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Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Academy Dips Back Into the Dark Ages for Their Best Actress Pool

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).


Unknown said...

Great post! As long as the Academy thinks that only melodramas deserve nominations we will see these kinds of nominations forever. Just see how people are reacting to Melissa McCarthy, instead of celebrating that a comedic performance got in, they're complaining that there were better "serious" contenders. Comedy is an artform as complex as drama and a nomination for Kristen Wiig, who played depressed much better than Glenn Close, would've been genius.

amy said...

Pick Tilda Swinton over Knightley and you've got a list ;)

Walter L. Hollmann said...

I haven't seen Oduye yet, but I would absolutely put every other actress you named over Michelle Williams' perf in Marilyn. It was good, but I didn't really see the Norma Jean beneath the Marilyn.

Otherwise, I fully support the nominees we have. I would rather Theron and Swinton over Williams and Mara, but maybe I'm just as old-fashioned as the Academy. ;)

Dave Enkosky said...

Great post. The timidity with which the Academy picks nominees is one of the main reasons I find it so hard to care about the Oscars.

Andrew K. said...

Yeah, I sort of have to side with Walter here. Obviously, there shortlist of women is not mine (not a single of their five makes mine, for example) but I can't really support the argument that the AMPAS needs to recognise *dynamic* women. For example, if the greatest performance of a year turns out to be about an abusive one in 18th century Europe that is "whimpering" and "progressive" should it be ignored because it's old-fashioned and neither progressive nor commanding? I mean, after all, it's in theory about the performances not the

(Curiously, Keira's performance is both progressive in the ways you mention, and old-fashioned because it's a biopic and a period piece. I love her work, though, so sucks about that.)

Candice Frederick said...

@Andrew: Encore Entertainment Thanks for your comment! It really wasn't about talent with for me, with this post. Of course all of the women nominated (and those I mentioned who weren't nominated) are talented. But Oscar seems to have resorted to the same ole routine in choosing their nominations. And not recognizing some of the more daring characters of the year, of women that don't quite fit their mold.

I don't think I mentioned the word "dynamic," but I do believe that Knightley's performance was far more bold than these nominated, didn't think it was at all whimpering but rather fierce. Also, Knightley's character wasn't the iconic and widely known biopic characters the academy chooses to consider.

Kevyn Knox said...

Another powerful and daring performance overlooked was that of Vera Farmiga in Higher Ground. The actress, who also wrote and directed the film, is just amazing as a woman torn between the God she loves so deeply and a freedom beyond the control of the church. Great stuff indeed. If I were to choose the nominees, they would be Rooney Mara, Vera Farmiga, Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy, Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia, with Olsen as a runner-up.

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