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Some Versatile and Ever-surprising Actors

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While it’s depressing that Miranda Richardson (in fact the feminist-minded Made in Dagenham in general) was shut out of competition and that Olivia Williams – who was so amazing in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer – has never been properly lauded in spite of a career of beautifully low-key work for directors like Wes Anderson (Rushmore) and M. Knight Shymalan (The Sixth Sense) is vile, it was still a thrill to see British vet Gemma Jones work with Woody Allen to good effect on You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and to watch Ruth Sheen’s gloriously wry reactions to Lesley Manville’s debauchery in Another Year. Is Oscars affair with more mature English ladies crashing to an end? Please say it isn’t so! Had Manville been campaigned as a supporting actress, this would have been her Oscar to lose.

Oscars track record of nominating young actresses in this category is strong. Besides the aforementioned Duke and O’Neal (who won at ages s16 and ten, respectively), there is fellow winner Anna Paquin who took the statuette home at the ripe old age of eleven for her work in The Piano. Quinn Cummings (The Goodbye Girl), Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine), and Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) were all Oscar nominees years before they could even think about getting driver’s licenses. That the tradition will likely not be upheld this by Elle Fanning, who gives a bravura, natural performance in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (opposite an equally wonderful Stephen Dorff as her famous actor dad), is unfortunate. Fanning’s work in Coppola’s quietly beautiful, mysterious movie was lovely and she really illuminated her character’s interior in key dramatic scenes and in the more light and funny scenes, making her much more complex than just another boring Hollywood brat. Her ice-skating sequence, set to Gwen Stefani’s song “Cool” is one of my favorites of the year. Sadly for Fanning, the Academy doesn’t really like to give too much space to young ladies, and this year it seems her rightful spot amongst the nominees will be taken by another young woman in a more widely-embraced movie: Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit, even though she is clearly the lead of her film, is in nearly every scene, and not really “supporting” anyone.

My winner this year, though, is the versatile, ever-surprising Naomi Watts, mainly for her spot-on turn in Rodrigo Garcia’s excellent Mother and Child, but also for her counterpoint, comedic work in Allen’s film, which shows a different side of the gifted Aussie, who has been nominated for one Oscar previously, as Best Actress for 21 Grams (one of the Academy’s most egregious snubs was to her performance in Mulholland Drive in 2001). As Elizabeth, the confused, fiercely intelligent and independent young lawyer, Watts sets a new standard. She explores each facet of her character, never shying away from being petulant, from being wounded, from being very complicated and human. Elizabeth is prickly, just as her birth mother Karen (Annette Bening), who gave her up for adoption thirty five years ago is, and just as lost. As Watts gorgeously pulls out all of the stops, going from outrageous to arch to venomous within seconds in some scenes, it becomes more and more impossible to think of another actress playing this part, which feels tailor-made for Watts’ custom blend of feminine guile, sensuality and sensibility. She is an actress who gets better and better with each passing year and it feels like the right time to recognize her willingness to take on daring, funny, dark, real women in a variety of films and roles, as she proved this year with her well-played leading turn as Valerie Plame in Fair Game and her supporting roles in Mother and Child and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Strangers. You don’t see too many movie stars pulling that kind of versatility off much these days, so Watts should be commended for her continuing dedication to trying on truly new personalities every year. 

1. Naomi Watts … Mother and Child & You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
2. Melissa Leo … Conviction, The Fighter & Welcome to the Rileys
3. Phylicia Rashad ... For Colored Girls
4. Jacki Weaver … Animal Kingdom
5. Elle Fanning … Somewhere
6. Amy Adams … The Fighter
7. Kimberly Elise … For Colored Girls
8. Kerry Washington … For Colored Girls & Mother and Child
9. Olivia Williams … The Ghost Writer
10. Miranda Richardson … Made in Dagenham
11. Ruth Sheen … Another Year
12. Thandie Newton … For Colored Girls
13. Loretta Devine … For Colored Girls
14. Barbara Hershey … Black Swan
15. Dale Dickey … Winter’s Bone
16. Gemma Jones … You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
17. Marion Cotillard … Inception
18. Patricia Clarkson … Easy A & Shutter Island
19. Sissy Spacek … Get Low
20. Rebecca Hall … Please Give & The Town

Best Actress
With this category, I was so tempted to include Joan Rivers, who contends in A Piece of Work that she has been playing the character of “Joan Rivers”, and perfecting it, for her entire life (and she is riveting in the film and in the “part”, as an accelerated, meta version of herself). In the end, I decided that performances in non-fiction films, even though they can be just as highly scripted and constructed as those in traditional cinema, will not be eligible to be in this particular conversation about great female acting, especially in one of the finest years for women and womens’ roles – particularly for women over 40 – in at least a decade.

Though Black Swan remains my favorite film of the year, and I earlier this year I had initially thought that star Natalie Portman was unbeatable in this category, subsequent viewings of the Fox Seachlight monster art house hit have revealed to me that while the film no doubt succeeds in part to Portman’s cagey turn as a nutty ballerina, the film is not necessarily all about her performance, as transformative it is. What it’s all about, however, is the luscious spate of technical delights that magician Aronofsky pulls out of his director’s hat, it’s about what film critic Tom Gunning referred to as “the aesthetics of astonishment,” about the spectacle of the film as a whole, but not entirely about the central performance of Nina, as competent and revealing as Portman is. The actress remains in my number three slot for her daring, dark work, but she ends up being bested for the runner up spot by veteran British actor Lesley Manville in Mike Leigh’s tremendous Another Year, a film that gets better and better as time goes by. Manville’s performance as the wasted Mary is the stuff of Giulietta Masina-like legend,  though in terms of the Oscar derby, it looks as though the actress may be a) eclipsed by more well-known stars and b) become a victim of category confusion as her all-eyes-on-me role straddles that tenuous line between key supporting player and leading lady. 

But when I really sat down and poured thought into who this year’s best, most exploratory work was from, all signs kept pointing back to Nic and Jules – aka Annette Bening and Julianne Moore aka the two greatest American actresses of their generation. It would be an outright crime to not recognize these women in this year, and to recognize them separately borders on a capital offense. Three time Oscar nominee Bening has received the lion’s share of kudos for her work in Lisa Cholodenko’s tonally-confused Focus offering The Kids are All Right, which was a modest art house hit over the summer, but co-star Moore has been routinely given the shaft during the awards gambit this year (though she is a widely-respected four-time previous Academy Award nominee). Many pundits speculate that it’s because of the two central female characters – who happen to be everyday lesbian moms in a relationship and family crisis – Moore is given the more unlikable and unsympathetic of the two: the cheater, the transgressor. Though Bening’s doctor-breadwinner is just as brash and unlikable at times, as well as prone to fits of red wine-fueled uber-bitchery, her position is one more voters can likely empathize with. Artistic collaboration between two people at the top of their games is already intoxicating enough to see in practice, but the chemistry that occurs between Bening and Moore is effortless, and like Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise or Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment, its not really possible to spotlight one performance without at least considering the other.

Matt Mazur is a Brooklyn-based film publicist who works on campaigns for documentaries, independent and foreign language films. A die-hard cinephile and lover of pop culture, he spends his free time writing about what he is not working on. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Mazur

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