Best Lead Actress: It’s a Three Woman Race

As opposed to last year (where the race of over by Christmas #BrieLarson), this year’s is very much up in the air, with three top nominees.

Nominees:

Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

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I love Meryl Streep, and it’s incredible that this is her 20th nomination at the Oscars. Yet this year, she’s more the squeaky wheel.

Frankly, she shouldn’t be here.

If not for her impassioned speech at the Golden Globes, she most likely would not have been nominated. In fact, she most likely took Hugh Grant’s nomination too. Florence Foster Jenkins is a fine film, but it was most likely not going to be nominated for Best Picture or any other significant awards this year. The Oscars were certainly not going to dole out two coveted Acting nominations for a film that wasn’t going to cut into any other major categories. Chances are, if Grant had been nominated, Streep would not have been, and the same for the reverse. Grant was robbed by his own cast mate.

So, what is this performance? Well, it’s Streep as Florence. An incredibly poor singer who believes otherwise. Streep is calculating at getting comedic laughs as she stirs her vocal chords out of key. Yet, for the most part, her performance is very much by the numbers. Somewhat in the way Tom Hanks’ performance in Sully felt…adequate. Not bad. Probably required a good deal of work, but not close to the spectacular level either is capable of achieving. Still, per usual, the Academy rewards Streep while someone like Amy Adams was left out twice for Arrival and Nocturnal Animals.

Ruth Negga (Loving)

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Ruth Negga was the only survivor of the sinking ship that was Loving.

Loving wasn’t a bad film, quite the opposite.

It’s story of Richard and Mildred, an interracial couple who are dehumanized and ostracized because of their love for one another resonates deeply in the current partisan landscape. Yet, the film quickly lost momentum for whatever reason. Possibility because of a low box office (The film made $7.8 million as opposed to its $9 million budget). The lack of box office receipts caused the film to quickly fade from any of the major awards. The lone survivor was Negga (Who was lucky she wasn’t cut because of Academy voters trying to fit Adams into a spot, after being vacated from her’s my Streep. See how this becomes a slippery slope?).

Negga, for the most part, carries the film. While Richard is a passive character, Mildred is highly active. She’s the one who contacts Bobby Kennedy, she’s the one who gets their case in front of ACLU, and is willing to do the tv interviews. But mostly, she receives the brunt of the hatred. She has every reason to explode, but her concussive shocks are mild bumps in the road. Negga has the ability to display several emotions at once. She is deliberate in the expressions and every movement she makes. When she finds out that the Supreme Court has ruled in her favor, her excitement and elation is contained in a sly smile, a pause, and the turning of a dress. Negga gives so much of herself, if only in a teaspoon.

Isabelle Huppert (Elle)

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Huppert could very well win this award. In surprise fashion, she upset Natalie Portman, who I’ll get to soon, at the Golden Globes. Many have compared her recent rise to that of Charlotte Rampling (45 Years) in 2016 and Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) in 2013. The difference? Neither Rampling nor Riva had won the Golden Globe (Riva did win the BAFTA, but their awards occur two week prior to the Oscars, so not enough time for Riva to build momentum). Huppert is clearly in the conversation (Coincidentally, Huppert also starred in Amour). Though she was not nominated for the Screen Actors Guild, an award that went to Emma Stone, a win at the BAFTA’s by Natalie Portman would keep her in strong contention.

In Elle, Huppert plays a video game designer, daughter of a serial killer, and a rape victim. The film garnered much controversy because of the characterization of Elle’s relationship with her neighbor. The wave of controversy has been enough for Huppert to grab hold of. But it’s her cold demeanor, her ‘fuck you’ reaction to every man in her life, which gives the character its edge. Huppert refuses to play the victim (That is not say that any woman who has been raped is “trying” to play the victim). Instead, she is active in her want to kill her rapist. If Huppert lands this award, it will be one of the most unlikely wins in the last ten years for this category.

Emma Stone (La La Land

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It would appear that Emma Stone is the front runner heading into the awards. However, that would only be an “appearance.”It is true that Stone won the Screen Actors Guild. Yet, an asterisk could be put by her win because Huppert, the Golden Globe winner for Best Actress in a Dramatic Role, was not nominated. It is also true that she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress for a Comedy or Musical Role. However, her competition in the category was Annette Bening (20th Century Women), Lily Collins (The Rules Don’t Apply), Hailee Steinfeld (The Edge of Seventeen), and Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins). All are fine actresses, but only one is nominated for an Oscar. On the other hand, Huppert won against, Amy Adams (Arrival), Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloane), Ruth Negga (Loving), and Natalie Portman (Jackie). That makes for two Oscar nominees and another that should have been.

The above results make the BAFTA’s a larger event for this award than usual, with Streep, Portman, Adams, Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train), and Stone all nominated. A win at the BAFTA’s would have Stone firmly in the lead.

La La Land has been leading the award season since its debut, and Stone has been greatly helped. It’s not completely clear if Stone should win. Her acting in the film is flawless. However, this is a musical and there are great critiques that can be made for her barely hold a tune, and her rather simplistic dance numbers. I wasn’t expecting her to be flying across the screening and throwing vibratos everywhere like they were Grammys, but I did expect more than what I could have seen at a high school dance recital. Now, maybe this isn’t the fault of Stone. Maybe with a bit more training and time, she would have been better. But she wasn’t. If she wins this award, it will be by default. La La Land is the hottest film, and in a tie, its actors will.

Natalie Portman (Jackie)

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If you haven’t guessed already, Natalie Portman is the upset pick. She has not won any of the major awards, shutout of the SAG’s and Golden Globes. The BAFTA’s will be her final chance to create momentum. More than any of the nominees, she needs this award. She almost needs anyone but Stone to win. Streep winning would be negligible, and would leave the race wide open. Portman has a couple different routes. She can win the BAFTA and create enough momentum to push her for the Oscar voting (Occurring on the following day), or if anyone else but Stone wins, then she can hope that Stone, Huppert, and whoever else wins, preferably Streep or Negga, splits the vote, so she can come from behind.

The lack of awards for Portman’s portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy has been surprising.

No other actress, with the exception of Huppert, was asked to carry their respective film as much as Portman was. She occupies every close-up, for a film that is made up of about 70-80% of extreme close-ups.

One could argue that her level of difficulty was higher than Stone’s, though Stone was asked to dance and sing. The chances of Portman overacting are far greater than Stone’s, considering the high shock and emotional value of the role. Portman could easily take this award, though that could also have been said at the SAG’s and Golden Globes, yet here we are. The more open this race is, the greater the chance that critics will circle back to Portman’s performance in Jackie. However, if Stone wins at the BAFTA’s, then this race will be all but finished.

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Credit for the cover photo to USA Online Journal

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