Vivisecting the Women of This Year's Academy Awards
Oscar didn't go home with Julia for Pretty Woman or Steel Magnolias. Virginal hooker, martyr for motherhood, and now slutty savior of the masses: Third time out might turn the trick. Her Erin Brockovich dresses like a two-bit whore and talks like a truck driver--the prerogative of any free woman--but when it suits her, Roberts works the Pretty Woman magic to shapeshift her vulgarian into sensitive saint, so that these external expressions of taste become accidents, not choices. But she gifts Erin with such fiercely focused intelligence that her aggressively dumbass dress code rings false, like that fairy-tale hooker whose hymen was clearly preserved for the pleasure of Richard Gere's Prince Charming.
Don't get me wrong: A complex broad can contain multitudes. Problem is, the disparate parts of Erin Brockovich's character aren't organically united; they're glued together with that aforementioned movie-star charm. Roberts doesn't live through this film; a queen-in-disguise visiting her citizenry, she's either the cynosure of grateful eyes or an oddly unremarked Christmas tree. Stilting through a college campus on her way to consult a professor on the bad effects of chromium, Erin's a tacky-gorgeous spectacle--gams that go on forever, perfect butt barely swathed in skintight micro-skirt, breasts popping out of her blouse, but not a single head turns.
But the most egregiously grating moments occur during Erin's visits with Donna Jensen (Marg Helgenberger), a key contact in her investigation of corporate toxicity. All resplendent T&A, Roberts gazes with Luminous Empathy at the tearful woman who wonders whether she can still be one, sans breasts and uterus. Later, the camera frames Roberts' proud, self-satisfied face (Donna's is hidden in her Good Samaritan's shoulder) after having delivered the news that Jensen's cancer-riddled family has won millions in damages. The dying woman's just a prop in Roberts' Big Scene--and Erin's brought her biker-nanny boyfriend along to act as surrogate audience on-screen: Transfixed, he beams teary-eyed at this distaff pietà.
Still, even I have to admit that Julia Roberts doesn't just give movie-star sugar in Erin Brockovich. Can't say the same for Chocolat's exquisite Juliette Binoche. Pure eye candy as the mysterious Vianne, Binoche literally blows into a French-Catholic village with her little daughter, both done up in matching red cloaks--red being the color of the vibrancy and passion so obviously lacking thereabouts. Another messiah bent on saving the masses, she administers a pagan ritual of Communion via therapeutic cocoa in bonbons and steaming cups.
Emphasizing that Vianne's a Martha Stewart kind of earth goddess, the camera lingers adoringly on Binoche's serenely knowing smiles as she watches her aphrodisiac sweets loosen up lives and libidos. Cheeks ruddy with color, her thick, dark hair electric with vitality, she fairly advertises Lawrentian appetite, but not in any vulgar way. Binoche's beauty has always combined an ethereal fragility with an almost hectic gorgeousness, recalling one of those 19th-century tubercular heroines who'd go to the mountains to burn out. Her mad lover-director Leos Carax mined that quality with a vengeance in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, but here it's just window-dressing, like her richly textured, brightly hued retro fashions signaling tropical warmth in a wintry town.
Chocolat is a melt-in-your-heart movie: There's never any doubt that candy can beat out repressive Catholicism, and Vianne's crisis of faith in her own dark magic is mere plot fluffing. Binoche should stick with French directors (Téchiné, Carax) with the knack for working her contradictions hard, exposing the bone beneath her beauty. A Miramax confection like Chocolat may buy her into the Oscar race, but as an actress it homogenizes her into just another tasty dish.
Oral gratification delivers only momentary heavens to a downfall child (Jared Leto) and his Coney Island mum (Ellen Burstyn) in Requiem for a Dream, which cuts metronomically between these damned souls as they gobble drugs to fill the vacancy where most people store love, work, identity. A shining star of '70s filmmaking (five Oscar noms, and a win for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), Burstyn has scored few acting highs in recent decades. Since Oscar's traditionally a sucker for comebacks and snake-pit melodrama, Requiem could shake loose a bookend Academy Award for an aging actress willing to let herself look as bad as it gets on sanitized American screens.
Burstyn's Sara Goldfarb starts out engagingly enough, hanging out with her addled cronies, dreaming of being on her favorite TV show. Then she begins dieting to fit into a red dress that recalls not only her youth but a happy, intact family. Hopped up on amphetamines, she mutates all too quickly into a "thing," distorted by fish-eye lenses, fast- and slow-motion, and other dehumanizing stylistic flourishes. In the end, Burstyn gets upstaged by a refrigerator.
Sara's ever-more-surreal decline into objecthood doesn't even work as a trope for drugged-out reality. The emotional emptiness of Sara's life, as widowed mother of an absentee junkie kid, strikes home through the tremulous smile with which Burstyn keeps her meager psychic resources afloat. Like the Cheshire Cat, all but that smile keeps fading. But it's what Sara's brave humanity hangs on, the hook for our fellow-feeling. As the film systematically beats her down into speed-crazed hag and ECT-zombie, it's like watching a butcher pounding dead meat. What's acting got to do with it?
Oscar won't give the sympathy vote to The Contender's Joan Allen. Playing a vice-presidential candidate battling a sexual smear campaign, this stage-trained actress goes up against a movie full of male ham: Gary Oldman, Sam Elliott, and especially Jeff Bridges, showing off his acting chops with marvelous relish. Allen projects such authority in her occupation of space, such dry precision in the way she utters "built" sentences, such intellectual grasp of ballsy nuance in her man's world--well, let's just say that Allen's contender isn't the kind of warrior woman the Academy falls for. Especially when the Amazon in question believes so wholeheartedly in the guiding power of human integrity that she utters Dream Factory--and heartland--blasphemy: "I don't need God to tell me what to do."
Even Allen's beauty is bravely idiosyncratic; she doesn't give herself promiscuously to the eye. Her face and Brancusi skull are delicately sculpted, set on a long, graceful neck like fine art on a pedestal. When the candidate refuses to wallow in Clintonian confession--"It is simply beneath my dignity"--she's got the spine to support that standard. When she's been pushed to the wall, the camera bores in on her gaunted face, the scoured curves of her cheekbones drawing our gaze to her remarkable eyes, literally alight with tears and honor. Few actresses are capable of embodying an abstract principle in palpable emotion. Though Allen makes strength of character sexy, her incredibly disciplined work can appear effortless, and is therefore undeserving of Oscar's anointing nod.
Like Allen, Laura Linney made her bones on stage, and you can see a veteran's smarts in the orchestrated rhythms of her voice and body language in You Can Count on Me. Her Sammy is a single mother who works in her hometown bank and goes to church and occasionally to bed with a stolid but sweet boyfriend. It's a drifting life, unexamined and routine. When Sammy's charming wastrel brother Terry drops in for a visit, he triggers a series of unspectacular epiphanies that leave this decent girl and her precocious little boy in a better place when Terry, predictably, wanders off again.
The plot is small, but miraculous; the film showcases character and talk, actors and director-screenwriter. We're privileged to witness the marvelous play of conversation and human connection in scene after unforgettable scene. Emotional seasons pass subtly over Linney's face, perfectly measuring the weather of everyday experience. Her expressions range from schoolmarmish--when she's trying her darnedest to be a grownup--to fox-faced, deep-dimpled delight in outrageous fortune. Catch her erupting into barbaric yawps as she drives away from a motel assignation, and her marijuana-fueled giggle of amazement: "Terry, I fucked my boss!" And Linney never hits a false note in her human-sized struggle to define right from wrong--a wrestling match jiggered in most Hollywood morality plays.
She's simply superb in two-handers with Matthew Broderick (her boss), Kenneth Lonergan (her minister), and especially with major discovery Mark Ruffalo (Terry). These duets show us the way the pitch-and-catch of superlative acting can achieve revelation--the shape of a soul and of art. The performance Linney delivers is lapidary rather than louche. No celluloid dream girl or FX creation, she frees us from our existential ordinariness and ignorance not through escapism but by forcing us to see her/ourselves in sharpest focus. But that's demanding work, and Oscar tends to prefer crowd-pleasers.
But even that hardly accounts for Oscar's outrageous neglect of the best, most surprising performance of the year: Gillian Anderson's doomed Lily Bart in The House of Mirth. In this elegant film about fin-de-siècle socioeconomic machinations and spiritual murder, Anderson is fresh, emotionally resonant, worlds beyond The X-Files. Her red hair blooms in a Gibson Girl 'do around a face so ripe with vitality and appetite, it seems she must win pride of place at any table.
Lily's fatal error lies in her belief that she possesses free will, that she's proof against her milieu's cruel designs and inflexible social forms. As she's inexorably pushed out of her community's charmed circle, deeper into the cold, you can see Anderson's radiantly expressive beauty contracting, losing color, like a tropical flower deprived of sunlight--even as her soul grows larger, beyond blight. Recalling the luminous Danielle Darrieux in Max Ophuls' masterpiece The Earrings of Madame De..., Anderson's performance charts the martyrdom of a lovely woman, the making of a saint.
But what's all that to our Oscar, in the face of the most brilliantly designed push-up bra since Howard Hughes' rig for Jane Russell's Olympian chestworks in The Outlaw?