Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Actress

Amy Adams—American Hustle
Cate Blanchett—Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock—Gravity
Judi Dench—Philomena
Meryl Streep—August: Osage County

Blanchett was supposed to take this in a walkover of "Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables" proportions. But then, Dylan Farrow, whom Woody Allen adopted as his daughter when he was married to Mia Farrow in the 1980s, penned an open letter accusing Allen of sexually assaulting her in 1992, when she was seven years old. Allen responded, flatly denying the allegations.

It's an ugly, nauseating story—people seem capable of agreeing on that, if little else—but what does it have to do with Cate Blanchett's Oscar chances? Well, Allen wrote and directed Blue Jasmine, the star vehicle that showcases arguably the finest performance of Blanchett's distinguished career. It may seem crass to highlight something as serious as sexual molestation accusations in the context of something as insignificant as the Academy Awards, but my goal here is to predict the Oscars, and this story, as unsettling as it may be, is relevant to that objective. (As to the substance of Farrow's allegations, I have too few readers as it is to risk losing any by weighing in on such an inflammatory story. If you're interested in rhetoric regarding the allegations, well, that's what the Internet is for.)

So here's the unpleasant but critical question: Is Blanchett, once considered a lock to walk away with her second Oscar, now vulnerable as a result of Farrow's letter? I tend to doubt it. It would be one thing if Allen himself were eligible for the prize—he happens to be competing for Best Original Screenplay, which I don't expect him to win—but I'm skeptical that voters would take any hypothetical anger out on Blanchett, an enormously well-liked actress who hardly seems culpable for behavior that her director allegedly engaged in 22 years ago. Also, let's not forget that Blanchett's performance has been universally acclaimed, as she hit for the Precursor Triple Crown, winning at the BAFTAs, SAG, and the Golden Globes; since SAG began bestowing awards in 1994, only once has a triple crown winner in any of the four acting categories failed to win the Oscar (Russell Crowe for A Beautiful Mind). (Admittedly, this year, only the BAFTAs took place after Farrow's letter was publicized, though it's unclear when the actual voting took place.) And her four challengers have developed little momentum, as Adams is the only other nominee I can envision possibly sniffing the podium.

So perhaps I'm being naïve, but I expect substance to triumph over scandal. Cate Blanchett wins her second Oscar. And I do not envy her for having to deliver what undoubtedly will be a very tricky speech.

Meryl Streep has spoiled us. In evaluating this legendary actress, critics are often tempted to judge her against her own past accomplishments, rather than on the merits of the particular performance at hand. This temptation is, without a doubt, unfair, and to yield to it this year is to deny the pleasures of Streep's technically immaculate, fiercely watchable work as a drug-addled matriarch consumed by bitterness and contempt. Yet I confess that, in watching this three-time Oscar winner snarl her way through August: Osage County, I felt rather unfulfilled. Yes, she's very good—she's always very good. But where is the hidden pathos she brought to her putatively villainous roles in Doubt and The Devil Wears Prada? Where is the unquenched yearning of Sophie's Choice, or the immovable decency of The Deer Hunter, or the indefatigable pluck of Julie and Julia? They are all absent, not because of any failure on the actress' part, but because her role in August: Osage County simply does not require them (indeed, it rejects them). Instead, all we have is Meryl Streep hammering a one-note character with spectacular craft and precision. It's better than any mere mortal could do, but surely she can do better than that.

In terms of revered status, Judi Dench is basically Britain's answer to Streep. (They've actually competed against each other at the Oscars once before, when both lost to Helen Mirren in 2006.) Yet while Dench is primarily known for playing imperious, withering women, her role in Philomena functions as a spry and pleasing change of pace. The movie paints its titular hero as a bit of a rube, one who's frequently awestruck by the wonders of the American metropolis, and Dench mines her character's fish-out-of-water status for considerable comic gain. (You will rarely hear a more persuasive pitch to watch Big Momma's House.) Yet she also imbues her provincial retiree with a powerful sense of decency, and a late scene in which this long-suffering mother chooses to forgive her former oppressors is both agonizing and inspiring. "That's hard for me," Philomena says, jaw clenched, after performing that very act of forgiveness. Maybe so, but Dench makes it look easy.

Sandra Bullock may have made things look a little too easy in Gravity, as an undercurrent of criticism has posited that her acting is unfairly propped up by the movie's remarkable special effects. On a literal level, I suppose this is true: Alfonso Cuarón did not actually shoot Bullock into space and force her to dodge a firestorm of celestial debris, so some of what you see is the result of computer-generated manipulation. Yet it's reductive to credit the enormous force of Bullock's performance to the film's binary programmers. It's an intensely personal and physical piece of acting, one that—perhaps ironically, given the movie's title—is all about weight. Mostly operating on her own, Bullock has little to play off of, but she evokes a sense of crushing suffocation, making you feel not only her character's existential torments ("What the hell am I doing up here?") but also her far more tangible dilemmas ("How the hell do I get down from here?"). It's an extraordinarily committed performance, one that properly focuses on small details even when drowning within the horrifying vastness of space.

If Bullock is a one-woman show, Amy Adams is surrounded by clutter in American Hustle. Yet even amidst such glorious chaos, Adams stands out, and not just because of her killer wardrobe. Structurally, it's a performance within a performance, and there's great pleasure in watching Adams adopt a faux British accent and defraud businessmen with the allure of wealth and regality. Yet the real genius is visible when the cracks start to appear, and Adams gradually reveals her character not as a feverishly ambitious swindler but as a lost, lonely soul simply seeking human connection. American Hustle is loaded with terrific acting, but the other performers are all playing sly variations on recognizable types (the sweaty and dignified con man, the crazed housewife, the go-getting cop). Adams' character is wholly distinct, and there's the sense that the actress isn't playing a part so much as conjuring a real person, one with a lifetime of quashed aspirations and broken dreams. It's a breathtaking combination of naturalism and surrealism, and it lends her work an indefinable grace. She understands her role is to be the scorching redhead with the low-cut dress and the no-nonsense strut, but all she knows is that she wants more. All we know is that we hope she gets it.

We don't hope for much of anything from Cate Blanchett's character in Blue Jasmine. She's basically irredeemable, a selfish, spiteful social climber (and then faller) with overpriced clothes and a noxious propensity for self-pity. But she's also mesmerizing, and as vain as Jasmine may be, Blanchett plays her without an ounce of vanity of her own. There is something horribly compelling about watching a character slowly disintegrate before our eyes, and Blanchett is simply merciless in chronicling Jasmine's descent into madness. It's a brilliant performance of gradation, since when we first meet Jasmine, she doesn't seem all that bad—self-centered, certainly, but more taxing than toxic. Yet as Jasmine's grasp on reality begins to gradually slip away, Blanchett communicates every incremental crumble with excruciating clarity. She lashes out with greater frequency, her tone growing more and more acidic, while her eyes begin to take on a faraway glaze. Soon, she's having conversations with people who aren't there, and the heartbreaking component of Blanchett's performance lies in Jasmine's utter inability to recognize her own breakdown; she's gone, and she doesn't even know it. The tragic totem in Blue Jasmine is the ballad "Blue Moon". "You know that song," Jasmine says knowingly—to no one in particular—in the film's final, devastating scene. Having watched Blanchett slowly sacrifice Jasmine to her own demons, we know it all too well.

O.K., so that's a loaded group, but who deserves to win the Oscar? For me, it's a tossup between Adams and Blanchett, and to break the tie, I'll turn to my trusty friend, sabermetrics. Now, the statistic called Wins Above Replacement (WAR) has unfortunately been polarizing the baseball community for over a decade. Don't worry, this isn't a post about the virtues and flaws of WAR. All you really need to know (which is more than most announcers, by the way) is what WAR tries to do: its goal is to measure a player's value by asking what would happen if you replaced said player with a street-level free agent, a scrub you could sign for the league minimum. This is, of course, tremendously complicated to calculate in practice, but conceptually speaking, it's incredibly useful, and it can be applied to a variety of other disciplines. Like movies.

Take Adams and Blanchett, for example. Both are great, but how critical is their respective greatness? In American Hustle, if you replaced Adams with, say, Katherine Heigl, the movie would undeniably suffer, but it would still have Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, a rollicking plot, phenomenal costumes, and a kickass soundtrack. But if you replaced Blanchett in Blue Jasmine with, say, Andie MacDowell, patrons would start clamoring for their money back. Adams is a boon to American Hustle, but Blanchett is everything to Blue Jasmine; without her incredibly nuanced performance, the movie flat-out fails. Through sheer talent, she turns a run-of-the-mill character study into a tour de force of entitlement and insanity. And that's why Cate Blanchett deserves her second Oscar.

Amy Adams—American Hustle
Cate Blanchett—Blue Jasmine
Adèle Exarchopoulos—Blue Is the Warmest Color
Greta Gerwig—Frances Ha
Shailene Woodley—The Spectacular Now

Exarchopoulos embodies heartbreak while also demonstrating an unbreakable spirit. Gerwig is defiantly unsympathetic in Frances Ha, which makes our developing sympathy all the more moving. Woodley is so good in her second straight role that she's starting to scare me.

My ideal winner: Cate Blanchett—Blue Jasmine.

Sandra Bullock—Gravity
Rooney Mara—Side Effects
Saorise Ronan—Byzantium
Sharni Vinson—You're Next
Mia Wasikowska—Stoker

Mara makes for a wonderfully duplicitous foil in Side Effects, all hooded eyes and furtive movements. Ronan, with those alien-blue eyes, is the perfect vessel for conveying vampiric loneliness and isolation. Vinson's willowy frame and flowing locks recall Charlotte Gainsbourg, which makes her reveal as the biggest female badass since Sigourney Weaver in Aliens all the more satisfying. Speaking of satisfying, it's gratifying to see an actress as sensitive and thoughtful as Wasikowska tear into a campy role, which she does with delectable relish.

Also deserving: Amy Acker—Much Ado About Nothing (for her grace, and her delightful lack of it); Felicity Jones—The Invisible Woman (for her quietly hypnotic depiction of a woman haunted by her own past); Andrea Riseborough—Shadow Dancer (for burrowing beneath the surface); Saskia Rosendahl—Lore (for refusing to pander).

Previous Oscar Analysis
The Best of the Rest
Best Supporting Actress
The "Gravity" Categories
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Original Song

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