The women in waiting

Posted on January 30, 2016


More Oscar-season talk. This week, about the actresses.

I know people are going on about the lack of diversity at this year’s Oscars – as opposed to all those other years when people of colour hogged all the nominations, resulting in howls of protests from the whites – but the real scandal may be that Meryl Streep is not among the Best Actress nominees. So far, the actress appears to have been nominated even in the years she never made a movie – and this year, she was in three. She played a rock-star mom in Ricki and the Flash, where she did her own version of bison-liver-nibbling. “The reason we haven’t shot the movie yet,” screenwriter Diablo Cody told The Hollywood Reporter (though she was really telling the Academy), “is Meryl’s been learning to play [the guitar].” Streep was also in Suffragette, where she played… Does it matter? It’s Streep. It’s women’s rights. The film could be titled “And the Oscar goes to…” But, nothing. Streep even found time to be the narrator of Shout Gladi Gladi, a documentary about the obstetric fistula problem in Africa. Does no one in the Academy care about the obstetric fistula problem in Africa? I mean, what does Streep have to do to snag a nomination? Make a movie about Margaret Thatcher? Oh wait…

The other question about the Best Actress nominees: Why is Alicia Vikander missing from the list, for her work in The Danish Girl? She’s on screen as much as Best Actor nominee Eddie Redmayne is, and even the Golden Globes – which everyone treats with mild contempt, the rich relative you laugh at but suck up to anyway because he throws such a great party  – had the good sense to nominate Vikander in the Best Actress in a Motion Picture (Drama) category. The answer, of course, is that studios  play these games, and they must have felt Vikander has a better chance of nabbing an Oscar if they presented her as a supporting actress. She is literally that in the film – she supports her husband through and through, physically and mentally and emotionally, so much so that she becomes the equivalent of the Priyanka Chopra character in Bajirao Mastani. The titular characters may walk away with awards, but she walks away with our sympathies.

Charlotte Rampling is on the list for 45 Years. She plays Kate, who discovers that her husband’s long-ago girlfriend, who’d gone missing and the confirmation of whose death sets the story in motion, was named… Katya. The director, Andrew Haigh, works in minor keys, so instead of screams and ultimatums, Rampling has to play doubts and re-evaluations. Could the similarity of the names have something to do with why he married her? How do you fight a memory whose fragrance still lingers in the attic into which your husband keeps disappearing? It’s a marvellous performance in a little-seen movie – and the same could be said about Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn. Ronan is just 21, and she’s already proved that she can be both incredibly open (her body seems a translucent thing in The Lovely Bones; you seem to be looking at her soul) and cruelly closed-off (Hanna, where she played an assassin who was all agile body, zero soul). As for Brooklyn, the critic JR Jones says it best: “The film is suffused with the sense that a person is just about to bloom.”

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What does one make of Cate Blanchett, who’s nominated for Carol? To me, she’s fast becoming the Meryl Streep of her generation, a prodigiously talented actress but an emotionally distant one, someone whose technique you admire but whose characters you find hard to get into. Every time I see her, I remember what Pauline Kael wrote about Streep: “very beautiful at times, and she does amusing, nervous bits of business, like fidgeting with a furry boa… She has, as usual, put thought and effort into her work. But… there are no incidental joys to be had from watching her. It could be that in her zeal to be an honest actress she allows nothing to escape her conception of a performance. Instead of trying to achieve freedom in front of the camera, she’s predetermining what it records.” I’m torn between admiration for the “acting” and frustration that it’s not more, that there’s no being. Blanchett acts. Rampling is.

That leaves us with Jennifer Lawrence (nominated for Joy) and Brie Larson (Room). I liked them both, but may I say I liked Lawrence a little more? Oh, as a woman locked up in a room by a psychopath, Larson’s very good, but she stands on the scaffolding of a very good book that made for a very good screenplay that was handled by a very good director who knows how to let his actors breathe. It’s solid, understated work all around, a tasteful, well-organised funeral. Joy, on the other hand, is what happens when the eulogies are delivered in rap. The frustratingly uneven film’s outline is as conventional as they come (a debt-ridden woman invents the Miracle Mop, aka rags to riches) – and yet, the film doesn’t look or feel like a biopic. It looks and feels like a character study. It’s full of sharp edges, and Lawrence is one of them. Watch her in the final scenes, where she plays a super-successful business head as the loneliest woman on the planet, which I imagine is like being a good actress in addition to having magnetic star power on screen, like Lawrence. It must be lonely up there.

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