My Thoughts: We arrive at our final acting race, the one that the collective Oscar-loving internet seems to most obsess over, Best Actress. Like much of 2009, we were left with a pretty uniform list of women who were nominated throughout the cycle, and they were a pretty hodgepodge collection similar to your average Best Actress field: two former winners, two ingénues, and one woman who happened to be America’s Sweetheart (and had never been nominated before). We’ll start with her.
Sandra Bullock spent most of the 1990’s being the third leg of a trio of women who happened to cumulatively be America’s Sweetheart. Julia Roberts was the one that managed to make all of the money and score all of the awards love (she was a two-time nominee before she picked up her ideally timed win for Erin Brockovich). Meg Ryan starred in the movies everyone seemed to like. And then there was Sandy-the affable brunette that everyone seemed to love, even if she never seemed to get the respect the other two did.
Until, of course, The Blind Side. Part of what helped Bullock to this first nomination was that The Blind Side (coupled with The Proposal) was a major comeback for her, and a financially ridiculous one. These two films made $600 million combined in the worldwide box office that year, and Bullock became the first woman to headline a $200 million movie by herself. All of this plus newfound love for her from the public made what was initially a longshot bid for a nomination become a stampede.
The actual performance, though, isn’t as bad as you think it is. Bullock’s got a truly human side to her acting, and has incredible timing. This isn’t a comic performance, but it is a performance that requires her to have a comic sensibility-she needs to be able to land insults, maintain an energy, and make this woman both believable and not a caricature. I feel like she does that-people on the coasts may not realize with this, but women like Leigh Anne Tuohy exist every day in real life in Middle America. The film itself glosses over some of the finer points (Quinton Aaron is not a strong actor), and occasionally Bullock cannot sell the source material (she’s given a lot of schmaltz to get through, and I think Meryl herself would have struggled with the “he’s changing mine” speech), but this is actually quite fine work. It’s just not what Oscar usually decides to honor and the film is not good. That, I believe, is the source of most of this bellyaching.
Few people complained, for example, that Meryl Streep is also in a movie that is spotty at best when it comes to its plot and acting. Meryl is divine as Julia Child, getting not only the voice down (as is her raison d’etre), but also her spirit. I loved the way that Meryl’s Julia remains so remarkably consistent-there are moments where the character succumbs to doubts (that rough scene where her sister is pregnant, and we find that Julia clearly wanted a baby but for some reason has never been able to have one), but as a whole she remains blissful and powerful. Meryl can get nominated for just about everything, but I like that she can get a performance that is light and even comedic into the conversation. She manages to make Julia Child not only come alive, but also become a movie character and not just a personification onscreen. The film itself holds her back occasionally (I would have liked to have seen a little more growth in her relationship with Paul), but this is a delicious light soufflé.
We move away from two of the biggest stars of the past decade and on to a woman making her screen debut in 2009: Gabourey Sidibe. One of the funnier aspects of this race was that SO many people seemed to think that first time actor Sidibe was simply playing herself onscreen, that this wasn’t much of a stretch, when anyone who follows Sidibe on Twitter or has seen her interviewed knows that she’s the complete opposite of Precious. Sidibe finds layers in her young woman that a more nuanced actor might not have. I love the way that she pushes the things that she really wants, and the way that she annunciates her truest feelings, keeping the rest hidden. Think of her breakdown when she realizes that she’ll never have a real boyfriend and has been diagnosed with HIV. This is a haunting scene because we see Precious, so stoic and unaffected, break down in a way that seems to come from within-this is a girl that has had to bury any hopes and dreams under years of abuse, and only believes deep within that she can still achieve them. The focus in this film has always been on Mo’Nique, but it is really Sidibe who gives the film wings-she manages to be both a real human being and blank enough for us to be able to see the many nameless Preciouses that we encounter every day in her lifeless eyes.
Carey Mulligan joined Sidibe as the other major newcomer of 2009’s field. Though she had been in other films prior to An Education, her work here feels like we’ve never seen her before, and Jenny needs that sort of freshness. Mulligan infuses her with a lifeblood that courses through the earlier scenes as she finds the jolt of being impetuous so intoxicating. Jenny and Precious could not be more polar opposites (wouldn’t you love to see an alternate universe where the actresses would switch roles?-I honestly think both would knock the other’s just as far out of the park), and Mulligan also nails her performance, here giving it the added lack of knowledge. Other actresses may have emphasized the way that she is experiencing new things, that this experience is informing her future actions. With Mulligan, we get the sense that Jenny doesn’t know what her education is providing to her, just that it’s a worthwhile piece of time. By the end of this movie, she’s given us a confident portrayal of a person-perhaps wiser, perhaps now an adult, but definitely someone deeply real.
I haven’t forgotten about Helen Mirren, but her nomination does feel like an afterthought, doesn’t it? As Sofya, Mirren does what she does best onscreen, giving chemistry to other actors, utilizing that sharp British timing to yell at the servants and basically everyone around her. Mirren is an oddly similar actor to Bullock in her latter career-so much of her comic work is precise because of her timing, and there’s no denying that she gets the job done. But this isn’t really a great performance, and she tows the line into simply playing herself even when the part doesn’t demand it. And let’s be honest-like several other actors nominated in 2009, she’s hampered by a banal, boring film. The Last Station is dreadfully slow and unnecessary, and not even the joy of seeing Helen Mirren is going to change that fact. She improves the performance, but there’s nothing special here, and you’d be forgiven for only remember the other four nominated women.
Other Precursor Contenders: All five women competed for Best Actress with HFPA (with Bullock winning in Drama and Streep winning in Comedy). That left only one additional nomination for Drama, which would go to Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria. The other comedic contenders included Marion Cotillard in Nine (category fraud?), Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Duplicity (does anyone remember this movie?), and Streep once again for It’s Complicated (as Colin Farrell pointed out, very greedy). The exceedingly boring SAG Awards (Melanie Laurent is the only original idea you could come up with?!?) went with the same winner and nominees as Oscar, but BAFTA had some original ideas, cutting Bullock and Mirren and putting in Saoirse Ronan for The Lovely Bones and Audrey Tatou for Coco Before Chanel (for some reason they skipped Blunt, who was probably in a distant sixth place with AMPAS).
Actors I Would Have Nominated: I would have kept three of Oscar’s choices, but made room for Tilda Swinton, so alive and crazily lived-in in Julia and Penelope Cruz in Broken Embraces. I know that some have accused this of being minor Pedro, but that didn’t stop her glamorous obsessed-about woman from being another cosmic turn in her impressive 2006-09 period.
Oscar’s Choice: Holding off on Meryl’s third Oscar for two years, they instead decided Sandy Bullock needed to be called Oscar Winner, much to the chagrin of the collective internet.
My Choice: I’ll go backward as I have wrestled with this decision for years. I’m going with Mirren in fifth place-she’s too forgettable to get past the more memorable Bullock, who is just above her. In third would be Streep, giving her Meryl best but with a performance that never hits great like the remaining two. Part of me wants to go with Mulligan, who gets the less showy part and does marvels with it (she’s a totally underrated actor), but Gabby’s amazing debut is just too overwhelming. She gets my gold, with Mulligan just behind.
Those are my thoughts-what are yours? Did you fall for Sandra like AMPAS, or were you wrestling between Gabby/Carey like me? Was anyone a Helen Mirren cheerleader? How did Emily Blunt not steal her traction for a more popular Academy film? And what woman gave the best performance by an actress in a leading role in 2009? Share in the comments!