Saturday, February 7, 2009

Oscar Breakdown: Best Leading Actress



The Academy Awards really dropped the ball when it comes to their recognition of Rachel Getting Married. Nearly all of its stupendous cast, as well as Jonathan Demme's masterful direction, was left hanging out to dry. The one consolation, though, came with the announcement that the film's most important piece, Hathaway, was receiving her first career nomination. As Rachel's sister, Kym, Hathaway plays a struggling drug addict who's given a free weekend pass out of rehab to visit her family on her sister's wedding day. Family is a big theme, obviously, within this film, but the story's interesting aspect is how this entire family--which isn't exactly stable to begin with--focuses all of their attention on this one cog, whose erratic behavior and deep insecurity makes it almost impossible to spend time with.

In terms of the role, this is certainly an Oscar magnet. There's nothing that the Academy loves more than actors playing recovering addicts, except for young, beautiful women playing gritty characters (Charlize Theron in Monster; Hally Berry in Monster's Ball). Hathaway, though, doesn't settle for the contrived route. Instead she indebted Kym with so many idiosyncratic mannerisms and mood swings that she sometimes comes off as a bit of a sympathetic figure despite her sometimes horrid actions. This performance has seemed like a long time coming. Trained in theater and highly knowledgeable in literature, Hathaway has come a long way from The Princess Diaries, and Rachel Getting Married is her at her full potential.

Angelina Jolie, CHANGELING

The most puzzling snub at last year's Academy Awards was the mysterious absence of Jolie's incredible performance in the small, but breathtaking film A Mighty Heart. It's the kind of performance that draws Oscar traction--weepy, independent female lead--but in the end she was left in the dust. So one year later, she takes a role that is even more bait-y: still weepy, still an independent female, but this time we'll mix in a little Clint Eastwood magic and voila!, we have an Oscar nomination. I realize I'm coming off as smarmy, but this nomination is truly a retake for last year's blunder (as well as a chance to see Jolie and her main squeeze Brad Pitt walk the red carpet together). I guess I'm saying that I'm still disappointed that Sally Hawkins wasn't accepted into the shortlist.

But enough of that, let's talk about Jolie's performance. It's certainly a performance of 'actorly' mannerisms, where buckets of tears and melodrama can easily take the place of an actual character arc. Not that that's precisely Jolie's fault- she does make the most of her character. As Christine Collins, a mother of a kidnapped boy, she expresses the natural emotions that a mother would have if she'd lost her son, but the fun begins when the boy the police return isn't even her son. Jolie is given full opportunity to scream, throw dishes, and be enlisted in the occasional insane asylum. Perhaps if the film were a bit shorter and not so self-aware (actually referencing the Academy Awards within the film? Come on, Clint), it would have been more effective, and though Jolie does make the most of her chance, I still don't find it more than manufactured sentiment.


Is Frozen River 2008's "little movie that could"? There are a few films from last year that could make that claim, but none of them are of the thematic quality of Frozen River. As the story of a middle-aged woman's struggles to get her young boys a new home, it displays its characters so transparently that there is never a moment that seems unearned. As Ray Eddy, Leo digs her teeth into the role of a lifetime. Leo was never said to be a movie star, being known mostly for her spot work on television and the film 21 Grams, and I'm sure that was the only way filmmaker Courtney Hunt could rationalize being able to make this film for only $200,000.

Back to Leo, though. Many a film producer or studio head would look at her less-than-youthful face and turn a blind eye. What they don't understand is that there is so much more to be told with a face like that than any young woman's visage. It's a face that breaks hearts, and in River, Leo does just that. When Ray Eddy decides to help smuggle in illegal aliens, we don't question the ethics; we just look at her face and know that it is something she has to do. It's my favorite of the nominated performances, and the one that many consider to be the superior one. If enough people go into their ballots and say, "Well, Leo has the actual best performance," then I think there is much more momentum for a huge upset than people seem to realize.

Meryl Streep, DOUBT

Streep alluded to this fact as she won the Best Actress award at the SAG ceremony: she is almost unanimously considered to be the greatest living actress. Surely she has the pedigree: a record fifteen Oscar nominations, and probably more impressive is that it has never been more than four years between her nominations, meaning that she is seldom out of the social conscience. Now with the film Doubt, Streep shows that she is still the acting titan of legend. Playing the conniving, but insecure Sister Aloysius, Streep flexes her muscles and plays the harsh character with as much bite as needed. But probably more impressive is the fact that she relents, allowing the other actors to take center stage and grab the spotlight.

But let's not get carried away: the spotlight is always Streep's. Utilizing John Patrick Shanley's screenplay, Streep represents the self-conscious vanity and intolerance that is always present in the incredibly old school Catholic church. That being said, Doubt does not necessarily live up to "bad Catholic priests'" gimmick that it promotes itself with. If anything, the film devotes a good chunk of its time dissecting behaviors of the flawed but pious personalities. It's easy to get frustrated when Streep seems to get nominated for anything (at least this time it wasn't for Mamma Mia!), but it's the restraint combined with the intensity that really sneaks her in this time. Its amazing to see an actress as honored as Streep still being able to evolve further.

Kate Winslet, THE READER

I recently saw the Peter Jackson film Heavenly Creatures, which is most notable because of the fact that it was Kate Winslet's screen debut. At only eighteen, Kate Winslet was already fearless- was already adept at the balance between her innocent beauty and her ferocious ability- and it was obvious that she would be a great actress for years to come. Fifteen years and one Titanic later, Winslet has only solidified that pedestal that we placed her on so many years ago. With six career nominations and no wins, Winslet has already inspired the "when is she finally going to win one?" debate- even at the ripe age of 33. With Stephen Daldry's film The Reader, Winslet seems to have her best opportunity yet, and without a specific front-runner, she could certainly end up with that coveted Oscar.

Now, I have been a avid hater of The Reader. I don't care for its smugness, and its seemingly insensible use of the Holocaust to boost its prestige potential. Moreover, I didn't find Winslet particularly Earth-shattering in it. So I'm just going to talk about another Winslet performance from 2008 that I did love: Revolutionary Road. In Road, Winslet plays April Wheeler, a suburban housewife fed up with the mundane life that she and her husband Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) have fallen into. She's willing to do anything, even move to another country, to escape the Hell she seems trapped in. There is no happy ending for April, nor a happy beginning nor middle for that matter, and Winslet never takes her foot off the pedal here, driving the dim, harrowing aspects of the storyline right into the minds of the audience. I would be happy to see Winslet win for The Reader on Feb. 22, but forgive me if I think she'll be winning it for her work in two films from 2008.

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