[This is the second entry in “Video Evidence,” a series of video essays championing the most deserving Oscar nominees. For the full list of video essays, see the 2014 Oscars Video Evidence main page.]
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Total screen time: 18 minutes (14% of total film screen time)
Lupita Nyong’o has the momentum in this category, having won the Screen Actors Guild Award; and I don’t want to take anything away from her accomplishment, because she makes a compelling impression in her feature film debut. We see her character endure terrible abuse: rape, beatings, scratchings and lashings. I don’t mean to sound cynical, but I wonder if we might be responding more to the horrible things inflicted on this character than to what Nyong’o as an actress is bringing to the role. If we value acting as not just occupying a role, but actively interpreting it, then I have to wonder if Nyong’o is really doing more than being the hapless recipient of these horrible acts.
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Total screen time: 20 minutes (15% of total)
If you don’t see what I mean about acting as interpretation, look at Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn, the unhinged housewife in American Hustle and think about what another actress would have brought to the role. Few could make the character come alive the way Lawrence does. Some complain that she’s just too young for the part of a suburban mom, but to me, that’s part of the point. The whole movie is about play-acting: about people who pretend to be someone they aren’t and who stretch the limits of credibility to get at a deeper personal truth. For Lawrence’s part, she’s able to take her character’s sense of dead-end despair and turns it into an empowering fury, channeling a demonic energy that lights up every scene she’s in.
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
Total screen time : 49 minutes (43% of total)
Roberts also lights fireworks in August: Osage County, though it feels more stagy and less spontaneous than Lawrence. Still, as far as showy bitchfests go, Roberts delivers, holding her own against Meryl Streep. In fact, Roberts performance is more laudable than Streep’s in that her character as to take more abuse than she dishes out. Those moments of taking in allow Roberts to craft a tragic heroine who’s unwittingly absorbed and inherited her mother’s rage, with poisonous effects on her own life.
June Squibb, Nebraska
Total screen time: 19 minutes (18% of total)
June Squibb’s performance in Nebraska is a lovely creation, so natural and unaffected, you’d be forgiven to assume that Squibb was an amateur plucked from the heartland, instead of a veteran actress of sixty years. The charm of the role benefits from a kind of “foul mouthed old lady” shock value, but Squibb’s offhanded delivery isn’t cheap at all. It touchingly conveys a life candidly reflecting on itself as it nears its end.
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Total screen time: 28 minutes (30% of total)
In the case of Blue Jasmine, most of the praise is being heaped on Cate Blanchett as the title character, but Sally Hawkins gives an equally impressive performance as Jasmine’s put upon sister Ginger. In her own way, Hawkins’ character undergoes a more dramatic series of changes. In the opening, Hawkins conveys Ginger’s casual sense of inferiority. But later we witness her self-esteem awakening, as she’s inspired to reject her fiancee and seek a better partner. But one of the most impressive scenes is this one: watch how she navigates from feeling totally free with a new lover to feeling guilty about leaving her old relationship. Without any closeups, she’s able to convey a range of feelings through the slightest shifts in gesture and speech. Even from a distance, she controls the screen. That’s truly remarkable acting.