As It Should Be
Cate Blanchett with fans
Academy Award Nominees
Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie for Changeling
Melissa Leo for Frozen River
Meryl Streep for Doubt
Kate Winslet for The Reader
Matt Mazur’s Nominees
Cate Blanchett for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Sally Hawkins for Happy-Go-Lucky
Melissa Leo for Frozen River
Kristin Scott Thomas for I’ve Loved You So Long
Michelle Williams for Wendy and Lucy
Runners Up: Juliette Binoche for Flight of the Red Balloon; Julianne Moore for Blindness and Savage Grace; and Tilda Swinton for Julia
Leave it to Oscar voters to make what is perhaps the most glaring snub of a beloved acting performance, maybe ever: Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky was roundly raved to the high heavens by critics and audiences (not least myself, see “No Girl So Sweet”), and won the majority of critic’s awards this season, beginning with the prestigious Silver Bear from the Berlinale last February. In winning the Golden Globe, and the New York Film and National Society of Film Critic’s awards, Hawkins made history by joining a select group of women who had swept the top critic’s prizes: Sally Field for Norma Rae, Streep for Sophie’s Choice, Michelle Pfeiffer for The Fabulous Baker Boys, Emma Thompson for Howard’s End, Holly Hunter for The Piano, and Helen Mirren for The Queen.
Notice that six of these seven actually won the Oscar, while one probably should have (Pfeiffer lost to Driving Miss Daisy’s Jessica Tandy, in trademark moment of Academy sentimentality). This snub that was heard around the world indicates not only a sharp turn away from reality and relevancy, but also a serious tailspin backward towards the organization’s xenophobic roots. It seems as though women don’t exist in the cinema outside of the United States if they don’t make money for the American film industry or they are considered peripheral when not in big budget Hollywood-friendly fare. The Hawkins snub is egregiously disgusting, proving that true quality is indeed not recognized every year.
How on earth did Cate Blanchett manage to get nominated last year for the flat Elizabeth: The Golden Age but miss out this year for a vivid performance in which she ages from 18 to 80-something and anchors the splashy romance between Benjamin Button and her character Daisy? Its also the first time Blanchett has top-lined a film that has made so much money. Daisy also happens to be, in my opinion, one of the strongest artistic leaps of her career so far. Yet the Academy sees fit to bestow a semi-gratuitous nod to an uninspired Streep in Doubt when it would have maybe been more interesting to see what one of her contemporaries might have done with a delicious character like Sister Aloysius (maybe a Kathy Bates or an Anjelica Huston?). Of course, she is a favorite to win on 22 February, but should have won her third for something more probing and artistic such as A Cry in the Dark, The Bridges of Madison County, or even Adaptation.
Rounding out my personal ballot would be the triumvirate of indie darlings: Melissa Leo, Kristin Scott Thomas and Michelle Williams, each of whom turned in career-best work. While each of these performances was championed in the press, there were grumblings that only one independent representative would be sat at the table this year, and lo and behold, so it was: Leo earned a justified nod, the best in the category. Scott Thomas and Williams, both fresh and daring in their respective films, were shunned in favor of the Angelina Jolie-Clint Eastwood-Changeling juggernaut. Breaking plates and saying, with a strained, Bronchitis-inspired yelp “I want my son back” a thousand times does not make for a compelling performance or a fully-rounded character, FYI. This nod to Jolie blatantly says “we want star-power nominated so people watch”.
Had voters dared to step even further outside the box, they might have noticed that the stalwart Julianne Moore delivered two intense, exploratory performances, as is her custom, in the reviled Blindness and the tawdry Savage Grace. Between these two unusual characterizations, Moore can easily lay claim to being the US’s most experimental, risk-taking actress working today. She is constantly stretching and trying new things. I can’t even think of another American actress brave enough or capable of playing Barbara Baekeland, the incestuous, unstable Bakelite plastic empire socialite. In French productions, there was last year’s knock-out Supporting Actress victor Tilda Swinton tearing it up with a ballsy, boozy leading lady turn as Julia and the gorgeously animated Juliette Binoche, aglow in the meditative Flight of the Red Balloon. But since their films really didn’t make any money and they don’t fit neatly into a “type”, they will go unnoticed, unfairly.
Sally Hawkins at the Berlin Film Festival
Best Supporting Actress
Academy Award Nominees
Amy Adams for Doubt
Penelope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis for Doubt
Taraji P. Henson for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei for The Wrestler
Matt Mazur’s Nominees
Penelope Cruz for Elegy and Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Hanna Schygulla for The Edge of Heaven
Marisa Tomei for The Wrestler
Misty Upham for Frozen River
Debra Winger for Rachel Getting Married
Runners Up: Patricia Clarkson for Elegy, Married Life and Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Bette Midler for Then She Found Me; and Hafsia Herzi for The Secret of the Grain
This is the category where Oscar and I most often disagree, where they generally get the nominees very wrong. There is a distinct lack of imagination to this category, as it stands, not only this year, but most. Eschewing real supporting performances for fraudulent leading lady turns or star power wattage, this is the category in which some of the most abominable atrocities have taken place (Renee’s guffawing, cracked-out Granny Clampett cartoon in Cold Mountain? Girl, please.) It is also where women who are deemed “due” in some way are often thrown a bone, usually because they are old and or British.
The aforementioned Zellweger had a hot streak of film performances that began in 1996, which included three straight years of winning the Golden Globe, and two consecutive Oscar nominations for Best Actress. The second nomination, for Chicago took the Screen Actor’s Guild Award, too, so when the actress lost to Nicole Kidman for The Hours, there was a misplaced feeling of guilt that dispersed amongst voters that indicated she was owed in some way. Magically, the very next year, she does a divisive, uneven supporting turn for a respected filmmaker and, well, sorry Shohreh Aghdashloo, Patricia Clarkson, Marcia Gay Harden, and Holly Hunter – you never stood a chance. Injustice!
This year, Oscar has ruefully nominated yet another African American woman for essentially playing a mammy – something that might have won Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939, but seems terribly anachronistic in 2009 when it is Taraji P. Henson opposite Brad Pitt. Henson’s baffling nomination for her paper-thin work in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button stands among the worst this category has ever produced, race notwithstanding. The actress should shoulder this blame, of course, with director David Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth, both of whom did her an extreme disservice by not ever allowing her character Queenie to seem real; she was always there to serve her white co-stars and she did absolutely nothing else. On the opposite end of the spectrum we have the absolutely phenomenal Misty Upham in Frozen River playing perhaps the most complex, substantial Native American female part in film history, yet she was never considered a strong contender, despite turning in one of the most original characters of the year, a sharply-drawn woman of color who has never been seen onscreen before. Epic fail, Oscar!
In Doubt, we have Amy Adams and Viola Davis, part of a quartet of acting nominations for this not-particularly exemplary film that colors well within the lines, taking zero chances. Davis is indeed blazing in her twelve minute role, and is a burst of life into an otherwise benign movie that shouldn’t have been so boring. Adams, who probably just missed out on being nominated for Best Actress for Enchanted last year is back, maybe at the expense of someone like German actress Hanna Schygulla. Schygulla, who gained notoriety for working with Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the brilliant The Marriage of Maria Braun way back in 1979, roared back onscreen with another similarly courageous contemporary talent: Fatih Akin. In the Kieslowskian The Edge of Heaven the veteran performer gets the chance to play an interesting, charismatic middle aged woman that is an essential to the triadic-structured narrative. Schygulla’s is a haunting, eloquently concise performance about loss and the grieving process which follows. The return to form of such a treasure of world cinema certainly merits more attention that a semi-retarded nun doesn’t it? At least the National Society of Film Critics was able to see past the obvious and award Schygulla as Best Supporting Actress.
Penelope Cruz, who might be seen as “due” by some voters after her bid for Best Actress two years ago for Volver, seems to be the front-runner for Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, thanks in part to Kate Winslet’s promotion to the leading category for The Reader. But wouldn’t it be more interesting to actually allow for a supporting player to combine their body of work for the year and be awarded for more than just a single performance? If Cruz’s performance in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona was eligible to be double-billed with her stellar, moving work in Isabelle Coixet’s Elegy, this would be a slam-dunk. Perhaps then, Cruz’s co-star in both films, Patricia Clarkson, the very definition of “supporting actress”, would actually stand a chance at a nomination, too, instead of just the huge, international movie star. Clarkson was also top-notch in Ira Sachs’ Married Life. I’m just saying…
Had Guillermo Arriaga’s The Burning Plain been released last year, former Supporting Actress winner Kim Basinger might have been in heavy contention for her excellent, thoughtful work. As it stands, this year’s crop of runners-up is a bit more thin than usual. Lena Olin was blazing in her two scene featured performance (as two separate characters) in the Holocaust drama The Reader. Anjelica Huston was solid in Choke. But then there are two very off-the-beaten path choices that merit much more consideration than they are being given: Hafsa Herzia for her sassy turn in the restaurant drama The Secret of the Grain and, shockingly, Bette Midler for her understated performance in Helen Hunt’s directorial debut Then She Found Me.
Herzia, because of how far outside of the conventional systems her film was, never stood a chance, and neither did Midler, really, either, despite being a two-time Oscar nominee, and a beloved, respected veteran who managed to find a more interesting part than most of her contemporaries are being offered right now. I know it sounds implausible, but Midler is very good in the film, playing a warm, funny and natural character that she makes her own in a very different way than we are used to seeing from her. Perhaps aside from their indie outsider status, they suffered from age bias: rarely are supporting actresses in their late teens or fifties rewarded in this category. Remember, Oscar loves its extremes. As Midler’s co-star Goldie Hawn so succinctly put it in The First Wives Club: there are three ages for women in Hollywood: “Babe, “District Attorney”, and “Driving Miss Daisy”.
Another of Hollywood’s famous, favorite “types” is the hooker with a heart of gold. She isn’t a call girl in The Wrestler, but Marisa Tomei’s single mom stripper with a heart of gold breaks the mold enough to be truly innovative, but she is still reminiscent of so many other dramatic supporting performances in that archetypal tradition. Tomei’s victory in this category in 1993 for her comedic role in My Cousin Vinny is often derided as a fluke or joke win, but as she proved with a second nomination for her stunning work in 2001’s In the Bedroom and her diligent work on the New York stage, Tomei is an character actress to be reckoned with.
Her commitment to playing interestingly-conceived, sensual working class types has become something of a signature for the versatile actress. As the layered Cassidy/Pam, she again shows a side of herself as a performer that had been previously hidden. Literally speaking, she does it with very little clothing on, working a pole. Fighting class constraints and ageism while doing lap dances, Cassidy’s plucky, strong spirit feels very new, very risky. What is amazing about this is that her naked, physical commitment to the part never feels show-offish or voyeuristic; it is free and eventually tragic in Tomei’s hands.
Hers is a bravura performance that is maybe the one thing the Academy and I can agree on this year. For her work, Tomei deserves to take home Oscar number two, and finally cement herself as this generation’s Shelly Winters or Dianne Wiest – both of whom took home two wholly deserved Supporting Actress statuettes in their prime. Should she win, a word of advice to Ms. Tomei: show the envelope with your name on it to the camera so we never again have to hear detractors grousing that your win is a mistake!