By Jim Keller
This month we examine the leading ladies of the Best Actress race. The category remains ever flimsy—especially with comparison to the number of men competing for Best Actor this year. It is sadly a sign of the times: there are not a lot of leading roles for women in Hollywood. But the good thing is that three perspective nominees are overdue for a win. Last year at this time, our eventual Best Actress winner was pretty much decided, this year we’re lucky enough to even be able to cobble together a race for the women at all. I’d venture to guess, as was the case last year, that our winner is right underneath our noses in these pages. So let’s first discuss what happened with last year’s crop of ladies from FYC and see who won the affections of Oscar.
Although Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streepreceived Best Actress nominations for Gravity and August: Osage County, the Best Actress Oscar went to Cate Blanchettfor Blue Jasmine. Unlike the Best Actor category last year, there weren’t any snubs from our Best Actress coverage. Bérénice Bejo’s performance in The Past just didn’t gain enough steam to push her through to a nomination. As for Kate Winsletin Labor Day and Marion Cotillardin The Immigrant, both films werepushed back by the studios until 2014, but neither performance will figure in this year’s race.
THE QUEEN BEE: Meryl Streep– Into the Woods (director: Rob Marshall):
FYC: This film adaptation of the Tony award-winning Broadway musical features a witch (Streep) who teaches important lessons to various Grimms’ Fairy Tales characters including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. Streep has been discussed every year that FYC has existed. The actress has no fewer than 15 Oscar nominations under her belt (including Best Actress for last year’s August: Osage County) 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). For any other actress playing this role likely wouldn’t yield serious Oscar consideration, but it’s Meryl-Freakin’-Streep, ‘nuff said.
THE BRIDESMAID: Julianne Moore –Still Alice (director: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland):
FYC: The film follows Alice Howland, a well-respected linguistics professor who begins to forget words, receives a devastating diagnosis, and is severely tested along with her family. Moore has been nominated for four Oscars, beginning in 1998 for her supporting role in Boogie Nights, followed by a Best Actress nomination in 2000 for The End of the Affair. Moore then went on to earn two nominations in 2002: Best Actress for Far From Heaven and Best Supporting Actress for The Hours. When she won the Best Actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for Maps to the Stars, it began to look like it might finally be her year, but then the studio announced that the film would not receive an Oscar-qualifying run. Undeterred, Moore won rave reviews for Still Alice at last month’s Toronto Film Festival and is considered by some to be the one to beat.
THE COMEBACK KID: Reese Witherspoon – Wild (director: Jean-Marc Vallée):
FYC: This biographical drama is based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which chronicles her 1,100-mile hike undertaken in an attempt to heal from catastrophe. Witherspoon won the Best Actress Oscar in 2006 for Walk the Line. Since then, her film choices have left her out in the cold where the Academy is concerned. The performance is said to be Witherspoon’s rawest to date (read: no make-up) and when it premiered at this summer’s Telluride Film Festival, she won over critics. If the film can maintain momentum as the race progresses, Witherspoon will likely compete for Oscar gold.
THE ARTIST: Amy Adams – Big Eyes (director: Tim Burton):
FYC: This drama examines the career trajectory of painter Margaret Keane (Adams), her success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal battle she had with her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz), who claimed her work of big eyed children as his own in the 1960s. Adams is the second woman of the three referenced at the top who is overdue for an Oscar. Beginning in 2006 with a supporting role in Junebug, she amassed three more nominations in the supporting category for
Doubt, The Fighter and The Master in 2009, 2011, and 2013, respectively. Last year, Adams earned her first Best Actress nomination for American Hustle. The trailer looks promising and she has a lot of material to work with from the story line alone. I’d wager we’ll be hearing Adams’s name when the nominees are announced.
THE PIONEER: Hilary Swank – The Homesman (director: Tommy Lee Jones):
FYC: The film is an adaptation of Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel of the same name, which follows a claim jumper (Tommy Lee Jones) and pioneer woman Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank), who teamed up to escort three insane women from Nebraska to Iowa. Swank won her first of two Best Actress Oscars in 2000 for Boys Don’t Cry and her second in 2005 for Million Dollar Baby. She’s considered one of the most Oscar-baity working actresses in Hollywood. However, if the film fails to impress critics, history dictates that Swank’s Oscar chances will fall by the wayside (see 2009’s Amelia and 2010’s Conviction).
THE BUSINESS WOMAN: Jessica Chastain –A Most Violent Year (director: J.C. Chandor):
FYC: The film is a thriller set in New York City during the winter of 1981, considered one of the most violent years in the city’s history. It focuses on an immigrant and his family who are trying to expand their business as violence and corruption close in and threaten to destroy all they have. Chastain is the third of our leading ladies vying for Oscar this year who is considered overdue for a win. In the three years that she has been in the public eye, Chastain has earned two nominations, one supporting for The Help in 2012 and the second in lead for Zero Dark Thirty—the latter which she narrowly lost to perpetual it-girl Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. It’s just a matter of time until one of her nominations becomes a win and, this could be the role to do it.
THE BRIT: Rosamund Pike–Gone Girl (director: David Fincher):
FYC: The mystery-thriller based on Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel of the same name has easily become one of the most anticipated titles of the year. It deals with a man (Ben Affleck) whose wife (Pike) disappears, leaving him the main suspect amidst an intense media circus. Pike was an unusual choice for this coveted lead and an even more unusual choice for Oscar speculation, but here she sits. Perhaps best known for her portrayal of the all-knowing Helen in 2009’s An Education, Pike and the cast were nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture by the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG). For sure, it would be quite a feat to go from zero Academy recognition to overnight sensation and eventual Oscar winner, but stranger things have happened, and as the advance film reviews trickle in, don’t count her out.
Last month’s column, which covered the Best Actor race, indicated that 44 men are vying for the top five slots and boasted nine men to watch. I wish the same were true for the women. To give you an idea, outside of the seven women discussed here (which was a stretch, believe me), I count only 17 other women who could possibly find their way into the race. Of these, there are really only four viable contenders including Juliette Binoche for Clouds of Sils Maria and Jennifer Connelly for Shelter. This could change if Werner Herzog’s Nicole Kidman starrer, Queen of the Desert, or Stephen Daldry’s Rooney Mara vehicle Trash, bow this year. But as the festival circuit heads into its last leg and the critic groups ready themselves to weigh-in over the holidays, time is short and where the race is concerned, every moment counts. Now is the time to make a move, if one is to be made at all. We’ll return in December with our first look at the supporting actor races. So until then, if you have aspirations to write a screenplay, consider writing a spec script about a strong, female character. It’s time to do something about this before women are erased from film altogether.