By Jim Keller
This month we begin our four-part series that will take us all the way up to Oscar nominations in January 2016 by discussing the leading ladies of the Best Actress race. While it was slim pickings for last year’s crop, this year’s appears to feature some strong, bona fide leads out of the gate, but still pales in comparison to the Best Actor race. Last year’s narrative was a tale of three actresses overdue for a win (Amy Adams, Julianne Moore and Jessica Chastain). The category was so underrepresented in Hollywood that a supporting actress (not a lead) took one of the top spots. What will this year’s story be? Will our top five be true leads? These are the questions we will be looking to answer in the next couple of months. So let’s first examine last year’s Best Actress nomination results and see who won over Oscar.
Although Reese Witherspoon and Rosamund Pike received Best Actress nominations for Wild and Gone Girl, the Best Actress Oscar went to a very deserving Julianne Moore for Still Alice. Meanwhile, Oscar queen, Meryl Streep, originally discussed in the lead category, earned a Supporting Actress nomination for Into the Woods. Among those performances snubbed by the Academy were Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year), Amy Adams (Big Eyes), and Hilary Swank (The Homesman). Rounding out the top five were Felicity Jones for a supporting role in The Theory of Everything and Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night). Both Streep and Cotillard are discussed again this year.
THE QUEEN BEE: Meryl Streep – Ricki and the Flash (director: Jonathan Demme):
FYC: This comedic drama focuses on a rock-and-roller who gave up everything to reach for stardom and who returns home to make things right with her family.
Streep has been discussed every year in this column. As of last January the actress has 16 Oscar nominations under her belt and three Oscar wins—two in lead (Sophie’s Choice in 1983 and The Iron Lady in 2011), and one in supporting (Kramer vs. Kramer in 1980). Whether the film ends up being nothing more than summer fun fodder, omitting Streep from consideration is a fool’s errand.
THE ACTIVIST: Carey Mulligan – Suffragette (director: Sarah Gavron):
FYC: The drama centers on early members of the British feminist movement of the late 19th and 20th centuries—a time when such women were forced underground to pursue a dangerous cat and mouse game with an increasingly brutal State. It is the first film in history to be shot at the Houses of Parliament in the UK and was done with full permission of members of parliament (MPs). Mulligan earned Best Actress nominations from the Academy, Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) for 2009’s An Education. The same role won her the Best Actress award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), which also nominated her for its Rising Star award that year. 2011 yielded two supporting nominations from the BFCA (Shame) and BAFTA (Drive). The film’s trailer suggests a strong performance from Mulligan and showcases her range. This film is one of my most anticipated of the year.
THE DARK LADY: Marion Cotillard – Macbeth (director: Justin Kurzel):
FYC: The latest adaptation of Shakespeare’s play wowed audiences at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where it competed for the Palme d’Or. For those living under a rock, the story unfolds when an ill-fated Scottish duke receives a prophecy from three witches that he will become King. Consumed by ambition and goaded by his wife, Macbeth murders the king and takes the throne. Cotillard (Lady Macbeth) continues her hunt for a second Oscar after a Best Actress win in 2008 for La Vie en Rose and her aforementioned nomination this year. It’s worth mentioning that in 2013 she narrowly missed her first opportunity for a second nomination with Rust and Bone—a role that netted her a slew of pre-cursor Best Actress nominations including SAG, BAFTA, BFCA, and France’s answer to the Academy Awards, César. Judging on her performance’s reception from Cannes, it would be surprising not to see Cotillard in the top five this year.
THE PERENNIAL: Jennifer Lawrence – Joy (director: David O. Russell):
FYC: This biopic chronicles the life of Joy Mangano (Lawrence) the struggling Long Island single mom who invented the Miracle Mop and became one of the most successful American entrepreneurs. In 2012, Lawrence won the Best Actress Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook (also directed by O. Russell) after earning her first Best Actress nomination in 2011 for Winter’s Bone. Last year, she earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for American Hustle.
With this kind of track record we can expect that Lawrence will feature prominently in this year’s race. Whether or not she’s due for a second win is another question.
THE MULTI-TASKER: Kate Winslet – The Dressmaker (director: Jocelyn Moorhouse):
FYC: Based on the novel of the same name by Rosalie Ham, the film is described as an Australian revenge comedy drama and stars Winslet in the titular role of a dressmaker who returns to a rural Aussie town, transforms the women and exacts revenge on those who did her wrong. It explores the themes of revenge, love, and creativity and is described by Moorhouse as “Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven with a sewing machine.” The former bridesmaid of the Oscar race returns! (Pardon me, I’m still bitter from Winslet’s win with a would-be supporting role in 2008’s The Reader over Streep’s wonderful turn in Doubt, blech!) To be sure, Winslet is a great actress and I wish her no ill will. Her career has yielded two Best Supporting Actress nominations (Sense and Sensibility in 1996 and Iris in 2002) and three Best Actress nominations (Titanic in 1998, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2005 and Little Children in 2007). Could it be her second time around? Time will tell, but Winslet certainly has the goods to take it home.
THE IMMIGRANT: Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn (director: John Crowley):
FYC: This film adaptation based on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name follows young Ellis Lacy who is forced to choose between two men and two countries after she moves from a small Irish town to Brooklyn, NY in the 1950s. Ronan has been a favorite of mine since she earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for 2007’s Atonement. She also earned Best Actress BAFTA and BFCA nominations for The Lovely Bones in 2010 and another Best Actress nod from the latter body for Hanna in 2012. After the film bowed at the Sundance Film Festival this year, she was considered the de facto frontrunner by some. This seems to have changed following Cannes, but she is very much still in the conversation.
THE LESBIAN: Cate Blanchett – Carol (director: Todd Haynes):
FYC: This drama concerns a 1950’s New York department-store clerk (Rooney Mara) who dreams of a better life and falls for an older, married woman (Blanchett). It’s based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt. The Australian-born actress earned her first Best Actress nomination for Elizabeth in 1999—she went on to reprise the role in 2007 for Elizabeth: The Golden Age and earned her second Best Actress nomination in 2008. This put a cap on a string of three Best Supporting Actress turns, beginning with 2004’s The Aviator, which she won for, followed by Notes on a Scandal and I’m Not There in 2007 and 2008, respectively. In 2014 Blanchett won the Best Actress Oscar for Blue Jasmine. Is it too soon for her to win a third? Well, Katharine Hepburn—the record holder for most Oscar wins (portrayed by Blanchett in The Aviator)—won her second Best Actress Oscar in 1968 for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and her third (of four eventual wins) the following year for The Lion in Winter. Only four other actors in history have achieved back-to-back wins: Luise Rainer, Spencer Tracy, Jason Robards, and Tom Hanks. As I always say, when it comes to the Oscars, anything is possible.
The gap between Best Actor and Best Actress contenders is narrower this year. Last year there were 44 men competing for the top five slots and only 17 women (at a stretch). This year the respective numbers are 52 and 49, but many of the roles for women could be supporting roles, so I’d venture to guess that the difference is greater. The seven women discussed here are those who on paper have the pedigree to earn a nomination. The remaining 42 women are a lot less likely, but could happen if the stars align. Some of these include Juliette Binoche for Clouds of Sils Maria who earned a César for her performance and Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years who won the Silver Berlin Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. There are also quite a few wildcards where U.S. film distribution or release dates are uncertain: Sandra Bullock in Our Brand is Crisis, Annette Bening in the as yet untitled Howard Hughes project from her husband Warren Beatty, and Tilda Swinton in A Bigger Splash. Our next insights into the season will come via the one-two punch of the Venice International Film Festival September 2-12, 2015 and the Telluride Film Festival September 4-7, 2015. Because these festivals often offer a first glimpse of several contenders and winners, I expect the September installment about the leading men of the Best Actor race to be quite an eye opener.