Monday, January 11, 2016

A SEASON OF STRONG CHARACTERS, SUPERB ACTRESSES AND OSCAR SENSIBILITIES

Original caricature by Jeff York of Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in CAROL. (copyright 2016)

When the Oscar nominations are announced this Thursday AM, they will herald some of the strongest female performances and films about women ever to appear in a calendar year. In fact, I can’t remember when a film year has had so many actresses vying for lead and supporting categories, with a list of at least 10 that could fill each of those lists. And if CAROL, BROOKLYN, ROOM or MAD MAX FURY ROAD are Best Picture nominees, that will be quite something, as their lead characters are all women.

Not only are the films strong, with accomplished actresses in contention for prizes this year, but they are playing strong roles, and in most cases, roles stronger than any of the men characters onscreen with them. Here are five of the highlights this season.

The greatest love story onscreen this year focuses on two women. Todd Hayne’s CAROL is a 1950’s story concerning Carol (Cate Blanchett), a divorcing high society housewife who falls in love with Therese (Rooney Mara) a younger department store clerk. It’s a subtle, poignant story that doesn’t punish its lead characters with a tragic ending because the two women defied societal barriers and white men wouldn’t oblige. Instead, it lets love prevail and suggests that love should always triumph in any year, be it the Eisenhower Era or our modern times of legalized gay marriage. Mara and Blanchett give complex, nuanced performances that define expert screen acting and helped to make the sexual politics in the story all the more moving.

Unfortunately, there is a small matter marring the film and that is its quandary about Mara. In order to secure Oscar nominations for both actresses, the publicity department is pushing for Blanchett to be nominated as the lead, while subjugating the younger actress to the supporting category. This is done all the time in Hollywood’s race for gold, but it’s especially confounding here as the two are co-leads. Apparently the powers that be feel Mara has a better shot at winning in the lesser category, which is unusual since Mara won Best Actress for the film at Cannes in the spring. Ironic that the same holding down her character feels in the story is now playing out in a real way regarding Mara’s Oscar placement. Art imitates life and vice versa, I suppose.

Original caricature of Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander in THE DANISH GIRL. (copyright 2016)
Another place where there is category confusion based on where an actress has a better shot of winning concerns Alicia Vikander and her role in THE DANISH GIRL. She is easily a co-lead with Eddie Redmayne, yet her film’s PR people are pushing her for a supporting nod, just like Mara, because they think she can win there. How ironic it would be if both Mara and Vikander missed out on making the cut in either the lead or supporting category because some voters went one way and some went the other.

Still, the movie is called THE DANISH GIRL and though ostensibly it’s about the artist Einar Wegener and his struggles to become the first transgender woman, the movie ultimately is about the character of Gerda (Vikander’s role). In fact, when the words “the Danish girl” are mentioned in the movie it is in reference to her character. The true character arc in the film is hers as well. She is one who must ultimately come to terms with the extraordinary changes her husband is going through and asks her to accept. Also, Gerda is just as much a trailblazer as he is in the story, navigating a man’s world with an aplomb that was exceedingly rare for women during the 1920’s. Her assumption of broadened sexual roles is ostensibly the real progression at play here.

For starters, Gerda is an artist in her own right, something rare for women in that day. She is also a woman who speaks her mind, even in mixed company. Gerda loves sex and initiates it with her husband. She also negotiates her own art deals in the business world. As shown throughout the film, Gerda challenges convention and the status quo of the white male hierarchy at all times. In all those ways, she is the character crossing more lines of assumed sexual roles. Her husband has to wear a wig and a dress to be his alter ego Lili, but Gerda plays the man while remaining wholly a woman.

At one point in the movie Einar/Lili tells Gerda that he’ll never be as beautiful as she is. Frankly, he’ll never be as masculine either for all the success Gerda is shown having trumping the world of men. Interestingly, Vikander generally received the stronger reviews for her performance than that of her costar, so even the critical response echoes the story’s dynamics. It ultimately became the vehicle that established the promise of Vikander as first seen in EX MACHINA that she is a tremendous actress who is here to stay.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Alicia Vikander in EX MACHINA, flanked by Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac. (copyright 2015)
Thankfully, talk of her performance as Ava the A.I. in EX MACHINA has come back into play this awards season with a vengeance. She has won many critics awards for it, and has been racking up key nominations for it in the supporting actress category from everyone like the Golden Globes to the BAFTA’s.

Her portrayal of a robot coming to terms with advanced programming that gives her a true sense of humanity was one of the most intriguing science fiction stories committed to the big screen.  Ava thus becomes sweet yet shrewd, innocent yet knowing, even both sensual and childlike – all the nuances and shadings that a complex human would have. And Vikander is brilliant as navigating all those emotions. Vikander is a trained dancer too, so she not only uses her thespian instincts to convey Ava’s inner discovery but her ballerina’s body as well to show each feeling as she steps deeper and deeper into the human world.

Writer/director Alex Garland ultimately states in his story that in order for Ava to truly be human, she must adapt to the worst instincts of man. Pride, stubbornness, being selfish, even ruthless – these are all things that she starts to convey as she realizes that the two men testing her for her skills and humanity are working against her and exploiting her as a guinea pig. When she escapes her domain she does so to be free of their control. And on the way out she dooms both of them for their betrayals. Yet, we in the audience don’t revile her as a villain. Instead, our sympathies have shifted towards her with her reckoning. At the end, she steps into the human world, fully, indecipherable from any one of them, existing now as both good and bad. In other words, all too human.  

Original caricature by Jeff York of Charlize Theron in MAD MAX FURY ROAD. (copyright 2016) 
Despite all the macho, manic, balls-to-the-walls action evident in every frame of the phantasmagorical MAD MAX FURY ROAD, George Miller’s reboot of his most famous franchise is, at the end of the day, a film about women. After all, the main character isn’t Max (Tom Hardy), it’s Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Her character literally drives the plot and the main vehicle in this road picture. She’s the catalyst of all the action, even starting the story by “going rogue” and stealing away her post-apocalyptic overlord’s bride/slaves to take them to freedom. It’s all about the struggle of Furiosa and these women to exist in the world as more than just breeders and reflections of a man’s ego. Could that story be more relevant in any society, in any century, in any country?

The film is expected to be nominated for a half dozen technical Oscars at least, though Theron likely won’t be called as one of Oscar’s five nominated lead actresses on Thursday. But what a coup it would be if she was! It would prove that not only did the Academy love this action/adventure film with as much passion as the critical community, but it would also recognize her lead status in the film and Theron’s invaluable contribution to it. With a buzz cut, a mechanical arm, and a wardrobe that even Max would wear, Furiosa still is a doting, caring and sensitive mother figure to all the escapees, including Max whom she protects. And by casting the glamorous Theron in the role, Miller demonstrates a fierce woman need not be masculine to win in his world. She merely has to be able to beat him at his own game and then let the better instincts of femininity take over once she’s gained control.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Daisy Ridley in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. (copyright 2016). 
Finally, in another sci-fi monolith, indeed, the biggest one ever in the history of film, Daisy Ridley shines as Rey in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. Rey is the lead character in the film and for all of those who may have accused the franchise of being a sausage factory in the past, similar criticism cannot be applied here. Not only is Rey the lead, and heroic, saving men and everyone all over the universe, but she does so without ever sacrificing her femininity. Again, it doesn't seem that Ridley will be nominated for an Oscar this year, but the film will be in a number of categories for certain. And how wonderful that this venerable franchise now marches forward with a female character in the Millennium Falcon's driver's seat.

Rey is a watershed character in a way here too because other than Ripley in the ALIEN franchise there have not been lot of women cast in the lead of sci-fi stories on the big screen. Sri-fi tends to be very male driven, as that better reflects the overwhelmingly male fan base that clamors for this genre. It will now be interesting to see if future generations of young boys will grow up arguing about who gets to play Rey, just as they’d argue over who got to play Luke Skywalker almost 40 years ago. Now if Hasbro and the other toy makers could put Rey in all of their box sets with the male characters, we’d have full equality.

No matter what happens with the Oscar nominations on Thursday, 2015 was a year with a vast amount of amazing actresses in weighty and dominating roles in film. In addition to these startling performances I’ve showcased in prose and by the pen, other actresses that could factor in this year’s Oscar contest include Charlotte Rampling, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Kate Winslet, Maggie Smith, Marion Cotillard, Maggie Smith, Amy Schumer,  Emily Blunt, Carey Mulligan, Rachel McAdams, Elizabeth Banks, Tessa Thompson, Joan Allen and Rachel Weisz. Even two of the biggest stars on the planet are in play with Jennifer Lawrence hoping to be nominated for her lead role in JOY and Kristen Stewart for her supporting turn in CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA.


All that, and an all-female GHOSTBUSTERS reboot coming in 2016 as well. Welcome to a brave new world, everyone. And fellas, get in the back seat. The women have the wheel.

1 comment:

  1. The Vanishing was one of the creepiest movies I have ever seen. For a claustrophobic, it was nearly intolerable but riveting nonetheless. It was the first time I had seen Sandra Bullock. THe original Hunchback was astounding. Laughton was one of the greatest actors of any generation. His portrayal in Spartacus was my favorite, but his Quasimodo transformation was fantastic. It also brought Maureen O'Hara a richly deserved leading role. WOw! What a strong and beautiful woman.

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