Thursday, May 26, 2016

OVP: Actress (2014)

OVP: Best Actress (2014)

The Nominees Were...

Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild

My Thoughts: Like it or not, 2014 is going to be one of those years in this category, much like 1975, 1994, and 2005, where we always raise an eyebrow over the nominations.  I'm not saying that the nominees here are bad (they're better than any of those three, and in the case of one actress, she's doing career-best and decade-best work), but this was a weak-sauce year if you look past the nominations.  The Academy was struggling to come up with contenders, and did that thing they usually do in such a circumstance-went to the foreign language well, honoring an actress with her second foreign-language nomination (only the second woman ever to accomplish such a thing).  Because she was the shock of the acting nominations that morning (I recall gasps), we'll start out with one Marion Cotillard.

Cotillard is arguably the greatest actress working right now, give or take some Blanchetts and Chastains.  Every film feels like an event, something to be celebrated and treasured because we all know streaks like this rarely last.  Two Days, One Night is a strange situation for me here because we've come to expect so much from Marion Cotillard that the performance feels very good, but not the "career-best" that so many were trumpeting.  Her naturalism is impressive, and I love the uncomfortable and occasionally dislikable ways that she treats her Sandra, but the film itself is so much structure, rarely working in some of the more emotional scenes, especially as Sandra is dealing with her mental illness on-top of her quest to win back her job.  This cuts a little bit into Cotillard's work, and I feel like (while she's better here than her first bout with Oscar), AMPAS keeps missing the boat on her most impressive work, particularly something like Rust & Bone which has emerged in my memory as a favorite.

While Cotillard was the surprise inclusion here, the dominant force of the Best Actress race in 2014 was surely Julianne Moore.  Becoming only the second woman ever to win this category while in her 50's, the longtime celebrated actress made her impression as Alice, a brilliant woman dealing with Alzheimer's much earlier than your average person.  Moore is a woman who knows the inner ticks and clicks of a character, and you find that in Alice, particularly the conversations, plans, and mechanisms that she has with herself.  Moore herself is hampered by relatively weak costars (save Kristen Stewart), as she risks, particularly in her scenes with Baldwin, overacting, but as a general rule this is fine stuff, and she truly comes alive toward the middle when she no longer has control over her decisions, but is emotionally aware enough that something is wrong.  It's a staggering performance in a not particularly great film, which is always difficult to judge, but while it's also not career-best stuff (it's worth noting, of course, that the entire point of the OVP is to not judge based on other films in ones career but simply the five performances that Oscar put in front of me and nothing else), it's still very strong work from Moore.  There are select scenes of the film that you find yourself rooting for the character, which is always a feat for an actress this famous to transform into that person on screen.

The same could be said for Reese Witherspoon, whose Cheryl Strayed is a truly unique and splendid creation.  Witherspoon hasn't been this strong since at least Tracy Flick fifteen years previously, possibly ever.  While most films of this nature (that is, in nature) usually show a man struggling with his own personal demons but not being willing to admit that the nature is a metaphor, Witherspoon's film largely drops that metaphor (save the fox scene) and we get simply someone doing something she doesn't understand because she doesn't understand her life.  Witherspoon gets a true gamut of emotions to deal with: grief, lust, shame, revenge, hate, and occasionally even love, but what she most has to deal with and which struck a chord with me ferociously (this is easily my favorite movie of these five pictures) was the way that loneliness sets in as you get older when you either don't follow the traditional spouse/children path or when you do, but you feel empty inside for doing it.  Reese creates something magical on that trail, giving herself wholly over to the character-no vanity, no need to prove herself an actress, but just an authentic, grand gesture of a movie.  Since she's a movie star we don't see it examined as closely, but were this a new actress or in a foreign language (or, let's face it, a man), it would have been hailed as a landmark.  Considering how many terrible movies she's made since her last Best Actress nomination, this is a big way to say "I'm back."

Speaking of relative ingenues, we have Felicity Jones who has been at the outer rings of AMPAS with films like Like Crazy and The Invisible Woman in recent years, but generally I've left those pictures underwhelmed.  Her onscreen beauty (those green eyes are ridiculous) is not to be challenged, and I'm rather intoxicated by her inflection, but her acting ability-ehh.  She always seems to underplay her role, and in particular what the part calls for-she's staid when she should be vivacious, and blase about her romantic entanglements, leaving too much inside without emoting in other ways (or letting the script do that for her).  For the first thirty minutes or so of The Theory of Everything she escapes that, and we get a glimmer of what casting directors clearly have wanted us to see-she's vivacious, and has genuine chemistry with Eddie Redmayne, but as the film progresses to sadder territory, she keeps everything on the inside, giving us an English stiff upper lip but no sense of what's going on inside.  Some may say this is naturalism, as surely Jane Hawking wasn't a particularly expressive person with her feelings, but in a movie that is so reliant on her to be an audience surrogate, it feels lacking, and makes me wonder if I'll ever truly get on-board with a Jones performance.

In the final slot we have the one film that everyone saw of this bunch.  Gone Girl, the only $100 million hit domestically, was a major talking point and a book everyone needed to bring to the beach, and it kept its secrets relatively close to the vest.  Rosamund Pike had a few extremely difficult tasks in the movie, and not just because Amazing Amy has such a specific place in literary minds everywhere.  She has to find a way to make her both believably sane at one point and also a nutcase (but a nutcase with a believable enough case against her husband to not alienate her completely from the audience).  In many ways she borrows from Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs-you find her daunting and occasionally vile, but you can't look away, and you get why people fall for her trick as she's too fascinating to ignore.  The "cool girl" monologue, that fantastic opening narration when her big reveal hits, and the way that you see her deep frustration whenever one of her decisions or plans doesn't happen the way that she hoped-it's all incredible fun.  I know that for some Pike's performance, particularly her deep-throated delivery, wasn't to their liking or imagination, but I was a huge fan.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Golden Globes started off the uniform train with Best Actress in a Drama, where Cotillard was skipped for Jennifer Aniston (Cake), but the rest of this lineup held, as did Julianne Moore as the victor.  That left a surprisingly weird lineup in Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical of Emily Blunt (Into the Woods-makes sense, even if it's kind of default), Helen Mirren (The Hundred-Foot Journey-they do tend to have a thing for her), Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars-did this film ever actually get released or was it just randomly on DVD one day?), and Quvenzhane Wallis (Annie-all right, I'm out of ideas here).  It's no wonder Amy Adams pulled it off for Big Eyes-it was the only one remotely looking at an Oscar nomination, even if it's about as funny as a root canal.  SAG smartly stuck to the Best Drama race lineup entirely, favoring Moore for the win while BAFTA couldn't quite bring itself to honor Aniston in the Cotillard spot, instead picking Amy Adams, while giving their trophy to Julianne Moore.  It's quite obvious that Aniston or Adams was the sixth place finisher, and while I predicted Aniston at the time (it being a more traditional drama), I was honestly flummoxed, and that's probably why Cotillard was able to make it in-it was likely a weak, close race for fifth that had enough room for someone with a fervent first-place fanbase.
Actors I Would Have Nominated: I know that it's popular to bag on her, but I actually really liked what Jennifer Aniston did in Cake (Amy Adams in Big Eyes-not so much), and was genuinely bummed that in a year like 2014 they didn't decide to give her one of those random rom-com queen nominations for a very watchable performance (even if the film doesn't live up to that adjective).  Even better than Aniston, though, was Scarlett Johansson's other-worldly work in Under the Skin, a performance that showed the great promise she had early on not in Lost in Translation, but Girl with the Pearl Earring.  An alien, difficult piece-of-work that hopefully will develop something of a cult following as the year's progress.
Oscar’s Choice: I think sometime early in the 2014 awards season the public randomly realized that Julianne Moore didn't have an Oscar and they all thought she did, so that needed to be rectified immediately.  It's questionable who would have won had she not been in contention (much like 2009's Supporting Actress race, I wonder if it would have been Adams or Aniston in sixth place gaining a Sandra Bullock-style run or a "six nominations without a win is long enough" plea), but Moore clearly was an overwhelming favorite.
My Choice: Witherspoon, no question.  This is my second favorite performance of this decade, and an absolute triumph from start to finish.  Following her would be Pike, Moore, Cotillard, and Jones in a distant fifth.

And now it's your turn-are you on Team Reese with me or are you clutching the pearls over me skipping out on Julianne Moore?  I've seen most of her work, but is there a Felicity Jones performance that will make me a convert?  And I'd love an impassioned plea over whether it was Aniston or Adams that was the true sixth place finisher in 2014.  Share your thoughts below!

Past Best Actress Contests: 200820092010201120122013

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