Who Says 2014 Was a “Weak Year” for Best Actress?

Perhaps we should reconsider what deserves a Best Actress nomination.

Brian Formoby Brian Formo

 

It’s almost January, which means it’s almost time for numerous Hollywood award shows to fill weekend primetime slots. By the time the Golden Globes air on January 11, three of the ten nominated Best Actress nominees will not have even played in theaters yet. Jennifer Aniston was nominated for Cake and Julianne Moore (twice!) for Still Alice and Maps to the Stars. Moore is pegged to win a lot of awards (including an Oscar) for Still Alice and Aniston is predicted to crash the party for a tiny film from a tiny distributor (with bigger narrative problems).

Both actresses turn in fine performances (we caught each of their films at various festivals this year). And if Moore does do an awards lap through the Globes, Screen Actors Guild and Academy Awards, that’ll certainly be warranted because she’s been one of our best actresses for more than 20 years now (ever since she had a panic attack in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts) and she still has no golden statues to her name. But both Still Alice and Aniston’s Cake were seemingly purchased at the Toronto International Film Festival because this year’s Best Actress race looked “weak.”

When viewers haven’t even had the capability to see a film before an awards show on January 11, it’s a careful manipulation of the award rules (a film only needs to have a weekend qualifying run in one public theater). It will certainly help both of those films find eyeballs, and I get it, that’s a good business model to get more people to see these independent films (Alice and Cake will hit theaters January 16 and 23, 2015, respectively). What I find annoying about this release model is that these films were purchased to fill a perceived awards gap because so much press was given to the idea that 2014 was a “weak year” for actresses.

 

Related: 21 Great Performances from 2014

 

As a critic, 2014 gave a bounty of riches from female performers. The real problem is that early awards pundits dismiss great performances because they don’t fit snuggly into previous award boxes. But Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder and Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids certainly didn’t fit into those boxes and they got onto an Oscar ballot. So here’s the good news: 2014 was a “weak year” because many actresses were given more diverse roles — villains, provocateurs, action heroes — than the standard stuffy dramas that win awards. Yes, it is problematic that women aren’t leading as many award worthy films as their male counterparts, and hopefully with recent box office successes for female-led films we’ll get more diverse pictures, but can you blame actresses for taking roles that fit outside the standard box? If we reward actresses for seeking adventures, it could assist in chipping away at that “awards movie” notion.

Let’s look at some actresses who had great years in 2014, whether or not the awards shows deem that they did. Try and tell us by the end that this wasn’t an impressive year for actresses.

It took us two pages to highlight great female performances from this year.

The Career Years:

scarlett kriten eva

Eva Green – We have spent a lot of time on Green in our year-end wrap ups. I’ll let CraveOnline’s film editor, William Bibbianni summarize our collective thoughts: “Eva Green is so ludicriously charismatic in 300: Rise of an Empire that we still can’t quite get over it. As the villainous Artemisia, she manipulates, decapitates, and even copulates with the fury of a God. And as the sociopathic femme fatale in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (also based on the works of Frank Miller, she boasted that same magnetism. Someone get Eva Green a better movie, right now.”

Scarlett Johansson  Johansson had the spring of a lifetime. Her Black Widow got an expanded role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (released on April 4th), the same weekend that she was getting the best reviews of her career as an alien lifeform who’s helping harvest man parts that are shuttered off to some unknown dimension in Under the Skin. Last year’s Her utilized Johansson’s sensuality without her body, as the voice of a computer program that Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with. In Under the Skin Johansson was an alien who learned the earthly perils that can occur from inhabiting her very body.

Johansson topped off the best year of her career by top-lining Luc Besson’s latest actioner, Lucy. Lucy opened to $43 million. To put into perspective for movie stars, not franchise installments, Lucy‘s opening weekend had a higher box office number than every  single Tom Cruise film since Mission: Impossible III‘s 2006 debut. Yes, women can be action heroes, and yes, a woman can be a box office draw. Johansson probably had the most impressive year for any actor, regardless of gender.

Kristen Stewart  Stewart spent 2014 on the film festival circuit. First she was at Sundance for the Guantanamo Bay prison drama, Camp X-Ray, then at Cannes alongside Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria, and then to Toronto as Julianne Moore’s daughter in Still Alice. All three films carry a different uncertainty with her characters — X-Ray by befriending a prisoner, Clouds an uncertainty of art, and in Alice as the youngest child, uncertain about whether to continue her career pursuit or to take care of her Alzheimer’s stricken mother — and Stewart creates entirely different characters for each. In X-Ray she’s afraid of authority. In Maria she’s too comfortable with her mentor to accept their disagreements on her artistic endeavors. In Alice she’s the only person who wants to understand what her mother is going through.

Supposedly, after the long festival circuit, Stewart is taking time off from acting for now. We hope it isn’t for long, because her performances were so strong in 2014 (I actually thought her performance in Maria was the best performance anyone gave this year) that we can’t wait to see what types of roles she’ll tackle in the future.

The Diverse and The Divisive:

top

Rosario Dawson – Dawson’s role in Top Five has mostly been applauded, but some think that she punishes her boyfriend too harshly for desiring anal stimulation, and others think she’s too much of a manic pixie dream girl to take seriously. But she should be taken oh so very seriously in Chris Rock’s film. Firstly, she punishes her boyfriend not because he’s gay, but because his sexual needs always come before hers. His orgasm has consumed their relationship. And she was fine with inserting her index finger into his ass until it was her only function in their sex life. And, yes, there are some leaps with her character wrapping things up a little neatly for Rock, but she just has so much charm and has been so misused by Hollywood for decades that it’s nice to see what she can do with a co-lead comedy role.

Dawson adds extra layers of sexual confusion to that simple anal joke. She also gives enough extra layers to her reporter role that her actions in moments of weakness are believable. Now, Hollywood, please grant Dawson regular leading lady status. That she’s been so far down the supporting lady ladder for 20 years is far more controversial than any of the non-controversies of Top Five.

Frances McDormand – Olive Kitteridge was a four-hour miniseries that aired on HBO, but dammit I just wanna write a little about it. Kitteridge also played at a few film festivals in its entirety and it comes from producers McDormand, Tom Hanks and director Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right), so it’s not ridiculous for me to do so.

I’ve got something to say: thank you Frances. McDormand plays a cantankerous, difficult, bitter, but occasionally amused woman. She is married to a man who is always beaming with hope and helping others (a fantastic Richard Jenkins). Bill Murray has a small role that comes into play in the final hour. His casting is a masterstroke. Murray has long been beloved for that similar cantankerous, bitter streak. And he does it here, too (as a man who casually listens to Rush Limbaugh and needs some better companionship). Watching McDormand and Murray find some sort of comfort in their mutual bitterness should make the viewer question why so many people love Murray — and others of his ilk — for their stubbornness, but would outright dismiss a similar female character by labeling her a cold, heartless bitch. 

Tilda Swinton Swinton might be the first actress who’s been able to have a career like Harry Dean Stanton or John Hurt. She can lead arty films. She can play extremely textured and odd characters in a film of any size. And she can certainly show up in a blockbuster. She can make herself older (like she does for her octogenarian role in The Grand Budapest Hotel), or entirely ageless (as she does in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive; she’s a few centennials old, and still has a lust for life), or gender neutral (her Mason in Snowpiercer, was originally written as a man, and Swinton preferred they not reference or change the sex; Mason is an androgynous leech).