Thursday, February 19, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Actress

Julianne Moore is the frontrunner for Best Actress for her work in the film Still Alice.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Actress

The nominees are:

Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl
Julianne Moore for Still Alice
Felicity Jones for The Theory of Everything
Marion Cotillard for Two Days, One Night
Reese Witherspoon for Wild

Despite the consistent, misguided fear that Best Actress will be a weak field – a fallacy we addressed in this space a few months back – the Academy managed to put together a magnificent list of nominees this year. All five women do excellent work as powerful, strong-willed women. Nowhere in this group will you find a meek house frau or someone who is just a wife and mother. To be sure, there are wives and mothers in here, but they are not defined solely by their family lives. They are defined by their strength, perseverance, and agency.

The same could be said for these five actresses, among whom there are two first-time nominees, two former winners, and a beloved industry veteran with five nominations but no Oscar. Pike and Jones are enjoying their first trip to the ceremony, while Witherspoon and Cotillard are back for the first time since their respective wins in the category. Cotillard is the last person to win this award for a foreign-language performance – and the only person in the last 50 years to do so – a feat she will try to replicate this year.

In the past, voters tended to like ingĂ©nues or beautiful women who ugly themselves up such as Charlize Theron in Monster, Nicole Kidman in The Hours, or Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry. Recently, however, they have been on a kick of giving this prize to an actress who plays a character with a mental illness. Three of the last four actresses to win this award played a character who is mentally ill, and somewhere in there is a joke about Margaret Thatcher making it four of the last four. This recent history bodes well for the presumed frontrunner and likely winner.

Julianne Moore for Still Alice – Moore has spent her career delivering knockout performance after knockout performance. She has been nominated for an Academy Award five times for roles in films as diverse as Boogie NightsFar From Heaven, and The End of the Affair. In Still Alice, she plays a world-renowned linguist who is struck in the prime of her life by early-onset Alzheimer’s. It strikes suddenly and deteriorates quickly, turning Alice into someone neither she nor her family recognizes anymore.

Moore is brilliant in a role that is obviously emotionally taxing but also surprisingly physical. As the disease progresses, Moore slackens her face and shuffles her feet, using small gestures and movements to suggest just how far Alice is slipping away. In the time right after the diagnosis, she is determined to fight it and angry over how something like this could happen to her. Later, the fear sets in as she is able to feel herself transforming into a shadow of her former self. Finally, there is nothing there at all.

Still Alice is an honest, bracing film that takes an unflinching look at how disease can shape our lives and the lives of those around us. Directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer have cast a perfect actress in Moore. She has both the bravery and vulnerability to give herself over to this challenging role and the talent to make it come alive.

Reese Witherspoon for Wild – Witherspoon has had a rough stretch personally these last few years, but creatively, she is experiencing something of a renaissance. Appearing in the fantastic Mud in 2012 and Wild and Inherent Vice this year, she has shown a willingness to stretch as an actress and to take on roles in challenging, high-minded films. As Cheryl Strayed, a woman who embarks on a solo hike up the Pacific Crest Trail, Witherspoon devotes herself to a highly physical part that requires her to carry not only the weight of her pack but the weight of the film.

It would have been nice if the film had given Witherspoon’s performance more room to breathe because she is magnificent in the quiet, lonely moments on the trail. When she has nothing but the stars and her thoughts, Witherspoon is able to bring out the most in Strayed. However, the film piles on the voiceovers and flashbacks, pulling us away from the central journey and somewhat burying Witherspoon’s performance. The actress mostly shines through this, but it would have been interesting to see her in a more subdued version of this film.

Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl – As intense an emotional journey as Moore goes on in Still Alice and as physically trying as Witherspoon’s role was in Wild, no nominated performance asked more of its actress than the part of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl required of Pike. She is the smartest person in the room, an angel and the devil, and a goddess among mortals who by design never seems anything more than ordinary. She is a perfect sociopath.

If she were not in such a middling film that was clearly disliked by the Academy – as evidenced by this being its lone nomination – Pike might even have a shot at the upset win here. The movie was a huge hit, and the work is exceptional, but more than likely, Pike will have to be satisfied with just the nomination this time. Hopefully, the recognition means Pike will be afforded more opportunities to play intriguing, complex characters. If so, she will be back in the mix again someday. 

Felicity Jones for The Theory of Everything – Jones falls into the “If it’s new to me, then it’s news to me” category for me. Before The Theory of Everything, I had never seen anything she had done, except for one episode of Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls, for which Jones played a character named Dot. I have no idea who that is. So, I had no frame of reference for what Jones was capable of, but when she appears in The Theory of Everything, she absolutely commands the screen. My introduction to Jones as an actress was one of the most pleasant surprises I experienced at the movies last year.

Jane Hawking, wife to the famed physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), is a thankless character for an actor to play. Redmayne is playing the clearly flashier part, while Jones has the role marked by dogged determination and immense internal struggle. Her challenge as an actress is to make that internal conflict compelling to watch, and she proves more than able to rise to the challenge. Jones plays Jane Hawking as a graceful, strong, and flawed woman whose struggle feels real because we can read it on the actress’ face and hear it in her voice.

Marion Cotillard for Two Days, One Night – The surprise nominee in the category, Cotillard has turned in consistently strong work throughout a career that has spanned more than 20 years, but she really broke out onto the international stage the last time she was nominated for an Oscar, when she won Best Actress for La Vie en Rose in 2007. In the intervening years, she has starred in major Hollywood blockbusters for big-name directors such as Christopher Nolan and Michael Mann, but her best work remains in smaller films such as The Immigrant, Rust and Bone, and Two Days, One Night.

Cotillard was a big get for directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who have spent their careers making art-house films about the struggles of average people. Some wondered how casting a big Hollywood star would affect the feel of the Dardennes’ work. The answer: She takes a good film about a simple moral dilemma and transforms it into a great film about the small human dramas that play out in our everyday lives. As a woman forced to beg and plead for her job, Cotillard maintains her sense of pride and poise, even as she throws herself on the mercy of her friends and co-workers.

The final analysis

Having won every meaningful precursor, this is Moore’s to lose, but she will not lose. A multiple nominee long overdue for an award and an industry favorite turning in career-topping work, Moore will win this in a walk. This is not to say the other nominated actresses would not make deserving winners, particularly Pike and Cotillard, but they simply will not win. For a sterling career and a magnificent turn in Still Alice, Moore will walk away Sunday with her first Oscar.

Will win: Julianne Moore for Still Alice
Should win: Julianne Moore for Still Alice
Wish she had been here: Charlotte Gainsbourg for Nymphomaniac

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