For the Best Actor race, I used a horse racing analogy to establish the odds of the nominated actors. Let’s stick with that device for the Best Actress race because Natalie Portman is looking like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes. Not literally, of course, but in the sense that according to the previous awards and various pundits, she’s way out in front of the competition, which is made up of great actresses in roles that either haven’t been seen much or didn’t match the mania of Portman’s unstrung ballerina.
Nicole Kidman, nominated for Rabbit Hole, stars in one of the movies no one has seen, which is too bad. Kidman has had an interestingly uneven career, veering from crap like Australia and Bewitched to daringly original projects like To Die For and Margot at the Wedding. Rabbit Hole is among the latter, but according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, it was shot for $5 million, but has only made back $2 million. How does that happen with talent like Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, a director like John Cameron Mitchell (Short Bus), and Lionsgate distributing? Hopefully, the Oscar buzz will cause more people to see this movie.
Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as an overburdened Ozark teenager out to find her missing father, in Winter’s Bone, is a strong debut performance that promises more nominations to come. Ree Dolly is a 16 year old who has to take care of two younger siblings and a mom who’s lost to mental illness. Her father is a meth cooker who’s disappeared while on bail. Facing homelessness, she journeys into a hardened world of drug dealers and murderers, most of whom are related by blood. Had it been a supporting role, I’d be predicting her as a winner, but she’ll have to settle for the nomination this year.
Michelle Williams is one of my favorite actresses, and Wendy and Lucy is one of my favorite movies over the past few years, so her nomination for Blue Valentine was a very pleasant surprise. She plays Cindy, a young woman in a failing marriage who hungers for more. Blue Valentine gives us snapshots of the relationship, from the sweet beginnings to the bitter end, and Michelle Williams gives a fearless performance that confirms her position as one of the best actresses in Hollywood.
For a while, Annette Bening was being presented as a rival to Natalie Portman for Best Actress. After seeing The Kids Are All Right, I can only guess that the hype came from her publicist. Of course, sentimentality and popularity has as much to do with the Academy Awards as merit, and for that reason alone Bening would have a shot at winning. There’s just not that much to her role, which is more of an ensemble or supporting role than it is a lead. She’s wonderful as the uptight, type-A half of her relationship with Julianne Moore. She keeps her performance from veering into a cartoonish, two-dimensional villain. Rather, she gains our empathy for being the person in her relationship who feels the pressure of being the sole bread winner. Forgive the sexist analogy, but she’s like the traditional husband who has the weight of providing for her family squarely on her shoulders. Sadly, there’s too much melodrama and not exploration of her stresses in this overrated movie.
From the very beginning of Black Swan, you know Natalie Portman is in trouble. A grown woman who sleeps in a pink room, surrounded by stuffed animals, music boxes, a smothering mom who never cashed in her dream, and no dad in sight is a caution. And then we get to know Natalie Portman’s Nina, a dancer with the New York ballet, a girl who is driven and high-strung.
She’s also at the tail end of her prime, but fears of being passed by seem to be swept away when Nina is cast in the lead in the company’s production of Swan Lake. But rather than being a boon, the role becomes a curse, as we watch Nina’s hold on her sanity loosen to the point of letting go.
It’s a role to die for – I’m talking about the film role – and Portman more than meets the challenge of capturing both the pampered little girl in pink, who has never really had a boy friend, and the type-A career girl, who is pushing herself past her limits to achieve a dream that may or may not be her own. Portman’s physical appearance contributes to the tension. She lost a lot of weight for the role – to the point of appearing nearly pre-pubescent.
Helping her along the path to mental exhaustion, like a perverse Scarecrow in a balletic Wizard of Oz, is Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy, the artistic director of the company, who manipulates his dancers mercilessly to get the performance he envisions.
Once she’s been cast as the lead, jealous rivals accuse Portman of having slept with Leroy, a charge that hurts and baffles Nina. Having lived so pampered a life, she can’t imagine using sex as a tool or tactic. That said, she’s not really up for the challenge of playing the Black Swan. She’s so technical and precise that she’s incapable of cutting loose and letting her base instincts take over. They’re repressed to the point of not existing.
As she frets over her lack to connect with the sexy, dirty side of herself and the character, Nina begins to hallucinate. At first, it’s small, but it grows and grows until it’s hard to tell what is real and what is imagined.
Natalie Portman will win the Academy Award for Best Actress this year, and it’s an honor that’s well deserved.