Oscar Report Card: Best Actress

It’s safe to say that Natalie Portman is the favorite for this year’s Best Actress statue, to the point that you wonder if Academy voters will really consider each nominated performance, instead of giving in to media hype. I can only wish the voters put as much thought into their choices as I have in the evaluations below. Also, for me it’s not “one-size-fits-all.”  I tend to grade performances on an actress-by actress basis.  How challenging was it for this particular actress?  What preparation did it take? Is the actress showing me something I’ve never seen from her before? Is it riskier, bolder, deeper than her previous work?

Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
Lawrence plays the role of Ree, the teenager searching for her meth-head father in the backwoods of Missouri, and she plays it with such gravitas, such reality, as though it were the role she was born to play. She is not a star (not yet at least), so her performance has none of the self-congratulatory aura that more established actresses bring to playing such parts (ie: look at me not wearing makeup, look at me chopping wood).  Without any actressy baggage, Lawrence fills up the screen with her own dominating, serious presence. The world of Winter’s Bone is a brutal one, and Lawrence occupies that landscape with such familiarity that it seems Granik simply found her in that very area to play the role. There are difficult scenes throughout, and Lawrence doesn’t miss a beat. But it is in the scene near the end when she gathers her brother and sister into her arms, like a ferocious Mama Bear, and says, simply, “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back. I ain’t going anywhere” that the performance really lands. In acknowledging that her responsibilities are indeed a “weight”, but also her simple acceptance of them. In conveying Ree’s iron core of moral fiber, Jennifer Lawrence shows herself as an actress of uncanny and honest ability.
Grade: A-

Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
The fact that Michelle Williams was nominated for an Oscar for Blue Valentine and Ryan Gosling was not is indicative of the whimsical nature of the Oscars, and also reminds me why I wish there was a category for “Best Ensemble.”  To pull out one of them as “better” makes no sense to me, and never has in such situations. All of that being said, Williams brings something I have not seen from her before. I was not an admirer of her Oscar-nominated performance in Brokeback Mountain. I felt that she was very presentational; her work obvious and on-the-nose. In Blue Valentine, Williams is set free. The character is so damn ordinary, and that is the best part about it. She has the harried look of overworked moms everywhere, and yet underneath that is a vast abyss of sadness, loss, and anger.  Her incomprehension about intimacy and what it really means vibrates across her skin: you can see it in her eyes, her sad flat little face. On their first date, Gosling makes her dance in the store doorway as he plays the ukelele, and she has a moment where she stops dancing, laughs, and then awkwardly pushes her hair behind her ears. For some reason, that gesture breaks my heart. I’ve seen the film a couple of times now. She looks like a little girl being made to perform at a family party. Even with all the nudity and sex in the film, it is her most vulnerable moment.
Grade: B+ (with the caveat that as an ensemble, Gosling and Williams get an A-)

Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Kidman is right for the part of Becca, the affluent wife and mother whose son was hit by a car, leaving her in a grief-struck state of automatic pilot, which then begins to shift over the course of the story. She does a fine job bringing the different elements of her character to life, and she has one particularly frightening scene when she viciously slaps a woman in the grocery store. But in general, I felt that this was a tepid, safe performance: A Movie Actress at work rather than a Person revealed onscreen. I am most drawn to performances where I feel that the actors really leave something of themselves up there on the screen, that the performance actually cost them something. Her performances in To Die For and The Others are two great examples. They have jagged sharp edges, vast subtexts, and unforgettable physicality, and she stalked through both of those films with an unselfconscious and unmistakable freedom. In the last 5 or so years, Kidman has lost some of her fluidity, her fearlessness. She has been messing with her face as well, and while it may seem unkind to point it out, I think it is relevant. In plumping up her lips, and Botoxing her forehead, she has removed herself from embracing the natural human elements of herself. She is best here in her scenes with her mother, played by Dianne Wiest, because you can see Wiest pulling her into the real world of acting and reacting that Nicole used to be a part of. Kidman has some fine moments, but this role cost her nothing to play. If you want to stay safe, get an office job. Frankly, I am baffled at the nomination.
Grade: C-

Natalie Portman, Black Swan
I think it’s a bit unfair to claim that Portman’s red contact lenses got her this nomination, as I have heard declared, but this is definitely a case of the showiest part getting the most attention. Portman, since she was a child, showed a natural ability as an actress. She was one of those very gifted children who could enter into a story easily, without a lot of fanfare, and walk away with the picture (as she did in Beautiful Girls which is, to date, my favorite Portman performance). Black Swan represents Portman upping her game, so to speak. She trained for months, and it shows. The tilt of her neck, the alignment of her shoulders: these are things that ballerinas achieve after years of work, and Portman has it. Aronofsky’s closeups are relentless, which gives the film its subjective nightmarish quality, but for me the performance had a same-ness to it which got monotonous.  Her best moments here are not the show-stoppers. It’s the damaged look on her face when she goes to see her director marked with another woman’s lipstick. It’s in her awkwardness talking to the boys at the club, suggesting her vast lack of experience. It’s in her tremulous voice after a difficult rehearsal: “Any notes?” I enjoyed those moments. But I can see her effort in those relentless closeups. I can see how hard she is working. Portman is usually an effortless actress. I appreciate her willingness to try harder, to challenge herself, but unfortunately, in acting, I don’t give an A for effort.
Grade: B-

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
In her one scene in Postcards From the Edge, Annette Bening casually strolls into the frame in her see-thru nightie and glossy red lips sipping on a soda, and, over the course of her conversation with Meryl Streep, she easily and somewhat gleefully steals the entire scene. And Meryl lets her. You can almost see Meryl deciding, “Well. It’s yours if you can take it, honey.” And Bening does.  She has been doing excellent work for a couple of decades now, and it always seems to be almost “her turn”. I did not like her in American Beauty, but I appreciated the risks she took in that role. In The Kids Are All Right, Bening dials it down, and at the same time, turns up the heat. This character is a pressure-cooker of almost-constant anger, and it starts to leak out, here, there, and then everywhere.  While the character is prickly, Type-A, and kind of judgmental, you end up loving this woman, her humanity, her struggles. Her scene where she goes off on people who love “heirloom tomatoes” is one of the funniest and truest pieces of acting I have seen this year. When she grabs her daughter to her and hugs her on the college campus, saying goodbye, it is deeply moving. Bening has taken giant emotional risks, yet again, in this performance, and yet the beauty of it is in the details. The way she deals with her glasses, for example, a completely un-showy character element, which is exquisite acting work, the kind of thing that doesn’t get the accolades, but is the building block of a rich character. Without those details, you have nothing. The character’s problems with being impulsive, her issues with accepting the reality of what is going on in her family, her wine-drinking, all of that add up to a character I have thought about often since I saw the film. It’s a rare thing, to wonder how a fictional character is doing in her fictional life, and how things played out for her after the film ends. Bening may not win the coveted Oscar, once again. But Bening will not be a “loser” if she does not win the Academy Award. This is an all-time great performance.
Grade: A

Sheila O’Malley writes about movies, books and actors at her site The Sheila Variations

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