my name is mayukh sen and i'm a student at stanford university studying film, history, and creative writing (or something like that). i happen to like jane fonda. a lot. CONTACT: firstname.lastname@example.org
BEST ACTRESS 2010: A QUICKIE
Saturday, February 26, 2011 2:38 PM
BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE, 2010
Greetings, denizens! This quarter has been so taxing both academically and otherwise that I haven't gotten a chance to finish 1982, a year I love. I don't anticipate finishing it for the next few weeks, to be honest, but I did at least want to chime in with my minimal thoughts on this Sunday's race. Unfortunately, I still haven't gotten a chance to catch Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, a film I've been anticipating for months now. This may just be one of the strongest there's been in recent memory for actresses, and, for once, that's wholly apparent when you look at this roster. It's a fantastic lineup. Given the strength and quality of the field, each of the nominees I've seen is generally head and shoulders above the standard fare each year gives us, which may explain why I'm a little harsh on my fourth place finisher.
Though it's far, far from the masterpiece people have practically deified it to, Black Swan is an interesting experiment in filmmaking – we have a generally innovative director who often takes familiar narratives and glosses over them, giving them seeming new inner life. I'm not quite sure if Arronofsky knew what he wanted to say – striving for perfection as an artist, women's subjugation within a patriarchal framework – as much as he threw any ideas he could find from Polanski, De Palma, and others and hoped some of would stick. We can employ multiple readings of the film because it's practically five films in one. Still, it's directed compellingly, with the kind of conviction that makes for a story that's engaging enough to mask a rather banal, trite melding of ideas. I was just wild about it when I first saw it, but the film just doesn't have much in the way of lasting power. Arronofsky seems to be in love with Natalie Portman, and, as he did with Ellen Burstyn and Mickey Rourke, he pushes her to the limits of her physicality – he frames her so beautifully, with such passion and proximity, that her skin feels closer than our own. The film's replete with rather obvious meta-readings – Nina's own physical and psychological travails mirror Portman's own in losing herself in this role, for example – and, when we view Portman's performance with this in mind, it becomes an interesting, if not entirely successful, experiment. In any other year, I'd be all for this performance winning – like Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence or Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant's Woman, hers is a case of an actress exploring the art of acting in itself, and it's certainly unique compared to the performances the Academy usually recognizes.
But so much of the discourse surrounding her performance has struck me as a tad effusive, at times even terribly facile. Compared to the other performances, how vivid a character does Portman create? We're so aware, at every step, of Arronofsky's careful orchestration of Portman's performance that she becomes more a tool in fulfilling Arronofsky's auteuristic vision. Portman is certainly effective. She does what is asked of her (and, yes, that's quite a lot). Yet it's a brilliant coup of casting – there are few actresses as perfect for Nina as the naifish, timid, perpetually-nervous Portman, an actress who has considerable charisma but not too much depth – not a brilliant performance. Arronofsky seems acutely aware of her limitations as an actress, and, as a result, he works within those confines to orchestrate this performance.
Annette Bening is an actress I've always seen as giving half-full performances – I've generally admired her more for her class and rather composed public demeanor than her actual performances, which strike me as artificial. But she's just brilliant here. It's a remarkable, pitch-perfect characterization of a very specific type of American person. Nic is a character who's spent her whole life constructing her life on a rational, ordered set of principles that she just can't bear to see anyone challenge. Once these very traditional, archaic morals come under attack, she's forced to reconsider her whole life and what she's based it upon. For the first time in her life, Nic realizes that she possesses that all-too human capacity for weakness. Bening communicates this slow, growing disillusionment with the kind of ease and nuance that would lead many to think her role wasn't all that challenging. Bening, an actress who I often say goes no deeper than surface-level, is perfect for a role like this, for Nic is essentially a character who asks her to push beyond pretenses and undergo a process of self-reflection. She's just heartbreaking here. I could easily dissect this performance scene-by-scene – who can forget the Joni Mitchell "All I Want" tour-de-force, one of the best acted scenes this category's ever seen? – because each one is so perfectly crafted. Yet Bening also creates such a grounded through-line to her character, and she succeeds in giving this rather unlikeable woman palpable traces of sympathy. And she serves as the perfect foil to Julianne Moore's beautifully neurotic Jules, another one of this year's great performances. Out of the two frontrunners, Bening's subtle, nuanced is practically echelons above Portman's overdrawn emoting. It's a career-best performance, and a win would be both richly deserved and a perfect topping to this superb career.
But it's impossible for me to reward Bening's rich, textured characterization in the face of, quite simply, two of the greatest performances I've seen in recent American cinema. I'm usually not this taken with performances, but Jennifer Lawrence and Nicole Kidman give us two very different, beautifully etched looks at what it's like to keep our lives afloat when everything around us is decaying. Lawrence creates a modern-day Antigone. Her Ree Dolly (isn't that just a perfect name?) seems to spring from the earth, a sort of bruised saint whose attachment to the home runs so deep, so true, that she ultimately cannot abandon it. It is fascinating to watch her traverse this territory and realize it will be the only one she will ever know her whole life. She shows us a woman coming to form, with traces of resolve that mask her deeper, more inherent shortcomings. Ree presents to us a kind of heroic anomaly – a character who is at once both world-wise and incredibly naive – that is all but absent in most great American films these days. It's a remarkably lived-in performance. Like the film she is in, Lawrence's performance is a tightly-wound lid that never allows itself to boil over – always so carefully contained, giving us traces of the inner turmoil brewing within her yet never straining, keeping them hidden under the calm pain of her face. So much of the discussion surrounding her performance is absurd (stemming from what seems to be a lack of interest people have grown for those who do not hail from privileged, upper-middle class backgrounds), as if to suggest that we have come to look for overdrawn, and, quite frankly, exaggerated versions of ourselves in art.
Unlike many of this category's recent winners, Nicole Kidman's selection of roles has been relatively daring. Yet I've more admired her for these nonconformist career choices than truly enjoyed her work in them, for she often strikes me as a little too mannered, a little too cold in her approach. But her Becca is such a carefully-sketched masterpiece of human grief. Like Bening, Kidman layers an unsympathetic character with aching, brilliant pathos. Her Becca is stubborn, controlling, headstrong, and selfish. You keep a distance from her because you don't want to be around anyone this obnoxious, this overbearingly standoffish. She can't reconcile these splintered, fragmented parts of a life she previously saw as so put-together, so ordered. Becca has come to inhabit an imagined reality so separate from that of everyday life, and so she has forgotten how to communicate with others. She is plagued by both a need to distance herself from everyone around her and a realization that she simply can't carry on this way for much longer. Kidman makes this duality palpable in every single frame of the film, teeming with disdain in one while agonizing over her misanthropy in the next. She traverses the potentially hammy trappings of Hare's fantastic script with such precision, such dignity, that she convinces us that this is a woman who just can't see herself moving forward yet knows, at every moment, that she must. The slightly exalted, distanced, even cold vanity of Kidman's star persona works in perfect tandem with Becca's detachment. It's a perfect marriage of what we associate with Kidman's holier-than-thou public image and a character. With Williams sight unseen, my vote oscillates between Lawrence and Kidman. It's one of the category's one-two punches (like 1963's Neal/Roberts, 1969's Fonda/Minnelli, 1976's Spacek/Barrault, among others) in which each actress projects a lifetime of pain, hurt, and grief so beautifully. All is suggested, implied, yet so carefully orchestrated that neither actress strains for emotional effect. Today, just before the ceremony, Kidman narrowly gets my vote. It's a great performance.
BEST ACTRESS 1986Kathleen Turner, Peggy Sue Got Married
Sigourney Weaver, Aliens
Sissy Spacek, Crimes of the Heart
Jane Fonda, The Morning After
Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God
(SOME OF) MY FAVORITE BEST ACTRESS LOSERS, POST-1970Julie Christie, McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judy Davis, A Passage to India
Jane Fonda, Julia
Valerie Perrine, Lenny
Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
Liv Ullmann, The Emigrants
Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
CreditsLayout by daphne/cadmium.
Banner/Icons by collapsingnight.
Winona drawing from Fanpop.