Another year goes by an Oscar fails to recognize some of the more daring lead performances from women on the big screen.
In a year when we were honored to see a collection of bold performances from women in leading roles--from Kristin Wiig in Bridesmaids and Charlize Theron in Young Adult, to Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method, Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Adepero Oduye in Pariah--it's disappointing to learn they each were ignored by an academy so deeply rooted in tradition it's frightening.
This year the academy reverted back to its old school formula to salute performances of their go-to characters--you know, the downtrodden domestic worker (no doubt a homage to Gone with the Wind), a woman in drag (hello, Shakespeare in Love), and real-life iconic women (Lady Sings the Blues, What's Love Got to Do With It?, Coal Miner's Daughter, The Queen, Frida, etc).
There is, however, the wild card nomination, the one that raises eyebrows, and offers a glimmer of hope that Oscar actually grew a pair and may step out of the dark ages--Rooney Mara's innocently devious portrayal as hacker Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Though Mara didn't truly embody the character as much as her Swedish predecessor Noomi Rapace, she does get an A for effort for taking on such a challenge and giving a solid performance. And the academy gets a high five for at least recognizing a character that's neither whimpering nor traditional, but rather commanding and progressive.
The other four slots, however? So steeped in Oscar status quo, you'd think it really was still 1994. No disrespect to any of the other four nominated actresses in the category, but we could have all called their nominations this year.
Sure, Viola Davis did the best she could with the measly screenplay she was given for The Help, so that deserves a nod in and of itself. Glenn Close has been putting in good work for years and simply disappears into the role of Albert Nobbs, as does Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. And Meryl Streep delivers an expectantly admirable performance in The Iron Lady, while not her best by any stretch of the imagination, and manages to bring to the role of an aging Margaret Thatcher what many good actresses could not.
But, still, none of these performances are nearly as brassy, as cheerless, or as unexpected as the wonderfully refreshing portrayals of a woman wrangling to come out of the closet (Oduye), a young girl grappling with her identity (Olsen), a loathsome woman on a desperate downward spiral (Theron), a woman trapped in her own hysteria (Knightley), and a hilarious and surprisingly nuanced portrayal of a lovable basket case (Wiig). Any of these performances could have replaced the esteemed yet snoozeworthy four slots on the ballot.
Can the Academy step back into the present and commend performances of women that don't fit into its cookie-cutter mold? Clearly, not this year.
(Original piece published for The Lamb).