2014 Oscar Race: Best Actress

It’s February, and that means its Oscar time around this blog. This is the sixth of nine blog pieces set to roll out between now and the Oscars on Sunday, March 2, all of which will be breaking down (what I consider) the eight major races – Picture, Director, both writing and all four acting categories.

Like with most things on this blog, this will be a mix of fact, popular opinion and my opinion – the three of which don’t often intersect. Then I’ll post my Oscar scorecard right before the show as best I can – I’ve seen each of the films in the eight categories I’m covering, but not across the board.

On to today’s posting: Best Actress.

The Nominees
Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Judi Dench (Philomena)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

Who Will Win: Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Who Could Win: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Who Should Win: Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Who Should Be Here: Julie Delpy (Before Midnight)

Let’s get this out of the way: Cate Blanchett’s performance is probably the best of the year. Talk about completely disappearing inside your role – I can’t remember a single frame in Blue Jasmine where I saw Blanchett on the screen. Instead I saw a library of emotions and craziness which seemed to change virtually second by second. Blanchett balanced crazy and sympathy with an effortless charm and charisma that maybe only one or two other actresses alive could have done.

But no – the 2013 Academy Award should go to Amy Adams.

American Hustle isn’t that great of a film, on its own. Its editing is too loose, its story too fragmented and its pacing too slow. But what makes this film is its performances from its (**SPOILER ALERT**) SIX Academy Award nominated cast members. But here’s the kicker: Amy Adams blew all of them off the screen. Her turn of Sydney Prosser was alternately intense, playful and sultry. It was also incredibly against type – something which should lengthen her career.

It’s Adams’ fifth Oscar nomination and should be her first win. It’s really 6-5 and pick ’em between Adams and Blanchett. But Adams lifted American Hustle to the heights it’s achieved, and under the spread the wealth theory, the film will now help push her over the finish line.

No one knew what to expect from American Hustle, so Adams’ performance came out of virtually nowhere and really ended all conversation of Sandra Bullock’s second potential win. Bullock was the lead of Gravity, often holding down the film on her own (her only co-star was George Clooney and some voices on the radio). For those who would say the film has no story: you have the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The film was about a woman who had to re-discover her will to live after a significant tragedy, piece by piece, a moment at a time, in the face of incredible odds (and it’s also the film that will change filmmaking – but I’ll get into that next week).

Speaking of incredible odds, that’s what both Judi Dench (Philomena) and Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) face in this Oscar race – neither one of them are really in it at this point.

Philomena was another example of The Blind Side phenomenon: a single performance elevating a movie from just good to Oscar contender. Though Philomena was better than The Blind Side, it’s Dench that we’ll all remember. She was alternately tough but innocent, determined yet incredibly forgiving. In the hands of a lesser actress, her role would have almost reduced to parody but with Dench’s deft performance, good became great.

Meryl Streep’s problem is that she’s ALWAYS great – so it’s difficult to tell when she’s REALLY great. She owns each of her characters in a way that few screen actors or actresses ever have, and she’s clearly the best actress of her generation. She’s been nominated an incredible 18 times – more than every other year on average since 1979 – with three wins. But August: Osage County came out late and the general consensus is that it’s an average with great writing and terrific performances (not quite sure how you can do that, but okay). Streep barely got nominated – in something of an upset, she overtook Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) at the last minute.

I wish that Julie Delpy had ultimately edged both Thompson AND Streep at the last minute, but Before Midnight came out during the summer and was largely ignored. Delpy has been playing Celine in the Before series since 1994 (every nine years, so sequel in 2022? Please?). Though sequels seldom surpass their originals, Before Midnight was an exception in every way. Few films before it have fully understood the reality of marriage without delving into melodrama, but Before Midnight struck right at the soul of the institution while alternately supporting it (**SPOILER ALERT** without even showing it – imagine that!). There’s no question that it should be nominated for Best Picture and should be in the conversation for a win – but it’s not. And that’s a shame, not only for the filmmakers, but Delpy too. She’s clearly grown as an actress over the years and should be getting better roles.