Monday, February 18, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Best Actress

The gender gap in Hollywood may not have closed entirely, but between the increasing availability of plum parts for women and the rising crop of supremely talented actresses – not to mention Katniss Everdeen, Bella Swan, and Princess Merida burning up the box office – it's definitely shrinking. And chauvinist pig that I am, it's nice to live in a world where the performances in the Best Actress category aren't clearly inferior to those of their male counterparts. Just remember that I wrote that the next time I make a tasteless crack about the true purpose of Scarlett Johansson's role in The Avengers.

Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva – Amour
Quvenzhané Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts – The Impossible

Wallis and Watts are out. As for Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty will cross the $90 million mark this week, and it's one of the most compelling pieces of historical fiction ever made, yet for some strange reason, no one seems to be talking about it anymore. Perhaps its momentum peaked too early, though that's hard to believe given that it didn't even receive a nationwide release until January 11. In any event, unless there's a silent resurgence going on behind the scenes, I'm starting to accept that Zero Dark Thirty will leave Oscar night empty-handed, meaning Chastain is on the outside looking in.

She's peering in at a duel between Jennifer Lawrence and Emmanuelle Riva, and while Lawrence is the odds-on favorite, I'm decidedly wary of a Riva upset. It's the age factor. Lawrence is a stunning young talent who just tabbed her second Oscar nomination at the age of 22 and also happens to be anchoring a massive film franchise for Lionsgate; absent a random "Jason Williams hopping onto a motorcycle"-level disaster, she'll be back to the buffet multiple times in the years to come. Riva, on the other hand, will turn 86 on the night of this year's ceremony, so science suggests she won't be around much longer (just to underscore that point, she plays a character who spends her entire movie slowly dying). The pieces are in place, then, for a sentimental vote, as voters could feasibly rationalize that they'll have opportunities to recognize Lawrence in the future, whereas this is almost certainly Riva's last shot at Oscar glory.

Lawrence, however, does have a handful of precursor awards to her credit, including the all-important SAG nod. But Riva wasn't eligible with the actors' guild, and more importantly, she won at the BAFTAs, a body that singled out Meryl Streep last year when everyone else was looking Viola Davis' way. And while Riva's French-language performance might appear to put her at a disadvantage, the Academy proved it can recognize Parisian performers in 2007 when it awarded the Oscar to Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose – a performance that, not coincidentally, also won at the BAFTAs. In fact, the BAFTAs are a disturbingly strong indicator of Oscar success, as no Oscar winner has lost in Britain since Gwyneth Paltrow in 1998. (O.K., technically, Hilary Swank, Halle Berry, and Charlize Theron won Oscars but failed to take home BAFTA trophies, but due to fluky eligibility rules, they competed at the BAFTAs a full year after winning their Oscars. In fact, Swank and Berry both lost to actresses who also won at the Oscars, only a year later. Don't bother trying to puzzle through the math on this – just take my word for it that winning the BAFTA is a big deal.)

That's too much history on Riva's side. Lawrence may have been the de-facto frontrunner when the nominations were announced, but Riva is peaking at the perfect time. Throw in the sentimentality factor, and Oscar has its oldest winner ever.

The Academy's chosen quintet may have omitted some of the Manifesto's more personal choices, but it's hard to find fault with any of this year's nominees. It's tempting to look at the nine-year-old Wallis – she was actually six during the majority of filming – and think, "Oh how cute," but Wallis' blunt, no-nonsense performance is entirely free of the shrill sympathy-seeking that characterizes most child portrayals; she carries the weight of an entire film on her tiny shoulders with startling ease. Chastain delivers a similarly sturdy, committed performance as an obsessed intelligence officer, and while Zero Dark Thirty functions primarily as a police procedural, the moments when Chastain's implacable face melts into confusion and loneliness lend the film a powerful emotional gravitas. Watts' work in The Impossible is more physically obvious but no less affecting, and in her panicked, desperate movements, she communicates single-minded fear with acute intensity. That level of physicality is the cornerstone of Riva's performance as well, though in her case, it's all about what she can't do; initially paralyzed on one side of her body, her character becomes increasingly immobilized throughout the film, and as she strains to rise from her wheelchair, Riva makes you feel the agonizing effort of every step.

My favorite of the five, however, is Jennifer Lawrence's aching turn in Silver Linings Playbook as a lost soul seeking love, or companionship, or sex, or really solace of any kind. Lawrence has a physical toughness about her that she used to great effect in Winter's Bone, and in Silver Linings Playbook, she initially seems almost abrasive, a potty-mouthed girl who walks tall and spits out her lines as though she's brandishing a spiked mace. It's all a front, though, designed to disguise the brittle, deeply wounded woman whose vulnerability is the true source of such provocative aggression. Late in the film, these two warring halves reconcile, and with eyes ablaze Lawrence delivers a spectacular speech laced with such long-simmering passion that you can practically see her heart soaring in her chest, doing its best to keep up with your own.

Marion Cotillard – Rust and Bone
Kara Hayward – Moonrise Kingdom
Zoe Kazan – Ruby Sparks
Keira Knightley – Anna Karenina
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook

Cotillard matches the physical grace of Riva's performance and supplements it with a quiet, disconsolate yearning that proves to be both devastating and uplifting. Hayward beautifully illustrates adolescent confusion while also displaying extraordinary maturity and poise, helping to turn a whimsical teenage romance into something timeless. Kazan takes a necessarily incomplete construct and fills in the blanks; she navigates her character's artificial transitions effortlessly, but it's her restless sadness in just "being Ruby" that proves most compelling. Keira Knightley conveys a multitude of emotions with a flick of her eyes and a purse of her lips – her Anna is not just a social pariah but also a mortally grief-stricken creature, and Ms. Knightley somehow embodies the spirit of Tolstoy's operatic melodrama without ever resorting to maudlin theatrics.

My ideal winner: Marion Cotillard – Rust and Bone.

Linda Cardellini – Return
Lola Créton – Goodbye First Love
Jennifer Lawrence – The Hunger Games
Léa Seydoux – Farewell, My Queen
Mary Elizabeth Winstead – Smashed

Cardellini (of "Freaks and Geeks" fame!) articulates the crippling confusion surrounding her eponymous journey home with heartbreaking clarity. Créton's character is utterly paralyzed by her emotional dependency but also fully aware of it, resulting in a nuanced portrayal that registers every stage of relationship turmoil, from bliss to hopelessness to (most troubling of all) nagging discontent. Lawrence's role in The Hunger Games requires less emotional range than her Oscar-nominated turn, but it remains a stunning display of composed physical subtlety. Seydoux counters Diane Kruger's flamboyant titular performance with unnerving restraint and treacherous guile. Winstead fearlessly demonstrates the perils of addiction without succumbing to the pratfalls of overacting.

Also deserving: Emily Blunt – Your Sister's Sister (for her bracing emotional honesty); Aggeliki Papoulia – Alps (for gamely buying into Giorgos Lanthimos' bizarre universe and giving it credibility in the process); Aubrey Plaza – Safety Not Guaranteed (for her tender transformation from acerbic cynic into true believer); Michelle Williams – Take This Waltz (for her courage in being ruthlessly unsympathetic).

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