Friday, February 19, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Actress

Brie Larson is far and away the frontrunner this year for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Room.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Actress

The nominees are:

Cate Blanchett for Carol
Brie Larson for Room
Jennifer Lawrence for Joy
Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn

I have not seen a more competitive year at the Oscars than this in my time following them. It seems like every category has two or three legitimate contenders that could come away victorious. Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant are battling it out through the crafts categories, while The Big Short and Spotlight wait in the wings, ready to pounce on the top awards. Nothing seems particularly settled, and that has made this season exciting.

Nothing is settled, that is, except the top two acting categories. It took longer than it usually does, but one actor and one actress have risen to the top, and each now seems assured of an Academy Award win. We will talk about Best Actor tomorrow, but today, we are focused on Best Actress in an incredibly strong year for women.

You can always determine the quality of the year by the strength of the performances not nominated, and this year, we have Yana Novikova in The Tribe, Marion Cotillard in Macbeth, and Sarit Larry in The Kindergarten Teacher all on the sidelines, along with many other wonderful performances. The five actresses below have all turned in tremendous work, but only one has run away with every award under the sun, including the Screen Actors Guild Award, the BAFTA, and the Golden Globe.

Brie Larson for Room – Larson has been appearing onscreen since she was 9 years old and is now in line to become the 11th-youngest Best Actress winner in the 88-year history of the Academy Awards. She has dominated the awards circuit thus far this season, and barring a major scandal in the very near future, she will roll to that richly deserved Oscar win in a little more than a week’s time.

One of the best things about Larson’s awards success is that it has driven more people to discover the film and her work in it. Room is a harrowing experience but one which rewards viewers willing to endure it. As Joy, the kidnapping and sexual abuse survivor at the heart of the story, Larson is among the film’s chief draws. She is battered but not broken, terrorized but not terrified. She is a survivor whose pain we could never imagine, but through Larson’s performance, we come that much closer to understanding the character’s personal hell.

Some have said viewers will find the film too painful to sit through, too difficult to watch. To a degree, that is the point. To sexual slavery and abuse, which goes on in every part of this world, we too often turn a blind eye. Those unwilling to see this film are the very people who need to see it most. Abrahamson has done a commendable job portraying the suffering and horror that exist in this world, but it all starts with a tremendous, committed performance by Larson.

Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn – At the beginning of this Oscar season, most pundits figured the Best Actress race would be a fight to the finish between Larson and Ronan, thinking Brooklyn would be more popular than it ultimately proved to be. It was not an unreasonable position to take. Brooklyn is a delicately moving romance about a shy, brave girl who makes her own way thousands of miles from home. If Room is an endurance test, then Brooklyn is its opposite, a feel-good story about perseverance.

Ronan is absolutely luminous as Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey. Though the plot may have all the trappings of a fairly drippy romance, Ronan’s performance makes us care about Eilis as a person. Ronan gives Eilis steadfastness and charisma that are not always present on the page, lending weight to the struggles of this lonely immigrant girl. Like Larson, Ronan made her first onscreen appearance at the age of 9, earning her first Oscar nomination at 13 for her supporting role in Atonement. She is a longshot to win the Oscar this year – as is everyone not starring in Room – but if she keeps choosing smart, interesting projects such as this and this year’s Lost River, she will be back.

Cate Blanchett for Carol – When Carol Aird enters a room, all eyes are on her. She is beautiful, yes, but she is alluring and mysterious in a dangerous way. You know you should not follow her, but the fear of what you could be missing out on is too much to bear. She is classy and confident, the kind of woman who knows what she wants and has little trouble getting it. Luckily for her, she is played by Blanchett, an actress about whom all the same things could be said.

Blanchett was nominated just two years ago and won Best Actress for her role in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. A seven-time nominee, she also won Best Supporting Actress in 2004 for Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. She is indisputably among the best actresses of her generation because she is unafraid of disappearing into her characters. She has been Bob Dylan and Katherine Hepburn, a Soviet commander and Queen Elizabeth I, and she is fiercely committed to creating the reality of each and every role. As Carol, Blanchett crafts an enigma, a human puzzle box at the center of the story that both the characters and the audience must solve.

Jennifer Lawrence for Joy – Lawrence is a hard actress to pin down. Just 25 years old, she is the youngest person ever with four acting nominations from the Academy, and she is also the second-youngest Best Actress winner in Academy history. She always delivers great performances, but sometimes, she seems at the mercy of the characters she is given to play. All of this is to say, she really needs to get back to doing work outside franchises or for David O. Russell. If she can get back to the kind of gritty, intense performance she gave in Winter’s Bone at 19, it seems she would be taking steps in a better artistic direction.

She is not bad in any of these films, but now, with The Hunger Games series at an end, she has an opportunity to break out and try something different. As a fictional version of Miracle Mop creator Joy Mangano, Lawrence is playing a strong-willed, intelligent woman of the sort Russell usually writes for her. This time out, though, the overall script is so shoddy that Lawrence can only do so much. She carries off the part with poise and professionalism, but she will have better roles and better chances to show off her talents in the future.

Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years – Putting aside her recent unfortunate comments regarding diversity at the Oscars this year, Rampling is well respected within the industry, and that veneration is most likely why she finds herself nominated here. I named this the best performance of the year, and I would say the contest is not close, but the Academy does not seem to have warmed to 45 Years the way it otherwise might have. It is an unfortunate oversight, and I hope more people discover this movie in the years to come. It is a treasure.

At the core of that treasure is Rampling and her emotionally raw, wounded performance as Kate Mercer. As a woman whose husband has been lying to her for nearly five decades, Rampling shows all the pain, betrayal, and hurt Kate experiences with little more than a furtive glance or a shift in posture. Due respect to her excellent scene partner, Tom Courtenay, but I would argue the entire film could be played in a tight close-up on Rampling’s face, and the emotional impact would still register. She has been in this game a long time and turned in some of the most iconic performances of European art-house cinema, but this may be her crowning achievement.

The final analysis

Larson will win her first Oscar. The honor is well earned, and one hopes she continues to make savvy decisions with her career, unlike so many other Oscar winners who cash in their prestige for a payday or two. She deserves her choice of roles right now – not just because she is young and people will pay to see her but because she is a gifted performer who will only get better as she gains experience.

Will win: Brie Larson for Room
Should win: Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years
Should have been here: Yana Novikova for The Tribe

Tomorrow: Best Actor

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