TO glance at the Academy Award nominees for lead actor is to get a quick but thorough lesson in the major themes that dominated American movies last year. Almost to a man, Daniel Day-Lewis, Johnny Depp, George Clooney, Tommy Lee Jones and Viggo Mortensen played avenging anti-heroes in an immoral, amoral or morally relativistic world. They were grim, compromised and pessimistic, embodiments of the queasy morass we find ourselves in and a reflection of the national mood.
To glance at the Academy Award nominees for lead actress is to get nothing of the sort. Granted, the actor category is flukishly consistent this time around, but the actress category has traditionally been a grab bag. It's no wonder why. Major studio motion pictures with women in the lead are rare enough that they're unlikely to spawn trends. The problem isn't the lack of good performances, it's the lack of roles that can truly be considered leading.
There are years when the category seems as if it was tossed together from whatever was left in the pantry -- inventive but a little meager. Whereas other years -- 2006, where are you now?-- can feel unusually strong. The nominees a year ago were notable not just for their great performances but also for the strength and singularity of the roles. Winner Helen Mirren's empathetic transformation into Queen Elizabeth in "The Queen" quietly accomplished what would have seemed impossible earlier: shifting some of the sympathy for the wildly beloved Princess Diana to the then-unpopular queen. From Judi Dench's turn as the bitter schoolteacher in "Notes on a Scandal," Meryl Streep's as the powerhouse editor in "The Devil Wears Prada," Penélope Cruz's as a working-class force of nature in "Volver" and even Kate Winslet's as a suburbanite adrift in "Little Children," the lead actress nominees embodied characters full of forward momentum, driven by ambition, duty or obsession, characters for whom the central drama is not domestic, and who, more notably, are neither icons nor symbols of anything.
This year's nominations fall into depressing patterns. Either the roles are archetypal in a way that Oscar voters recognize as "worthy," or the nominations feel like an attempt to honor a film or an actress for impressive box office returns or a nostalgic comeback. This is not to undermine the performances, all of which were good and some of which were technically virtuosic or wonderfully naturalistic. But what they seemed to lack as a whole is the visceral punch, the spit and vinegar of last year's nominees and of their counterparts in the actor category.
Talented as the actress nominees indisputably are, their roles (with the exception of one) felt contained and conscribed in a way the actor roles did not. There is not, for one thing, a villain among them. They're also nary an internal smack-down; no matter how morally compromised or sticky their situation, the characters sail through their dilemmas feathers mostly unruffled (Ellen Page's Juno, Julie Christie's Fiona), or default to diva mode (Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth, Marion Cotillard's Piaf) in a crisis, an evasive tactic if ever there was one.
COTILLARD'S portrayal of Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose" is a technical tour de force, making it the likely front-runner. As the troubled singer, whom she portrays from her late teens to her death at a ravaged 47 (going on 90), Cotillard gets to travel to wildly exotic emotional states courtesy of Piaf's bad mother, irresponsible father and terrible luck in love. Cotillard disappears completely into the role, emotionally and physically, transforming herself from a lovely young woman into a blowzy street waif and later a woman ravaged by years of tragedy, hard living and morphine addiction.
Nothing pleases academy voters quite like the sight of a beautiful woman transforming herself into a human wreck, but artist biopics are essentially hagiographies. They're intended for worship and idealization; they don't pose questions or invite identification so much as they demand a kind of distanced reverence. (See Edith suffer. See Edith suffer for France's sins.) As well-wrought as Cotillard's performance is, it's also hermetically sealed.
The Costume as Drama
THE same, or similar, goes for great historical figures with whom we have no current beef; any questions they pose become rhetorical. What else was "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" but a chance for Blanchett to rage, emote, strike awe and dress to intimidate? Of all the nominations, this is the one most redolent of category filler. Of course it's always possible for a performance to outclass a movie, but in this case, it doesn't. Blanchett plays dress-up and hams it up with the rest of the movie. It looks like fun, and Blanchett is as always a lovely and commanding presence, but there's nothing here that draws us into it or illuminates the character in a new way, in sharp contrast to, say, Mirren's portrayal of her contemporary counterpart and namesake.
BY now everyone knows that "Juno" has been such a commercial and critical juggernaut, it's unleashed a tidal wave of praise, a backlash and an anti-backlash. The reaction has lost all proportion to the merits or failings of the movie itself, which has its charms as well as its flaws, and Page's nomination is but the latest iteration of that. I loved the movie the first time I saw it but liked it a little less the second time around. And the reason for that was, well, Juno. The problem with "Juno" is that the structural soundness, originality and emotional effect of the story are all but smothered in the labored quirkiness of the dialogue, and particularly Juno's.
On first viewing, I took Juno's aggressively mannered way of speaking as an intentional symbol of her immaturity. On second viewing, not so much. Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman fare much better because they are allowed to utter sentences that communicate their thoughts and feelings, not adorn their personalities. "Your shirt is stupid," for instance, is an infinitely more effective line than the execrable and by now much-maligned "Silencio, old man."
The problem with the language is not that it illustrates the distance between the character and her emotions but that it creates a chasm between the actress and her character. ("I'm calling to procure a hasty abortion," she says, but there's no tension between her bravado and her real feelings.) Of course, I now think that the runaway success of "Juno" has as much to do with the aggressive idealization of the main character as with the story. Would the movie have crossed over if Juno displayed any emotion at all before the last act? Probably not. Considering this, Page does a good job of letting her humanity shine through Juno's tiresome posturing whenever possible, but the words fight her and win.
IF Cotillard doesn't win for technical virtuosity and Page doesn't win for sheer cultural influence, it's likely that the Oscar will go to Christie for her performance as a woman succumbing to Alzheimer's in "Away From Her," Sarah Polley's first feature (and possibly "Juno's" polar opposite). "Away From Her" is a tender and even-handed feature with many lovely moments in it, but Christie's character is more attenuated than she needs to be, and she comes across as hemmed in by her dignity and elegance. Like Juno, she's a model of unlikely behavior, a paradigm of stoic bravery when faced with a situation that would cause most people to fall directly to pieces.
Throughout the ordeal of losing her memory, Fiona remains primarily concerned with the well being of her husband, Grant (Gordon Pinsent, whose complex and nuanced performance was overlooked come nomination time). It's not until she loses her identity that her concern for him becomes secondary -- but even then it's replaced by her affection for a man she meets in the nursing home. As interesting as the intimations that Fiona may be playing a passive-aggressive trick on Grant are, they didn't quite convince me. Christie plays Fiona as a paragon of class -- she's vague, wry, forbearing. But as gorgeous and dignified as she is, she's also a bit of a doormat.
The Spare Woman
SO what of Laura Linney's portrayal of the somewhat-damaged, slightly over-the-hill, not-too-terribly miserable failed artist Wendy Savage in Tamara Jenkins' wonderful "The Savages"? Wendy is everything that characters who tend to elicit Oscars are not: She's in a toxic relationship with an inappropriate man, but he doesn't beat her, take her money or even walk out on her. She has sacrificed her youth and her future to art, but it hasn't made her famous, so it doesn't count. She's past her prime, but she's still cute and she works at it. In short, she's an interesting, complex, recognizable modern woman.
Linney's performance (like the outrageously double-snubbed Philip Seymour Hoffman) is brilliant for its fearless specificity and its attention to detail. She's a liar and an egotist and lives in a bog of self-delusion -- she's Juno grown-up, having taken a few more wrong crucial turns. Of course, had she gotten pregnant at 16, you can be sure she would have behaved in ways infinitely more contradictory and interesting than Juno. And should dementia afflict her in later years (it's genetic, after all), you can bet that she won't go stoically or elegantly or hipster fabulously into that good night.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun