Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Actress

Emma Stone is nominated for Best Actress for her role as Mia Dolan in La La Land.

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 leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Actress

The nominees are:

Isabelle Huppert for Elle
Ruth Negga for Loving
Natalie Portman for Jackie
Emma Stone for La La Land
Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins

One woman wants to act, and another just to sing. One is burdened by the shattered dreams of a nation, while another is held down by that nation’s history of prejudice and injustice. Another seeks to explore her deeper self after a brutal act uncovers hidden desires she never knew. In a Hollywood system that often marginalizes women and trivializes their stories and experiences, it is refreshing to celebrate a list of films that put their female performances front and center. 

Among this group are five wonderful performers all at different stages in their careers. Streep is of course a living legend with three Oscars to her name and an inspiration to anyone who dreams of acting. Portman is the Oscar winner and former child star who has grown up before our eyes and now delivers the performance of her career in the role of a lifetime.

Huppert and Negga are both first-time nominees, but while Huppert is already a goddess of world cinema, Negga is only now beginning to garner the recognition she deserves. Finally, there is the ingénue, Stone, who is just 28 but made her feature film debut a decade ago and has an Oscar nod under her belt already. It is a remarkable group, among the best the Academy has ever put together, and the only shame is that one must be declared the winner above the others.

Emma Stone for La La Land – For whatever else the Academy looks for in performances, members really love to see themselves on screen, or rather, their ideal selves. The character of actress Mia Dolan is nothing if not an actor’s ideal self. She is young, pretty, talented, motivated, and devoted. She dreams big and chases those dreams with the kind of tenacity we all wish we possessed. She tries and fails, tries and fails, and tries again because for her, there is little else but the dream.

How perfect then that the character is portrayed by Stone, who is about as close to those ideals as a real person could comfortably come. She has been magnificent before in films like Irrational Man or Birdman, for which she received her first nomination, but this is a more challenging and abstract role than she has ever been asked to play. In many ways, Mia is hope come to life, optimism incarnate. Her experience is what we imagine it is like to dream so big. We know it cannot be easy, or always fun or rewarding, but if we dream for the right reasons, then we do so because it is necessary.

Stone is tasked with portraying all of this, and while the ups and downs of being an actor must be very close to her heart, she must also be all things to all people in this role. She is not only what we think of the character but what we think of ourselves. It is truly an unfair burden to place on a performer, to ask that she embody the character and the audience, but Stone is up to the task. She encounters hope and despair; she loves, and she loses; she laughs, and she cries; she sings, and she dances; but most of all, she dreams.

Natalie Portman for Jackie – As an actress portraying a woman with the weight of the world on her shoulders, Portman carries the weight of history on hers. There is no easy way to step into the shoes of one of the 20th century’s most famous and influential figures. It requires the actor to disappear, as all great performances do, but it also requires the subject to emerge. It is not enough for the actor to hide behind a costume or an accent or a physicality. Oh, all of these are parts of the performance, but it takes a special act to embody the full nature of someone like Jacqueline Kennedy. If there is one thing Portman is and always has been as a performer, it is special.

I have written at length about Portman’s performance, which is one of the great screen portrayals of a historical figure. I will not go on much here, then, except to say that for an hour and 40 minutes, Jackie becomes a living, breathing person again, and that is all thanks to Portman’s performance. This is not some dryly historical interpretation of a famous person but rather a complete abstraction, as Portman removes the associations and clichés and cultural baggage, beginning anew with the raw portrait of a grieving woman who summons the strength to persevere and to thrive.

Portman earned her first Oscar nomination in 2004 at the age of 23 for Closer, but she was thereafter mostly associated either with her role in the Star Wars prequels or as cinema’s preeminent manic pixie dream girl in Garden State. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2010 for Black Swan and has remained mostly out of the public eye since, apart from a few choice roles and her supporting appearances in Marvel’s blockbuster Thor movies. Jackie, then, marks a triumphant return to the Oscars for Portman and serves as a reminder she is one of the most talented performers working today.

Isabelle Huppert for Elle – Some nominations inspire spontaneous cheers in my home when they are announced, like Charlotte Rampling last year for Best Actress for 45 YearsInherent Vice for Best Costumes, In Bruges for Best Original Screenplay, and so on. Add Huppert to that list. For all the complaints – an annual tradition around the Oscars – about the Academy not casting a wide enough net and failing to look outside a certain subset of films, nominations like this serve as proof of the Academy’s willingness to reward brilliant work, no matter where it must be found.

Huppert’s work in Elle is undeniably brilliant. It is also brave, dangerous, and compelling. Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc. When the film opens, Michèle is brutally attacked and raped by a masked intruder in her home, but Huppert never portrays the character as a victim. She is the master of her fate, taking control of a situation that would be permanently scarring for most. This is an attitude she carries in both her personal and professional life, and in her uncomfortable interactions even with friends and family, Huppert shows us how difficult it must be to be this person all the time.

Director Paul Verhoeven’s film gives the character license to be mean, to be angry, to be petty, and Huppert seizes that license and runs with it. Huppert plays Michèle like a woman ready to chew up anything and anyone in her path, despite dealing with the aftereffects of her attack, which are not what the audience expects nor what Michèle likely imagined. It is a supremely confident, consistently surprising performance from one of the best actresses of her generation.

Ruth Negga for Loving – How wonderful would it be to live in a world where such stories needed no telling because such atrocities never occurred? What a beautiful dream that is. The truth, however, cannot be denied that at one time in this country, marriage between people of different races was outlawed. The dastardly things this says about the nation are too many to count. Mildred Loving never wanted to make history by ending this hideous practice. She just wanted to marry the man she loved and live in the state she chose.

Negga’s performance beautifully captures the irony that one need not be a radical person to change the world when simply living your life is a radical act. Negga’s work is more subdued and unassuming than her nominated peers, but it is no less powerful. Mildred is not a meek figure but rather quiet and resolute, which is how Negga portrays her. She knows what she wants, and with righteousness on her side, she sees a path to attain it. These stories need telling because these atrocities occurred, but how wonderful it is that people like Mildred Loving exist to stand up and declare what is right when so many others were so afraid.

The Ethiopian-born, Irish-raised Negga is a celebrated stage actress and is a prominent performer on UK television, and while she has cropped up in films like World War Z and Warcraft, she is probably best known to American audiences for her role on the TV show Preacher. It is my sincere hope this recognition and this performance allow her to scale the highest peaks of the industry and bring her the kind of prominence she deserves.

Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins – Sitting on the coffee table in front of me as I type this is the latest book on Streep, covering her early years in Hollywood. Written by Michael Schulman, it is aptly, and cheekily, called Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep. In accepting her Best Actress Oscar for 2011’s The Iron Lady, her third Academy Award, Streep mused half of America must be thinking, “Oh, no. Her. Again.” Whether that assessment was correct then, America has had many more chances to think such things with Streep picking up another three nominations since, including this one. That brings her record total to a nice, round 20.

It becomes easier with each one to dismiss the work. Streep is something of a Hollywood institution and an Academy Awards fixture. Since her first nomination – in 1978 for The Deer Hunter – there have been more years in which she has been nominated than in which she has not. On its face, that seems absurd, and I am sure we will get all the familiar jokes about it at this year’s ceremony. The fact is sometimes the Academy really does seem to nominate her just for doing work and being Meryl Streep, as I complained on this site two years ago. Happily, I can report this is not a case such as that.

Now, Florence Foster Jenkins is by no means a good movie, nor is it worthy of the performance Streep delivers in the title role. Florence is a wealthy music patron with dreams of singing opera. She has no vocal ability to speak of but uses her money and influence to give performances to her friends and hangers-on. If you will pardon the expression, Streep gives a full-throated performance here, diving into Florence’s character as a woman who lacks talent but is gifted with deep wells of breathless enthusiasm and confidence. The movie’s message is objectionable – it wants to say, “Pursue your dreams no matter what,” but instead says, “Rich white people can have anything they want.” However, Streep’s performance is golden and this nomination hard-earned.

The final analysis

It initially seemed like this would be a competitive year in this category with Portman and Huppert earning most of the critical plaudits while Stone carried nearly every scene of the popular Best Picture frontrunner. Right around the time Huppert beat out Portman for the Golden Globe, though, Stone began building steam. She picked up her own Golden Globe, the BAFTA, and the SAG award. She will also be rewarded for providing the heart and soul of the likely Best Picture winner. Huppert could play spoiler, but expect this to be Stone’s night.

Will win: Emma Stone for La La Land
Should win: Natalie Portman for Jackie
Should have been here: Viola Davis for Fences

Tomorrow: Best Actor

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