Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Oscars Predictions 2014: Actress in a Leading Role

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.

2014 ACADEMY AWARDS PREDICTION:
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
IN A LEADING ROLE

Gravity (2013) Sandra Bullock

1. SANDRA BULLOCK
Gravity

2. CATE BLANCHETT
Blue Jasmine

3. AMY ADAMS
American Hustle

4. JUDI DENCH
Philomena

5. MERYL STREEP
August: Osage County

 Should’ve been here: Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

Cate Blanchett has been the clear frontrunner since this race began. She’s won every major acting award so far — SAG, Golden Globe, all the critics association awards — and there’s no real reason to think that she won’t add the Oscar to her mantle as well. It certainly wouldn’t be undeserved, as her turn as a Ruth Madoff-type in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is striking work. As a cast-off woman beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown, she essentially, perfectly, plays Blanche DuBois with a twist (she did, in fact, play the tragic Tennessee Williams character to great acclaim in a 2009 production of Streetcar opposite Liev Schreiber). In flashbacks to flusher times, she nails the blissful ignorance of the indecently (illegally) wealthy, with severe self-possession and immaculate manners, but it’s the present-day scenes that cement this accolade for her. Her Jasmine sits precariously on the psychological edge, flirting with tremulous desperation following vodka-fueled eruptions and frantic, whispering asides to herself, until suddenly, she’s just gone. It’s a stunning performance.

But, as with the Best Actor race, one of her competitors is picking up steam as the season wears on. As Sydney Prosser, Amy Adams perfects the performance within the performance, from the stripper she once was, to the English noblewoman she wills herself to be. Each movement hints at an element of danger, and she’s more aggressive and darker here than she’s ever been, strategically flashing  sections of her porcelain skin and toning down her usual perkiness to the lowest of decibels. It’s a great performance (though her quieter turn in Her is more affecting), and folks seem to want to reward her for consistently great work (though she is only 39, this marks her fifth nomination). If anyone from the American Hustle cast can walk away with an award on March 2, it’ll be Amy.

But it really should be Sandra Bullock. She’s won once before (for the awful The Blind Side), but her work in Gravity is a full expression of her dramatic acting chops which, until quite recently, was relegated  largely to (her brilliant) comedy work. In Gravity, Bullock is Dr. Ryan Stone, a NASA-recruited engineer assisting on a mission to replace parts on the Hubble Space Telescope. Stone is all business next to the wisecracking Kowalski (George Clooney), and Bullock, tight-lipped and perfunctory, doesn’t crack a smile. Robot-like, she’s laser-focused on completing her mission, until it spins out of control, and she begins to unravel in the silent void that is space. No one’s going to say that Gravity‘s dialogue is top-notch — it’s pretty bad, in fact — but Bullock strips it down to its basic human emotion. She talks, frantically, openly, to herself to avoid that silence; to keep the terror of it from overwhelming her and causing her to fall apart. And it works: her anxiety is passed to us, and then, her calmness. It’s a visceral performance, and she nails it.

As for those other two fine ladies: They both have had plenty of industry recognition and don’t need this award even if it was deserved (though Dench has only won once, and controversially so, for her six-minute appearance in Shakespeare in Love). But rest assured that neither performance truly deserves this one. Judi Dench puts in a typically fine performance in Philomena as  a stubborn, preternaturally sweet Irish Catholic trying to find the child she was forced to give up. Though the sentimental script leans heavily on Philomena’s naïveté for comedy, Dench treats her with respectful tenderness, never allowing her to become a joke.

As for Meryl Streep, let’s blame director John Wells for her over-the-top portrayal of the pill-popping matriarch of August: Osage County and, to be fair, Tracy Letts’s (screen)play isn’t exactly overflowing with wallflowers (those that are also have their own moments of screaming meltdowns). But Meryl (who, technically, should be in the supporting category) enters cackling, slurring, and ranting and raving from the beginning; there’s no real progression, but if there is, it’s one that veers toward camp. From the back of the mezzanine, this type of performance may work, but not in close-up, and in confined quarters.  Let’s not feel too sorry for her, though: This is her eighteenth nomination. It just won’t be her fourth win.

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