Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Oscar Narrative: Why Best Actress Should Not Be Weak in 2014

If you have listened to the pundits, bloggers, and film critics out there, including this one, you probably have heard that this year's race for Best Actress is incredibly weak. Unfortunately that is incredibly true. The types of roles that win Oscars for women are incredibly rare, there are simply not enough movies about women or created by women, and there is still an inherent sexism that pervades the Academy, and the industry as a whole. For example, while character actresses, newcomers, minority actress and older actress can clean sweep the Best Supporting Actress year in and year out, when it comes to the lead performance you have to be attractive and young to actually win. It is a sad state of affairs that says more about our society and our culture than I think any of us would like to hear.

So the Oscar race for Best Actress this year has four locks at this point:

Julianne Moore for Still Alice
Rosamund Pike Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon for Wild
Felicity Jones for The Theory of Everything

In the wake of this year's SAG and Golden Globe nominees, a surprise contender (not a surprise to me, but to a lot of people) has quickly filled that fifth slot. Of course I am talking about Jennifer Aniston's career shakeup in Cake. Throw in Hilary Swank for The Homesman, Emily Blunt for Into the Woods, Marion Cotillard in two roles, and perennial favorite Amy Adams in Big Eyes, and this is probably the Oscar race as it stands. I want to stop here for a second to say this: all of the names mentioned above are terrific actresses, and give worthy performances this year. I hate that in the midst of all this "weak Best Actress" talk that it has belittled the performances that are actually in the conversation. My goal here is not to do that. I would agree that in a stronger year, Amy Adams (always fantastic, but this year in a less-than-stellar film) and Hilary Swank (in a mixed-reviewed Western) would probably not be in the conversation, but are promoted into it because they have proven track records. But both are bright spots in their films, add even if the films as a whole are not as great, that should not diminish their talents as actresses. And while I hate to point this out, all of them are younger and attractive. Once again, that doesn't diminish their talent or their performances, but it does continue to fill in the stereotype that has become the norm in this industry. Any of those names mentioned above would be excellent nominees, and I will be thrilled for whomever gets in come Oscar morning.

So then what is my point to this rambling critique? The Best Actor race is so deep, that every contender comes from a top-rated film. None of them have to ride in on previous coattails or get in because they carry their films above mediocrity. There are plenty of roles for top-notch actors that every nominee could end up coming from a Best Picture contender. The same cannot be said of Best Actress. But it should be. And here is my sticking point. The Academy zooms in on certain films and certain performances, and this year in particular, their choices in their  middle ground are slim across the board. This is particularly sad because overall 2014 was actually a great year for film if they would take a look at some of the bold indies and bold box-office hits that they are going to ignore except in a few categories. The films they have zoomed in on this year focus on men, hence why Best Actor is so much stronger. The Best Actress race is simply a microcosm of the problem this year, and I will present you all, and the Academy voters, if they are paying attention, with a few more contenders that should be in this race to round out the eight or so that actually have a shot.

First on that list is the fantastic Jenny Slate. I initially avoided Obvious Child because the image of Slate I have is her role from Parks & Recreation, which is one of the few parts of the show I actually didn't like. But I am glad I came around to her, and the film as a whole. She was stunning in Obvious Child, perfectly balancing the humor and the seriousness of the tough issue the film tackled. And while were on the subject, in a perfect world Obvious Child as a whole would be in this Oscar conversation the whole way through. Another rising star in the mix is the magnificent Gugu Mbatha-Raw in two wonderful roles this year (Belle and Beyond the Lights) that prove her range as an actor, and that she could easily become a go-to movie star.

On the foreign side Anne Dorval and Agata Trzebuchowska lead fascinating films Mommy and Ida, and despite lots of American attention for their films, have probably been dismissed because they are foreign actresses unknown to the general population until this year. Where is Shailene Woodley despite a great campaign for her? She is sitting on the sidelines because she happened to be in a teen-themed film based on a YA novel. Helen Mirren is sitting out because her film is too light and frothy. Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt (for Edge of Tomorrow) are dismissed for science fiction films. Julianne Moore should be in this race for Maps to the Stars, but the film's leaders decided not to even launch an Oscar campaign because it is simply too much trouble, usually for little reward. What about Tessa Thompson, Jessica Chastain, Melissa McCarthy, Lindsay Duncan, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlotte Gainsbourg? Where is Tilda Swinton for her delicious role in Only Lovers Left Alive (or any of her roles this year for that matter in both female acting categories)? Where the hell is Scarlett Johansson for the magnificent Under the Skin (and how has she yet to earn an Oscar nomination? What about Mia Wasikowska, Kristen Wiig, Rosario Dawson, Maggie Smith, Elisabeth Moss, and Keira Knightley? And why oh why has Angeline Jolie been ignored for her ingenious take on Maleficent?

Now let's put those in a list

Julianne Moore "Still Alice"
Felicity Jones "The Theory of Everything"
Rosamund Pike "Gone Girl"
Reese Witherspoon "Wild"
Jennifer Aniston "Cake"
Marion Cotillard "Two Days, One Night"
Marion Cotillard "The Immigrant"
Amy Adams "Big Eyes"
Hilary Swank "The Homesman"
Emily Blunt "Into the Woods"
Jenny Slate "Obvious Child"
Gugu Mbatha-Raw "Belle"
Gugu Mbatha-Raw "Beyond the Lights"
Anne Dorval "Mommy"
Agata Trzebuchowska "Ida"
Shailene Woodley "The Fault in Our Stars"
Helen Mirren "The Hundred-Foot Journey"
Anne Hathaway "Interstellar"
Emily Blunt "Edge of Tomorrow"
Julianne Moore "Maps to the Stars"
Tessa Thompson "Dear White People"
Jessica Chastain "Miss Julie"
Jessica Chastain "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby"
Melissa McCarthy "St. Vincent"
Lindsay Duncan "Le Week-End"
Rinko Kikuchi "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter"
Charlotte Gainsbourg "Nymphomaniac"
Tilda Swinton "Only Lovers Left Alive"
Scarlett Johansson "Under the Skin"
Mia Wasikowska "Tracks"
Kristen Wiig "The Skeleton Twins"
Rosario Dawson "Top Five"
Maggie Smith "My Old Lady"
Elisabeth Moss "The One I Love"
Keira Knightley "Begin Again"
Angelina Jolie "Maleficent"

So yes, sexism is a problem in the American film industry. But this year, it is less of an issue compared to the Academy, and frankly us as the media, who has pigeon-holed the Oscar race this year. Look at that list, it is simply magnificent. That is the race we deserve, that is the race we should have. Not eight names or nine, but thirty-six. This is a weak year for the Best Actress Oscar, but it is a strong year for female actors in film, if we would only take the time to look.

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