Difficult Women: The Oscar Race and the Looming, Avoidable Best Actress Nightmare

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Monday marked the start of a new phase of the 2014 awards season: one that involves the actual giving of awards instead of mere speculation and prognostication. Let’s state right up front that the New York Film Critics Circle, which has been picking annual winners for 80 years now, is not an Oscar “precursor.” You can draw a line directly from its choices to the eventual Academy Award winners, but you can also draw many lines from the NYFCC to the eventual Academy Award losers. The job of critics’ groups is not to be predictive — and New York’s isn’t.1 On the other hand, many critics I know keep the Oscars in a simmering cauldron on the back burner of their minds more than they care to admit. To insist stoutly that the awards you vote on are a counterweight to the hyperbole and baseness and tedium of Oscar season is to engage with the reality of that season in a very direct way. If you are participating in the bestowal of shinies and certificates and trinkets of any kind, you’re not above the fray; you’re in it. The only distinction is the company you keep.

This year, the New York critics, the first major awards-giving body to announce, made some great choices. All are arguable — that should always be the case! — but none is without serious merit, and all will steer filmgoers to good movies, which is the point. And yes, the NYFCC connects to the Oscars in myriad, albeit unacknowledged and unprovable, ways. I have to believe, for instance, that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whom critics so long delighted in labeling “criminally underappreciated” by the Academy, would have taken this year’s prize for his virtuosic, almost authorial work on Birdman if he hadn’t won the Oscar and a steamer trunkful of other awards last year for Gravity. Now he’s just non-criminally non-underappreciated, so this year’s prize went to Darius Khondji for James Gray’s The Immigrant, a fine, elegant, slightly self-conscious melodrama that has been labeled as criminally underappreciated by a whole lot of appreciators since it first played at the Cannes Film Festival a year and a half ago. The Immigrant is perceived to have been mistreated by Harvey Weinstein, which is now such a foolproof way to amass end-of-year smart-set critical love that Weinstein could almost have devised it himself.

Most of the prizes that New York announced fall into one of two categories: Many were choices that seemed to ratify the status of front-runners for nominations in several categories — among them Best Film, Director, and Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette, looking like she could go all the way) for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Best Supporting Actor for Whiplash’s J.K. Simmons, Best Foreign Language Film for Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, and Best Screenplay for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. None of those picks lacks value because one could see them coming; it is not the job of prizegivers to amuse the easily bored by being unpredictable. But a couple of major New York choices weren’t; they felt more like pleas to expand the conversation to include more movies and performances than have so far dominated the chatter inside the prognosticator-publicist bubble. In particular, the prizes for Best Actor, which went to Timothy Spall for Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, and for Best Actress, which went to Marion Cotillard for both The Immigrant and the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night, felt like welcome statements of insistence that everyone think outside the box a little.2

It’s worth considering, in each case, what’s inside the box, because the catastrophic disparity in the size and contents of the boxes labeled Best Actor and Best Actress should not go unremarked upon just because it’s nothing new. First, Best Actor. Timothy Spall is not a shocker; Mike Leigh is a critics’ favorite whose films have won half a dozen NYFCC awards over the decades, and Mr. Turner, which opens this month, brought Spall the Best Actor prize for his grunting, grand-scale performance as the painter J.M.W. Turner at Cannes in May. There’s only one tea leaf to discern in his win, which is that critics’ groups are not particularly inclined to rubber-stamp any of the putative front-runners that come equipped with prefab Oscar narratives — not the career-achievement award to Michael Keaton for Birdman,3 nor the career-transformation award to Steve Carell for Foxcatcher, nor the British-genius-in-agony double act of Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, nor the historical resonance of David Oyelowo’s turn as Martin Luther King Jr. in the upcoming Selma.

Best Actor is deep; it’s always deep. Throw out those five guys and you could still compile a vibrant and exciting list of contenders out of those we in the Oscar semi-intelligentsia have variously written off as too young (Miles Teller in Whiplash), too weird (Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler), too light (Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins), too early in the year (Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel), or too unshowy (John Lithgow in Love Is Strange) without even getting to American Sniper’s Bradley Cooper, or Get On Up’s Chadwick Boseman, or Unbroken’s Jack O’Connell, or Spall. A critics’ win — or a SAG, Globe, or BFCA nomination — for any of those guys is a win for those who want the rangiest, most inclusive possible discussion of all the different things really good screen acting can be.

Best Actress is another story. The bench isn’t deep; it never seems to be. But it should shock even the cynical that the state of high-quality, challenging leading roles for women in Hollywood movies is now so dire that this year, the Best Actress conversation — what there’s been of it — has taken place in a way that has almost no correlation to movies that 99.9 percent of moviegoers have even had the opportunity to see. We’ve been talking about the Best Actress race as if actresses— adult women who are given central, movie-carrying roles of depth and range — are actually permitted to participate in Hollywood’s current economy outside of YA and genre movies. They aren’t. This has become an award for Best Exception To The Rule.

Julianne-MooreSony Pictures Classics

Right now, on the prognosticator-compilation site GoldDerby, the six women considered to be contending for the five Best Actress Oscar nominations are (alphabetically) Amy Adams for Big Eyes, Felicity Jones for The Theory of Everything, Julianne Moore for Still Alice, Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl, Hilary Swank for The Homesman, and Reese Witherspoon for Wild. As of this writing, every single one of the 26 predictors has picked at least four of these six women as probable nominees; many have picked five. You can say that this consensus reflects weary realism, but I think it’s actually peer-driven; nobody wants to deviate too much from the predictor mainstream, and the aggregated result creates the illusion that the concrete of the race is hardening — an illusion that becomes a reality when distributor campaign teams (which have positioned many of these candidates as favorites with predictors and media folk in the first place) start to believe it and apportion their resources accordingly. It’s a vicious circle of self-reinforcing complacency that only becomes more maddening when it eventually, inevitably trickles down to voters.

So let’s break those six “favorites” down. Adams sat on several of those lists for months before anyone saw the Tim Burton movie in which she stars, purely on the principle that she’s a five-time nominee and the Weinstein Company is opening the movie in December and, well, Jesus, they have to nominate something, right? Her movie hasn’t opened yet. Neither has Julianne Moore’s or Reese Witherspoon’s, but both have been considered likely nominations since September, when their movies showed at the Toronto Film Festival, because they give very fine performances and also because, well, see rationale for Amy Adams, above. Jones is fine in one of the most depressing niches a Best Actress candidate can ever fill, namely The Genius’s Long-Suffering Wife. (If you don’t believe that’s a problem, take a look at the history of Best Actor nominees and see how many decades backward you have to scroll before getting to a character you’d describe primarily as somebody’s husband rather than as the central agent of the narrative.) And Swank is terrific in a very good, thoughtful, thematically complex Western that almost nobody has seen. That leaves Pike, the only contender this year who holds the center of a big, mainstream, Hollywood studio hit.

It’s not the quality of these performances that’s frustrating; it’s the default nature of the selections. These six women are not just the usual suspects; they’re the only suspects. And without at least six other women whose work is just as strong, the Best Actress discussion becomes about necessity rather than merit. Nominations shouldn’t ever be a self-fulfilling prophecy or the result of months of an insistent drumbeat that there really are no alternatives. A healthy field is one that has been culled from a large list, an indisputably high-quality roster of five that still allows you to mourn those who had to be left out.

Which is why the news from New York on Monday was really good. I’m not a huge fan of New York’s propensity to punt by rewarding an actor for more than one movie — it should be a prize for best performance, not for best career year — but this time, I’m not going to complain. Cotillard gave two superb performances (if you haven’t seen The Immigrant, it’s currently streaming on Netflix, and Two Days, One Night will open later this month); she’s a past Oscar winner who probably came close to two other nominations, for Nine in 2009 and Rust and Bone in 2012, and if her team and her distributors can figure out which performance of hers to campaign for, she belongs in the center of any Best Actress discussion, not on its fringes.

And the broader that discussion is, the better. To broaden it, though, we will have to reach completely outside the Hollywood mainstream, which has long since abandoned any pretense of interest in this category. So screw the mainstream. I’m not saying the handful of current favorites is undeserving, just that it would be unseemly and even insulting to give them all first-round byes and grant them what amount to nominations by acclamation. Due diligence is called for. So turn your attention to Jenny Slate, who gives a comic performance in Obvious Child that manages to be both poignant and dangerous. Or to the mesmerizing, high-degree-of-difficulty work, both improvisatory and impeccably controlled, that Scarlett Johansson does in Under the Skin. Wild is about to open up what should be an interesting set of quarrels about the ways in which it captures and/or departs from Cheryl Strayed’s voice, but if we’re talking cross-country journeys of liberation, the one Mia Wasikowska takes in Tracks is just as worthy of consideration. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s work in Beyond the Lights is a beautifully expressive essay on the Rihannification of female pop stars; you might argue that it’s not the kind of film that gets Oscar nominations, but in this category, aren’t you a little tired of the kind of movie that does? And I don’t care how many times voters have to Google their names to get the spelling right: Agata Trzebuchowska (Ida’s novitiate) and Agata Kulesza (her hollowed-out, haunted aunt) gave performances as great as any I’ve seen this year.

It’s too easy to dismiss work like this as “not Academy-friendly”; the truth is that there’s a long history of Academy-unfriendly work being nominated when enough noise is made so that voters feel they have to pay attention. Thanks to the New York Film Critics Circle for choosing to make that noise. May the rest of us spend the five weeks before Academy voting closes following their lead.

Filed Under: 2014 Awards Season, Oscars, Academy Awards, Best Actress, Best Actor, New York Film Critics Circle, NYFCC, Darius Khondji, James Gray, the immigrant, Cannes Film Festival, Best Director, Whiplash, j.k. simmons, Wes anderson, the grand budapest hotel, richard linklater, boyhood, Timothy Spall, Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night, Mike Leigh, Steve Carell, foxcatcher, michael keaton, birdman, Reese Witherspoon, gone girl, Julianne Moore, Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game, david oyelowo, selma, miles teller, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin, Jenny Slate, Obvious Child