Make no mistake, the Academy Awards are primarily devoted to advertising Hollywood’s wares, not to acknowledging the best achievements in a year’s filmmaking on a global scale. Although independent films have done increasingly well at the Oscars, it’s still surprising and exciting when an actor from a modest movie makes the gang of five in his or her category, as in the case of this year’s Best Actor nominee, Demián Bechir from “A Better Life.”
The Best Actress category rarely produces any shocks. In the last 20 years, 16 of the Best Actress Oscars have gone to A-listers, the exceptions being Emma Thompson (“Howards End,” 1992) and Helen Mirren (“The Queen,” 2006), both British film royalty, Frances McDormand (“Fargo,” 1996), the lone winner with indie cred, and the French actress Marion Cotillard (“La Vie en Rose,” 2007).
Lest it should seem that the Academy’s acting voters are blinkered, however, we should note there’s been a cluster of deserving extra-Hollywood nominees since 1991: Mary Mcdonnell (“Passion Fish,” 1992), Brenda Blethyn (“Secrets & Lies,” 1996), Fernanda Montenegro (“Central Station,” 1998), Janet McTeer (“Tumbleweeds,” 1999), Keisha Castle-Hughes (“Whale Rider,” 2003), Catalina Sandina Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace,” 2004), Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake,” 2004), Felicity Huffman (“Transamerica,” 2005), Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious,” 2009), Carey Mulligan (“An Education,” 2009), and Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone,” 2010).
There are no such outsiders among this year’s nominees, the one mild surprise being the inclusion of Rooney Mara who, though little known before “The Social Network,” had a coveted and complex role to pour her talent into in a high-profile Hollywood picture, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Of the other nominees, Meryl Streep (“The Iron Lady”), Viola Davis (“The Help”), and Glenn Close (“Alfred Nobbs”) are powerhouses, and Michelle Williams (“My Week With Marilyn”) is a beloved actress who crosses back and forth between indies and mainstream movies and seems to grow with each delicate performance. Her quietly determined pioneer wife in “Meek’s Cutoff” was no less impressive than her impersonation of Marilyn Monroe — and Kelly Reichardt’s Slow Cinema Western was much the better film.
Expanding the actor categories would be absurd since it would devalue them as the nominating of ten films has diluted the Best Picture category. Still, there were many performances clamoring for nominations this year. An alternative group of Oscar voters might have picked five from the following ten instead: Olivia Colman (“Tyrannosaur”), Kirsten Dunst (“Melancholia”), Keira Knightley (“A Dangerous Method”), Adepero Oduye (“Pariah”), Mirela Opri?or (“Tuesday, After Christmas”), Anna Paquin (“Margaret”), Tilda Swinton ("We Need to Talk About Kevin"), Charlize Theron (“Young Adult”), Mia Wasikowska (“Jane Eyre”), and Yoon Jeong-hee (“Poetry”).
I would have plumped for Paquin (whose Oscar credentials I've already analyzed), Colman, Dunst, Oduye, and Opri?or. Not many Oscar voters will have been familiar with Radu Muntean’s adultery drama “Tuesday, After Christmas,” in which Opri?or shared the female lead with Maria Popistasu (with whom she has shared two Best Actress awards). Popistasu, in the sexier role as the dentist-mistress, is outstanding; Opri?or, as the betrayed wife, is devastating, especially in the 11-minute shot in which she reacts first with calm then with rage to the news of her husband’s infidelity. It is movie acting of the highest order.
Colman (excellent in the small part of Carol Thatcher, Margaret’s daughter, in “The Iron Lady”) is at the same level in “Tyrannosaur”; she has won four Best Actress awards and shared another with her co-star, Peter Mullan). She plays Hannah, a middle-class Christian charity shop worker in a working-class part of Yorkshire, who is initially held in contempt by the guilt-wracked Scottish hard man, Joseph (Mullan), to whom she offers tea, sympathy, and Jesus’s consolation when he takes refuge amid her clothes racks.
It emerges that it's Hannah, not Joseph, who needs the more drastic help, for her husband (Eddie Marsan), when he’s not being contrite, urinates on her and beats her. Buoyed by Joseph’s growing friendship and respect, Hannah loosens up, but then the husband commits an atrocity against her. Colman is astonishing as a kind, gentle woman hanging on in quiet desperation, whose stoicism is finally ripped apart. Even the violent Joseph is shocked by the consequences. With no disrespect to the five Oscar nominees, Colman, Opri?or, and Paquin should be getting ready to walk the red carpet on Sunday evening.
Below: Colman and Mullan in the trailer for “Tyrannosaur,” directed by Paddy Considine