Leading Ladies: A Queen, a housekeeper, a forger, a long-suffering wife – and a rock star thrown in for good measure. Such are the characters depicted by the actresses singled out for lead roles at this Sunday’s Academy Awards presentation. And what a diverse group of performances they represent. Though one may quibble (and I will) about a couple of the nominees, there’s no doubt that in their own way each left their mark on this year’s Oscars in ways big and small.
Perhaps the biggest revelation for me was Melissa McCarthy playing the real-life part of writer Lee Israel in the film adaptation of her memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (The title comes from a sign-off often used by Dorothy Parker, one of the literary luminaries whose letters Israel forged for profit.) Known for her comedic roles, McCarthy plumbs the depths of pathos in this astonishing performance, aided by her also remarkable co-star Richard Grant. (It should be noted that the misfits-come-together theme is reminiscent of last year’s Shape of Water, in the relationship between the characters played by Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins.) McCarthy, in the performance of a lifetime, pulls the curtain on a deeply unlikable woman – eventually convicted for her crimes – as someone whose desperation ultimately sprung from the creative vacuum that economic circumstances had placed her in. The scene toward the end of the film, where she explains what propelled her transgressions, is one of the finest I’ve seen in recent memory.
Olivia Colman, as the royally messy British Queen Anne in the jaunty romp, The Favourite, is notable for being able to keep her performance from veering off into camp, though coming close to it on occasion. Supported by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in key roles, Colman presents the monarch, who ruled England from 1707-1714, as a daffy, spoiled, but ultimately sympathetic figure. The screenplay’s questionable historical bona fides allow the actress to roam free in her idiosyncratic interpretation of a sovereign whose personal life still remains somewhat of a mystery to this day.
Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, the salt of the earth at the heart of Alfonso Cuaron’s transcendent Roma, presents a quandary – and an unusual quibble alert. Her performance, if it can be called such, is so organic that I would hesitate to call it acting. Unlike her famous fellow nominees, her anonymity allows a total immersion in what is not so much a role but a life experience. Aparicio, who was studying to be a teacher when Cuaron offered her the role after a casting call, says that she would like to continue acting after her breakout performance. I’ll predict that she’ll find it difficult to match the perfection with which she helped elevate Roma to masterpiece status.
I generally love myself some Lady Gaga, but I’m afraid I wasn’t head over heels about her stint as Ally in the latest iteration of A Star is Born. I refer to acting-wise; her musical scenes were fantastic and carried all the charisma and talent that have made her the superstar she is. But her co-star, Bradley Cooper, had far more emotional resonance it seems to me, and she comes up a bit short with this foray into the thespian arts. We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds in this department, but for now she has bested her counterpart from a previous generation, Madonna, with an Oscar nomination!
As for the expected winner this year, Glenn Close, what can one say? It’s about time, after six nominations, that this treasure of American film, stage (and television) adds the Big One to her extensive CV. In The Wife, she provides an absolutely masterful exhibit of steely control over seething tension and such is her magnetism that you really can’t take your eyes off her in any scene.
In the end, no quibbles about the fact that it’s been an especially satisfying year of excellence for women in film.