Let's (a bit belatedly, but still before the Oscars!) take a look at the movies and performances nominated in the two Actress categories.
Glenn Close, ALBERT NOBBS
Viola Davis, THE HELP
Rooney Mara, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Meryl Streep, THE IRON LADY
Michelle Williams, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN
When we found out that Meryl Streep would be playing Margaret Thatcher, my first reaction was "But of course!" The first publicity shot of Streep as Thatcher confirmed my hopes: she looks PERFECT. Unfortunately, THE IRON LADY is an ingenious casting idea in search of a movie. I shouldn't be too surprised: THE IRON LADY was directed by Phyllida Lloyd, best known for her stage work and for directing Streep in the abysmal movie adaptation of MAMMA MIA. The direction isn't very sophisticated; but then again neither is the movie. Streep gets to wear (admittedly terrific) old-lady makeup in the framing device, but the main part of the movie (the flashbacks to Thatcher's rise to power; the war in the Falklands; Thatcher's demise) feels perfunctory, and almost without a point-of-view. Which is shocking, since there are few figures in western politics in the second half of the 20th century as important and as polarizing as Margaret Thatcher. And Streep's work is fine, even if it feels like a sketch. (I was actually far more intrigued by the performance of Alexandra Roach as the younger Thatcher.)
Streep really should have won two years ago, for her brilliant performance in JULIE & JULIA. The fact that she lost to Sandra Bullock in THE BLIND SIDE is one of the Academy's more egregious recent decisions. I repeat: MERYL STREEP LOST TO SANDRA BULLOCK. Look, I like Bullock fine... but it's Meryl Streep. I think we often under-appreciate Streep, because she's been so good for so long, and seems to get nominated for an Oscar every time she sneezes. But her work as
Margaret Thatcher remains an ok performance in a shitty movie of a great idea.
Streep's co-front-runner for the Oscar is THE HELP's Viola Davis. I really don't have a lot to say about THE HELP. Davis' performance is really good... but it's still a saintly, suffering maid.
That Glenn Close doesn't have an Oscar remains surprising to me. DANGEROUS LIAISONS, FATAL ATTRACTION, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE: those are all great, great performances. She's great even in the live-action 101 DALMATIANS (a movie which contains one of my all-time favorite lines EVER in a movie, but I'll leave that for another time). So when I think of great Glenn Close performances (including her TV work on THE SHIELD and DAMAGES), there is a power, a fierceness, a ferocious sexuality to them. And now, here she's nominated for playing what can best be described as an anti-Glenn Close character. ALBERT NOBBS, the character and the movie, is a dour, downbeat mediocrity.
Rooney Mara's nomination was the only real surprise of the five. Not because she's not good - she makes a terrific Lisbeth Salander - but because the movie (a violent thriller based on a best-selling middlebrow book) isn't typical Oscar fare. Don't get me wrong: great films can be made from violent middlebrow source material, but Fincher doesn't transcend the pulpy material in the way that Hitchcock often did.
Mara's nomination meant there was no room for Tilda Swinton in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (the expected fifth nominee) or my personal favorite, Kirsten Dunst in Lars Von Trier's MELANCHOLIA. Von Trier infamously made some terrible comments at the Cannes Film Festival this year, which I think really hurt MELANCHOLIA's chances for year-end recognition. Dunst won the Best Actress award at Cannes (and the movie really should have beaten THE TREE OF LIFE for the Palme d'Or), but then MELANCHOLIA came and went with nothing more than a small blip in late-2011. Which is really too bad, because it's Von Trier's third masterpiece, after BREAKING THE WAVES and ANTICHRIST.
Of the five nominated performances, my favorite is Michelle Williams in MY WEEK WITH MARILYN. It can't be easy playing the single most iconic movie star in Hollywood history, but Williams pulls it off. The movie itself received good reviews, but I think many critics even underestimated how good it is. The myth of Marilyn and her real struggles are both well known, and the movie doesn't shy away from showing how difficult it would be to work with her. But the movie also asks: do the first 99 terrible takes matter when, on the 100th, she gives you magic? Williams skilfully and seamlessly shows us both the private and public Marilyns, and how difficult it must have been to keep them separate.
Bérénice Bejo, THE ARTIST
Jessica Chastain, THE HELP
Melissa McCarthy, BRIDESMAIDS
Janet McTeer, ALBERT NOBBS
Octavia Spencer, THE HELP
Of all the actors in THE ARTIST, I actually thought Bérénice Bejo was slightly miscast. Even with the period costumes, hair, and makeup, she looks and feels like a contemporary actress. (Jean Dujardin, on the other hand, could have been a terrific silent-era clown.) She gives a good performance, but I can't help but think that it belongs in the lead actress category, both for amount of screentime and character importance.
I wasn't a fan of ALBERT NOBBS, but Janet McTeen was the best thing in it. Her character had a spark of life, a twinkle, which is more than can be said about Close's. Still, Janet McTeer must now be the least-known two-time Oscar acting nominee in history.
My favorite performance from THE HELP gets a nomination! I'm speaking, of course, about Jessica Chastain. The movie purported to be about the black maids, but Chastain's Celia was a different kind of outsider, and was a far more compelling character than either Davis's Aibileen or Spencer's Minny.
As for Spencer, she (like Davis) gave a good performance. But it's still a sassy black woman. A sassy black woman who makes a pie with her own shit.
My pick for this award is both, I think, highly surprising and highly conventional. The supporting actor/actress categories often recognize comedic performances - far more than the lead categories do - but rarely do they recognize a movie as broadly crowd-pleasing and vulgar as BRIDESMAIDS. I thought BRIDESMAIDS was terrific: a little long, yes, but still really funny. (Plus, Wilson Phillips. WILSON PHILLIPS. COME ON.) And the best thing about BRIDESMAIDS was Melissa McCarthy's epic scene-stealing performance.
I've loved McCarthy for years. She was so, SO funny on GILMORE GIRLS, and she's the best thing about MIKE & MOLLY. (And, as she showed last fall, she's a terrific SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE host. I hope she's back yearly, like Jon Hamm or Justin Timberlake.) But none of her other work prepared me for her performance as Megan. Raunchy, sexual but not feminine, and unbelievably self-assured: Megan is a unique, brilliant, and hilarious creation. I hope that McCarthy can upset Spencer for the Oscar, but I doubt it will actually happen.
As for performances missing from the nominations, I'm not surprised that neither of these young actresses were nominated, but I still wish they had been: Chloe Grace Moretz in HUGO and Elle Fanning in SUPER 8. In fact, the complete absence of the terrific SUPER 8 from nominations and year-end discussions remains baffling to me. What else could you possibly want in a summer action movie? That TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON's opening weekend gross was almost higher than the entire run of SUPER 8 saddens me and makes me worry for the future of popular movies.