it. I see her enthusiasm about model trains, her nervousness about what Carol will think of her, her self-directed bitterness when things go wrong. And Mara’s pulling double duty in a sense here, because she doesn’t just determine what we think of Therese; she determines, to a significant degree, what we think of Carol. It’s important for the audience to believe in Therese’s agency in this film, or Carol comes off as a creep at best or an outright sexual predator at worst, and Mara’s up to the task of showing us this quiet girl has a backbone.
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight – I saw Spotlight before the Academy announced its nominees, and this nomination surprised me because I really thought McAdams was overshadowed by her co-actors. She does play an important role here, though, as the member of the team the Church’s victims seem most willing to talk to, and allows reporter Sacha Pfeiffer’s intelligence and sensitivity to shine through. I’m still not certain this would have been one of my picks, but I absolutely get it.
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl – People keep saying Vikander was nominated for the wrong role, and I’m here to tell you that’s nonsense. Vikander is very good in Ex Machina, playing Ava with a low-key cunning, but she’s on a completely different level in The Danish Girl, playing what really ought to be considered a lead role as she responds to the transformation of the person she knows as her husband Einar in turns with mirth, mischief, concern, frustration, fear, and tenderness. As good as Eddie Redmayne is, I don’t think this movie has anywhere near the same impact without Vikander.
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs – Winslet’s steady here, and she certainly does a much better Polish accent than Michael Fassbender does an American one, but she never jumped off the screen at me. I’ll just have to admit to not getting this one.
Will Win/Should Win: Alicia Vikander.
Second Choice: Rooney Mara.
Upset Special: Kate Winslet, who’s already picked up a couple of big awards this season whether I like it or not.
ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Cate Blanchett, Carol – I think the sharpest take I’ve read on Carol‘s exclusion from the Best Picture race is that it’s not because the film’s about a lesbian romance as such, but because the movie doesn’t really have any use for its male characters. The only male perspective in the movie that’s likely to earn anyone’s sympathy only appears in three or so scenes. It’s the disregard for that perspective that I suspect alienated a lot of Oscar voters who couldn’t relate to the movie because they didn’t see themselves in it. That got me thinking about why we so insist on seeing people like ourselves in romantic films, probably more than any other type. I understand the basic impulse, but so much fictional romance ends up being trash because characters who are just placeholders for audience insertion. (Twilight‘s Bella has to be one of the most infamous examples here.) Carol doesn’t suffer from this problem. I think very few viewers are likely to relate much to Carol Aird, who’s wealthy, reserved, and more than a bit chilly. But it turns out that’s fine! In Carol, it’s the feelings, not the people, that we’re meant to relate to. As I noted in the writing awards post, what makes Carol work is the constantly building tension between the two leads as they navigate their own feelings and each other’s in a world that’s openly hostile to them, and Blanchett plays Carol with such vulnerability underneath her superficial composure that I felt compelled to root for her and Therese independently of whether I liked them or saw anything of myself in them.
Brie Larson, Room – There’s no doubt Larson does the most acting in this category. In my opinion, she’s at her best depicting the strain of daily life in captivity and Joy’s (no, not that Joy!) determination to escape, but she also makes Joy’s descent into depression afterward—the mirror image of her son Jack’s steady acclimation to the real world—feel real and immediate.
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy – Joy‘s a very recognizably David O. Russell film with a very recognizably David O. Russell cast, and a pretty good movie that wasn’t much of a critical success. It’s easy to see why the Academy liked Lawrence, though: her Joy is a tough, ambitious entrepreneur surrounded by exasperatingly dysfunctional people, squarely in the voters’ wheelhouse for female roles.
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years – There wasn’t a bleaker movie on this list than 45 Years, and even though it runs fully an hour less than The Hateful Eight, it’s probably the film I’d least like to rewatch. That’s not because it’s bad—it’s not—but because it’s painful; it’s a front-row seat for the sudden disintegration of a long marriage, and Rampling’s performance quietly wrings every last bit of emotion out of it.
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn – Ronan practically embodies homesickness (and on one occasion, also seasickness) early on in this one. She’s an extremely expressive actress, but she never overplays it, and her capacity for nuance in expression really brings home Eilis’s conflicting thoughts and feelings. (It occurs to me that this would have made her an excellent second choice to play The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen, since so much of the books really takes place inside Katniss’s head.) If I’m honest, I have a hard time making a case for Ronan over Larson or Rampling, but Ronan’s certainly good enough in Brooklyn to get a nomination just about any year.
Will Win/Should Win: Brie Larson.
Second Choice: Cate Blanchett.
Upset Special: Charlotte Rampling. This would be a hell of a surprise, but I can’t say I’d be disappointed by it. As rough as 45 Years is to watch, only DiCaprio and Larson this year can claim to have carried a movie the way Rampling carried this one.