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Barbara Hershey A World Apart (Chris Menges, 1988)


Hershey had a somewhat infallible career for a good decade, beginning with a mini-renaissance in Woody Allen’s charming Hannah and Her Sisters in 1986, continuing through her two consecutive Best Actress wins at Cannes, in 1987 and 1988, for Shy People and A World Apart (an unprecedented achievement for any actress to date). Hershey played the lead role of Diana Roth in this true story of a woman at the forefront of a great political race revolution in 1963 South Africa. She was a glittering socialite crusader against apartheid and for equality. She sought justice for those who did not have a voice and Hershey found a way to become this woman, a mother and a subversive anti-government agent who would sacrifice anything, including her life with her children, for her cause. It is a beautifully dry-eyed, innately strong performance, with which the conventional preconceptions about the “heroic mother” archetype are shattered outright. She amazingly plays Diana as a selfless advocate for those with less power, devoid of any trace of sentimentality or pretense, and with a flawless Afrikaans accent to boot. As they usually tend to be, the visionary voters on the Cannes jury were again one step ahead of American awards-voting bodies. MM


 
Ida Kaminska The Shop on Main Street (Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, 1965)


This is the feeling Roberto Begnini tried in vain to capture with his off-kilter Life is Beautiful: the ordinariness and bizarreness people face in the most extreme of situations. Here, the viewer is in WWII-era, occupied Czechoslovakia, and Mrs. Rosalie Lautmann is an elderly Jewish woman whose modest button shop is being taken over by the local Nazis. Kaminska is everything an “old lady” character usually is not: daffy, expressive, and blissfully ignorant, yet still secretly shrewd. This is a demanding role that required the Polish theater legend to be oblivious to the horrors, and expects it’s viewers to be able to laugh at the sheer absurdity of an old, innocuous woman, who can barely move, as being a credible threat to Germany’s advancement. Through some miracle Kaminska was justly nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars—one of the organizations smartest, most adventurous mentions that help to shed an international spotlight onto a performance so singularly moving and so delicately-realized that it holds up more than 40 years later. The film is as intensely vivid and relevant today as it was when it was released, and its success is mainly due to the scrupulously-crafted thematic universality of Kaminska’s sympathetic character and the lengths she must go to in order survive. The filmmaker’s commitment to showing another side of how the elderly are represented in film is also a nice change of pace—he shows Kaminska as a texturally bold, brave woman, who never comes off as another typical, cloying “old lady”. MM


 
Diane Keaton Shoot the Moon (Alan Parker, 1982)


Note to Ms. Keaton: Please do another drama like Shoot the Moon rather than another zany caper-comedy-whatever. Those awful trifles like Mad Money might pay the bills, and sure, who wouldn’t want to hang out with Queen Latifah, but enough is enough. If we turn back the clock about 25 years, to Keaton’s electrifying match-up with Albert Finney is this understated domestic drama, we are able to see a Keaton who is desperately trying to shred her icon status by playing against type in a dramatic, independent-minded film about an imploding marriage. Keaton’s off-screen persona has become so branded and bought and sold, that it is easy to forget that she was once known as one of the most versatile talents of her generation—case in point, her edgy, acerbic turn here as Faith, a dissatisfied wife and mother who can be equally vulnerable and venomous. We should not begrudge Keaton for spreading her wings and raking in cash at the box office, in fact, we should be commending her for surviving, but it would be a treat to see her flex her dramatic acting muscles in a juicy part like this one again (keep an eye out for the scene where she sings in the bathtub—it is tremendous). The typecasting of this dynamic dramatic performer in throwaway yuk-fests needs to be stopped, pronto. Keaton is so much more than her much-discussed off-kilter fashion sense and her warmth. She should be in heavy contention for all of the roles going to Meryl Streep. She is that good. MM


 
Jennifer Jason Leigh Georgia (Ulu Grosbard, 1995)


Leigh seems like an obvious choice to play the angsty, heroin-addicted, drunk wannabe rock star. And so it may be. But, that doesn’t minimize the fact that she really knocks it out of the park with this one. Her Sadie is both a destructive entity and a destroyed human. Leigh can alternate between both with great ease because she understands this character (for whatever reason) first and foremost. It’s a nice feeling to watch an able actress navigate such a real persona onscreen. There’s a sense of relief, a lack of work on part of the viewer because we begin to not be able to imagine these characters as anyone but who we see on the screen. We become an observer into their lives. Of course, it’s afterward, thinking “no, that was just Jennifer Jason Leigh”, that we can accept the astounding capability this art form has. Georgia is an intimate drawing of two competitive sisters who handle their competitions in polar opposite fashions. Georgia has come to terms with her position and life and can enjoy the presence of others in hers. The pained Sadie cannot. She refuses to accept and move on. And she makes every bit of the struggle bitterly and appropriately unforgettable, right down to the unapologetic last scene, which is both shocking and completely expected at once. TD


 
Laura Linney Jindabyne (Ray Lawrence, 2006)


Linney’s performance here might appear insignificant in terms of real meat for an actress to chew. She doesn’t have any grand sweeping dramatic fits, no glamorous afflictions; she doesn’t even really have an accent. But Linney is a masterful chameleon and she creates a life for this character that is so vivid and lived-in it may take repeat viewings just to catch everything. It’s such a rewarding performance for the viewer, unfolding as slowly as a great character in a difficult novel. The film has facets of happenstance and irony that Linney seems to tap into and manifest her emotions snugly within. To see the movie Jindabyne as a film about a couple of buddies who ignorantly ignore a gruesome discovery and the repercussions this has on their daily lives is to see it almost completely wrongly. Instead, the film is about Linney’s wife and what about this incident that seemingly explains her life’s destiny to the point. She’s extraordinarily focused in this devastating tale of emotional irresponsibility. TD


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