[Editor’s note: This is the second entry in our ‘Video Evidence’ series on the Oscar race. For the complete list of ‘Who Really Deserves to Win’ essays, visit our Oscars 2015 landing page.]
It’s odd that Laura Dern got an Oscar nomination for Wild, given that she’s only in the movie for 8 minutes, or 7% of the film’s runtime. A timeline of the entire movie [included in the video essay embedded below] breaks down her performance, and it shows how her scenes are scattered across the entire film, with none of them more than 90 seconds long.
But somehow, her brief turn as a loving single mother casts a haunting spell on the film, and I think it’s largely due to the film’s use of flashbacks and quick cuts. Dern is a great actress who brings a joyous spirit to the film, but this performance is made as much in the editing room as it is through her talent.
If Dern’s performance is like dashes of spice, Emma Stone (19 minutes, 17% screentime) in Birdman plays more like solid morsels of food. She has six discrete scenes ranging from 2 to 4 minutes long. Instead of flashy cuts, we have long uninterrupted takes that really immerse you in the moment. The extreme close-up rant she throws down at Michael Keaton is getting a lot of play, but I think her best work is in her more quiet scenes with Edward Norton. She’s filmed from a distance, but her hawk-like stare still commands the screen. Her stare conveys a hunger to seize the moment, a hunger that defines both her character and the spirit of the film.
Meryl Streep in Into the Woods has about the same amount of screen time as Stone (19 mins, 16%), concentrated around five scenes, three of which are musical numbers. This is Streep’s 19th Oscar nomination, but her first for a musical. At first it seems she’s playing Meryl Streep-playing-Meryl Streep-playing-a-Bette-Davis-camp-version-of-a-fairy-tale-witch. But when she gets to the crucial number, “Stay With Me,” she comes through with a showstopper, delivering it with a spectrum of emotions. It’s yet another Meryl Streep master class in emotive acting for the screen.
Keira Knightley (27 mins, 25%) has significantly more screen time than Dern, Stone or Streep, but it amounts to blank space in The Imitation Game, one of the blandest Best Picture contenders. As the sidekick to Benedict Cumberbatch, she does a lot of smiling and looking pretty, but there are no layers of subtext in her dialogues with him, whether through her body language or line deliveries. Without that, there’s no chemistry, making their relationship utterly unconvincing.
If you want to see an actress who really put life into her role, look no further than Patricia Arquette (36 mins, 23%) in Boyhood. What’s really remarkable is how Arquette does more with less. She plays the main character’s primary guardian through the whole movie, and yet, she has 25% less screentime than Ethan Hawke. But maybe that just shows how her character doesn’t have any time to waste; she’s too busy trying to make a living and raise her kids. And Arquette communicates those qualities through a lean, efficient performance, playing taskmaster for her kids and herself, while still conveying a sense of internal vulnerability and struggle.
More than anyone else in the film, it is Arquette who registers a profound sense of maturity and aging over the film’s 12-year span. And it culminates in what I consider the film’s most devastating moment, when she realizes where all of her determination to push forward through life has left her.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. His video essay Transformers: The Premake will screen at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Berlinale International Film Festival Critics’ Week. He tweets at @alsolikelife.