Sunday, February 17, 2008

Oscar Breakdown: Best Actress In A Leading Role


This year's crop of Best Actress nominees are very intriguing. We all know the struggles it is for women to find roles competent enough to be nominated to begin with, but this year we have something interesting. We have one woman who is obviously at the prime of her acting career (Blanchett), an English cinematic queen with a long resume (Christie), and one very young woman who grasps one of the biggest breakthrough performances in recent memory (Page). These varying generations battling it out makes this category very intriguing for me. Added to that, we also have a nomination for two very dependable actresses, one American (Linney) and the other French (Cotillard).


The Golden Age is an awkward film that is as interesting as it is historically accurate (I don't exactly understand the title either, since it takes place during the times of the Spanish Armada and the plague). The one constant in a picture filled with annoyingly loose ends is Blanchett. Reprising her role as Queen Elizabeth I from the thrilling Elizabeth, there were false feelings that this sequel might be something near that--we were disappointed. Blanchett, though, still plays Elizabeth with enough fire and subtle beauty that we are able to watch the film without the explosion of anger. In this film, she is drowning in a sea of big, puffy dresses abd cake make-up, which makes the performance even more of a challenge, but Blanchett--who has worked quite a bit as of late--takes it in stride, and with a menacing sneer.

There is a foolish romantic subplot thrown into the film, between her and Walter Raleigh. Despite the hysterical idea that these two even dined with each other let alone were romantically involved, it's Blanchett's sincerity and honesty to the character that makes the entire idea somewhat appealing. Through all the face paint and costumes, her shining blue eyes still peak through to express regret, resentment, and probably most important, power. She has loud, lofty speeches that radiate throughout your mind, and a gaze that is at times endearing and other times intimidating. Truly, Blanchett is everywhere now, and we can see that people may have gotten sick of her. But if they have, it's for the wrong reasons, because in every role she has taken, she has showcased her immense talent and passion for the craft.

Julie Christie, AWAY FROM HER

For my money, despite Julie Christie's front-runner status, and the films surprise nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, I still think Away From Her has been one of the more underrated films of the year. There are only a few films that I have ever seen (and none in '07), that so fluidly display rare human emotion as well as this movie does. The story is about Fiona (Christie) and her mental deterioration at the hands of Alzheimer's. Against the wishes of her loving husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent), she checks into a wellness center, where all the memories of their loving relationship begin to disappear. Christie, a legendary actress who has an Oscar for 1965's Darling, is the most heartbreaking aspect in a very heartbreaking movie, and she has basically trenched through every major award up to now.

The magic in Christie's work in the film is the way she creates a woman who's not there. By not there, I mean that she is like a vagabond who has inhabited this successful woman's body. There's a point in the film, where she can't remember the word 'wine', and that slowly progresses to her not even recognizing Grant when he comes by. The vague, painful look on Christie's face throughout the film is heart-melting. There are moments though, like regular Alzheimer's victims, where those memories come back, and her shifting in and out of consciousness is a chameleon move Daniel Day-Lewis would be proud of. When she whispers to Grant in front of the television "Don't they remember Vietnam..." we are filled with such meaningless hope, as she later recede into the many side affects of her Dementia.

Marion Cotillard, LA VIE EN ROSE

I could spend days talking about the tons of make-up Cotillard had to wear in this movie, but that does not give the performance justice. Playing the famous diva Edith Piaf, Cotillard physical transformation is so that I didn't even remember that I'd seen Cotillard in numerous other films. Cotillard, a beautiful French woman, de-glams for this role, even showing Piaf at her balding, fuzzy haired worst (how can you look like you're 80, when you're only 48? a combination of drugs and liver cancer never helps). The movie itself is scatter-brained, told in a non-linear way, I assume to intrigue the audience. The affect of that storytelling gets confusing a bit, but what we are never confused about is the astonishing effort Cotillard puts into the performance.

There are two scenes in particular that stayed in my memory. One involves the fantasy Piaf has that her lover is laying in bed with her just moments before she realizes that he has been killed in a plane crash. Another consists of Piaf pleading with her friend to let her perform despite her health issues, for if she can't she will lose all faith in herself. Both scenes require Cotillard to produce Banshee-like howls, but the result is something more than Pacino-esque screaming, but shrieks of human emotion. Cotillard must have gone through a lot for this role, because her life as shown through the film was so damaging, mostly from her own doing, but what the film and Cotillard remind us is that the beauty of Edith Piaf was in her magical voice and wonderful songs.

Laura Linney, THE SAVAGES

I was so elated when I discovered on Oscar nomination morning that Linney had made it on the shortlist for Best Actress. When I saw the film, The Savages, I came to a surprising conclusion: that Linney had supplanted Julianne Moore as my favorite modern day actress. She has worked just as much Cate Blanchett, even if the films are a little less noteworthy, but it is her work that has been more challenging, and for the most part, scathing. In Savages, she plays Wendy Savage, who, along with her brother John (Philip Seymour Hoffman), struggle with the guilt of having to put their dementia-plagued father (Philip Bosco) into a nursing home. What they discover is that there is no such thing as a de facto nursing home, just a place that makes it more comfortable to die.

Probably the biggest testament to how good Linney is in this film is that her co-star, the usually overpowering Hoffman, recedes and allows her to take control. The character of Wendy is interesting: she's an aspiring playwright who's currently writing something based on her troubled childhood, and in her spare time, she's has affairs with a fiftysomething teacher. Throughout the film, she has romantic issues. The idea of the affair is treated rather lightly in the film (the guy is actually a pretty decent fellow, despite being an adulterer) because it is just a further examination of those issues. The romantically confused woman reaching middle age is something Linney has tackled before (You Can Count On Me), but this film adds the extra ingredient of family, which is so much more universal.

Ellen Page, JUNO

Out of every character that I was introduced to over 2007, I didn't fall in love with any of them as mush as I fell in love with Ellen Page's Juno. The surprise blockbuster hit has been so successful because of Page, essentially. Her grasp of Diablo Cody's wordy script, and her ability to say those words with such fluidity and wit make the film irresistible. Any complaint about Juno's cleverness end with Page, cause no one can deny that she makes the role alive. All the while, never forgetting Juno is still a child where it all stands (remember with how much abandon she tries to beautify herself for Bateman's character), Page's performance is a response to all the brain-dead portrayals of teenage girls in films like Bratz or anything starring Lindsey Lohan. She's almost an anti-hero, for we adore her for her faults.

Despite her intelligence, the entire structure of the film's plot hinders on the biggest mistake in Juno's short life: getting impregnated by her effeminate boyfriend Paulie Bleeker. The process of pregnancy isn't really paid attention to the way it is in films like Knocked Up, but the film is not about pregnancy as much as it's about Juno's learning experience. Through her pregnancy she learns from Mark and Vanessa, the adoptive parents of her child. She learns from her father the virtue of wisdom. And later, she learns where her heart truly lies, culminating in such a charming, romantic scene between Juno and Paulie on the track at school. It's as satisfying a climax there is to a film this year, and in that one scene we see Page nail every word and every quirk in her speech. It's the most dominant performance of the five nominees, the funniest, and the most endearing.

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