Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Oscars 2013: Best Actress

Note: This is my personal ranking, listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite. Prediction for the actual winner is in orange.

BEST ACTRESS

Zero-Dark-Thirty-puts-torture-in-Oscars-spotlight

1. JESSICA CHASTAIN
Zero Dark Thirty

2. EMMANUELLE RIVA
Amour

3. JENNIFER LAWRENCE
Silver Linings Playbook

4. QUVENZHANÉ WALLIS
Beasts of the Southern Wild

5. NAOMI WATTS
The Impossible

Naomi Watts, poor thing. No one cares about The Impossible, so alas, no one cares about Naomi. And who can blame them, really? Playing Maria, a real-life survivor of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, Watts is a trooper as she’s thrashed about by roaring waters, impaled by tree branches, and frantically searching for her oldest son. And while Watts moves through the heights of emotions — terror, desperation, heartbreak — with grace and dignity as the world around her swirls out of control, she’s basically MIA from the second half of the film, and the rest is mostly reactive acting. A two-time nominee (21 Grams), she hasn’t won a major award this season, and she’s certainly not going to start with Oscar.

Then there’s the youngest-ever nominee, nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis for her acting debut in Beasts of the Southern Wild. As Hushpuppy, the child-hero who lives in the “Bathtub,” a southern Delta community hit by a Katrina-like storm, Wallis spends much of the film looking for her mother — wandering the bayou community and gazing up at the sky; foraging through her trailer-like home; holding a delicate chick to her ear, wondering at its heartbeat; imagining charging aurochs — and gushing a philosophical and poetical stream-of-consciousness via voiceover. Wallis is winning as a child braving a disaster and a tough father, but I can’t help think that’s more her nature than her acting ability. The Academy got a little starry-eyed by her charms, but not enough to win her this award.

Oh, J-Law. I supported your nomination for Winter’s Bone. I rooted for your Katniss. I even saw House at the End of the Street for you! (You owe me $13, by the way.) But I just can’t get behind your win here. As Tiffany, the damaged widow who sleeps her way through her office and dreams of dancing with the stars, Jennifer Lawrence does her best with the limited material she’s given. She’s quirkily neurotic, brazenly tactless, and with a single withering stare, she’s able to put the boorish, totally unhinged Pat (Bradley Cooper) in his place. She’s a performer who has a lovely sense of ease about her, even during moments of onscreen extreme frustration and sadness. She’s beautiful to watch and extremely likable, and I want her to win for something that isn’t a conventional romantic comedy. But it seems no one cares what I want; everyone seems quite taken by her in this film, garnering her a Golden Globe and SAG Award. She’ll surely win the Oscar, much to my dismay.

At this point it seems that if someone’s to spoil 22-year-old Lawrence’s big day, it’s first-time nominee Emmanuelle Riva who will turn 86 on Oscar night. Riva plays Anne, an elderly woman whose marriage is tested when she suffers a paralyzing stroke. As a woman suddenly and harshly brought face-to-face with her own mortality, Riva’s Anne slowly, painfully recedes away from herself and the world around her, including her fiercely loyal husband. You can actually see the life fade from her once-sparkling eyes, the smile that came so easily becomes a struggle to half form, and the music that  once delighted and incited such passion instigates a deep melancholy. Riva’s performance is astonishing and heartbreaking, earning her the BAFTA (surprising many, including Silver Lingings Playbook director David O.Russell whose reaction to her win was priceless). If the respected French actress wins for her turn in Amour, she will be the oldest actor to ever win an Academy Award (ousting Christopher Plummer who won Best Supporting Actor last year at the sprightly age of 82).

Not only would Riva deserve the accolade, but her win would be extraordinarily significant: In the history of the Oscars, only 5 women have won Best Actress over the age of 50, with a total of 8 over-50 wins (Katharine Hepburn won a stunning 3 times over the age of 60). The overwhelming majority of BA winners are in their 20s or 30s. [As opposed to the men: only one man under the age of 30 has ever won Best Actor — Adrien Brody was 22 days shy of his 30th birthday when he won for The Pianist. The majority of Best Actors win in their 40s or 50s]. This of course surprises no one: Oscar — and the film industry — like to reward and write for female youth and beauty. But wouldn’t it be nice if this was the year the Academy (aka mostly white men, average age of 57) surprised us?

Which brings me to our last worthy contender: Jessica Chastain. (At 35, she’s just about to cycle out of her prime Oscar age, poor thing.) In Zero Dark Thirty, she plays Maya, the leader of the hunt for Osama bin Laden and a strangely mysterious heroine in a film that is much less of a character study than it is a play-by-play telling of the capture. Maya is a prickly loner who observes torture in silence, only to forcefully urge it on as soon as she’s out of the suspect’s earshot. We know next to nothing about her, only that she was recruited by the CIA out of high school, and hints at a personal life only startle and distract with their intimacy. Strong-willed and icy, Chastain’s super-focused Maya is a formidable presence who not only can hang with the boys, but can tell them how it is and get the job done by whatever means necessary. Chastain, with her flaming hair and slight frame, is masterful at presenting a steely demeanor tinged with frazzled nerves and dogged certainty. She stunningly embodies a team of women that led the biggest man hunt in history. Basically, she’s a badass.

But we’re giving the Oscar to that 22-year-old in the romantic comedy.

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