Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Boyhood.

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 Supporting Actress

The nominees are:

Patricia Arquette for Boyhood
Emma Stone for Birdman
Keira Knightley for The Imitation Game
Meryl Streep for Into the Woods
Laura Dern for Wild

Three mothers, a daughter, and a colleague – those are the characters portrayed by the five women nominated for Best Supporting Actress, not exactly a full range of human experiences, but look closer. Among those you have an all-powerful witch, a strong, resilient teacher, and a brilliant mathematician. Now things are starting to look a little better.

With good reason, the topic of quality roles for women comes up constantly in the Oscar season and beyond. Undoubtedly, there are too few female-led films, too few stories told about the great women throughout history – or even the not-so-great women. More roles, however, do not necessarily mean better roles. What we need are more parts for women that are as deep, complex, and emotionally rich as their male counterparts. That will be progress.

Not all of the nominees for Best Supporting Actress this year fit that mold, which is a shame, considering how many great performances were left on the sidelines in favor of these. However, the two roles here that do require depth and soul are two of the best characters of the year and feature two of the best performances. These are all great actresses, and with the right material, each is capable of delivering stunning work, as proven by the two actresses here who were given some of the best material of the year. Hopefully, the best material keeps coming to all of them.

Patricia Arquette for Boyhood – There is a way of reading Boyhood wherein Arquette is the film’s lead, and I do not think anyone would have blinked had she been nominated in the Best Actress category. While the film ostensibly concerns the coming of age of a young Texas boy, Arquette plays the woman who raises that boy while at the same time figuring out the person she wants to be. Most parents who see the film instantly identify with Arquette’s struggle as she bounces around from being a single mother to an abused wife to a single mother again, all while striving to do what is best for her children.

Arquette comes from an acting family, and she has been in the Hollywood game almost 30 years. She spent 12 of those years making Boyhood. The dedication alone is enough to impress, but the awards success she has already seen for the film goes deeper than that. Reflecting back on Boyhood, it is her character and her journey that stand out as pivotal to the film.

Writer-director Richard Linklater and Arquette collaborate to make the character more than a mom. She is a wife, a lover, a student, and a teacher. She is a real person with real regrets and real fears about where her choices in life are taking her and where they have brought her. When she wonders aloud toward the end of the film what dedicating her life to her children has brought her, we cannot shame her for feeling that. We can only empathize with a woman who has given so much in life and received so little.

Emma Stone for Birdman – Sam, as played by Stone, is the voice of her generation, but it is not meant to be a flattering portrayal. As washed-up actor Riggan Thompson’s (Michael Keaton) daughter, Sam is all self-absorption and self-importance. She has an answer for questions she has not yet been asked and opinions on topics about which she knows nothing. She is the social media culture incarnate and a dire warning for where a generation raised on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube may be headed.

Stone is perfect in the role, bringing the energy and anger of youth with a hint of deeply buried vulnerability. About midway through the film, Stone delivers a monologue so brutal and so cutting that it threatens to take the character beyond the point of redemption, but with the subtlest change in her facial expression, Stone brings us back around, if not to her side, then to the middle. Wordlessly, she expresses regret about her tirade but resolutely refuses to admit she may have been wrong. It is a moment that relies entirely on the actress’ face, and Stone nails it.

Meryl Streep for Into the Woods – You all know Meryl Streep. You know what she has accomplished – three Academy Awards and 19 nominations, more than any other actor in history. She has tried everything and been everybody – a factory worker, a prime minister, a singer, a druggie, an adventurer, and a nun, among countless other roles. She is a legend who could show up to work and earn a nomination for her safe driving, if such an organization existed to hand out awards. Ultimately, that is part of the problem.

Streep is good in the part of the witch. There is no denying it, but the kneejerk reaction to Streep piling on the makeup or putting on an accent is to nominate her for an award. I am saying that should probably stop. If Academy members really think this performance, this year, is one of the five best performances by an actress in a supporting role, they need to see more movies. Royalty is royalty. The prize is being such. We do not need to weigh her down with more accolades just for showing up, donning a wig, and belting out a few songs, however ably. Let’s think outside the box once in a while.

Keira Knightley for The Imitation Game – Not yet 30 years old, Knightley is a two-time nominee who has shown a facility for transitioning from epic blockbusters to period dramas to low-budget indies. In 2014 alone, she appeared in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, The Imitation Game, and Begin Again. She is an immensely talented actresses with many years of strong characters and great performances ahead of her. The Imitation Game, however, will hopefully be just a footnote to her career.

As capable as Knightley is, she is given little to do as Joan Clarke, Alan Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) colleague, wife, and confidante. Though we are briefly shown Clark’s talent for mathematics and code breaking, the film serves as an ode to the greatness of Turing. As such, Clark is written merely as another character to stand in awe of Turing and bear witness to his greatness. Knightley does her best, but she is hamstrung by a part that as written, lacks complexity or emotional depth.

Laura Dern for Wild – Speaking of good actresses with minimal characters to play, Dern makes little more than a couple cameo appearances in Wild, despite being the whole reason for the story. Dern plays Bobbi, Cheryl Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon) mother. We see her only in flashbacks as Strayed hikes up the Pacific Crest Trail. We learn more about Bobbi from Strayed’s voiceovers and conversations with other people than we do in the precious little screen time Dern actually has.

Some of this is due to the script and some is due to director Jean-Marc Vallée’s impressionistic style, which requires that actors in small roles have a big impact. Vallée has cast the right actress for the task in Dern, but her passivity only serves to undercut any strength Dern would have brought to the part. The character mostly serves as a sounding board for Witherspoon’s more assertive Strayed. None of this is to say Dern’s performance is bad, but awards worthy it is not.

The final analysis

When it comes to the win, there is Arquette and no one else. She has won every conceivable precursor award, including from the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globes, and the British Academy of Film and Television. She will win the Oscar in a walk, and it will be as much for her performance in Boyhood as for a lifetime of turning in strong work in film and on television. She is a deserving actress, and I look forward to her acceptance speech.

Will win: Patricia Arquette for Boyhood
Should win: Emma Stone for Birdman
Wish she had been here: Katherine Waterston for Inherent Vice

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