Welcome to 7 more gloriously under-looked excuses to have a good old moan. This time the ladies. The years and years of the Academy’s illustrious history in rewarding great work in cinema has generally been very kind. But boy do they forget about a lot of terrific performances. And I am talking every single year. Below are 7 performances I am particularly fond of, and I know I am not alone here. These are not necessarily my all-time favorites, but they are certainly plucked from the very best that missed out on Oscar nominations. I know, three of the actresses derive from France – what can I say, I am something of a French cinema fanboy. It could easily have been all 7. Hell, 100. For now, get acquainted with these Oscars-neglected, but extremely talented women. Enchanté.
Shailene Woodley for The Descendants (2011)
As much as the Oscars bring plenty of pain and frustration, I hold my hands up and say they also garnish a near half-year of my annual existence. I’ve often openly attempted to predict not only the damn winners, but more privately I have been known to figure out which nomination clip the Academy would use. Or at least give it a go. I’m contently geeky like that. When Shailene Woodley looked to be heading for a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Alexander Payne’s near-perfect The Descendants, I already knew they would use the moment some horrible news forces her to instinctively duck herself under the water of the swimming pool and show the raw suffering all by herself, on her own terms. A remarkable moment of cinema and acting. Woodley’s Alexandra is certainly introduced as a kind of bratty, rebellious teenage girl, but long before the movie ends she is possibly the most straight-talking, mature member of her family – and the movie. Although a breakthrough of a performance, Woodley is so good here it is like you have been watching this talent for years. She devours her forthcoming, often provocative dialogue with ease, leading her character far beyond what you first assume of her – as Alexandra is forced to adapt to her new, sorrowful circumstances we, the audience, find our affections for the girl grow too.
Isabelle Huppert for The Piano Teacher (2001)
Isabelle Huppert’s Erika is a tormented woman, surrounded by bleakness and misery, and the actress sucker-punches you on numerous occasions. It’s a brutal, emotive display from Huppert, who portrays Erika as a somehow isolated, defeated woman, void of any ample amount of warm, aesthetic feelings – but oh my would she welcome them. Michael Haneke does this kind of melancholy well, very well, but makes it compelling and meaningful. The Piano Teacher conjures all manner of dark thoughts, what you would be willing to do to gain some rightful attention and affection. Erika’s pain is clearly physically and mental, but also manifested through sexual encounters, here with a much younger man – this itself leaving her humiliated further. It is not an easy watch, that is for sure, but a devastatingly good one. Huppert was highly regarded and strongly considered at Cannes (as she always is) and took the Best Actress prize for The Piano Teacher. Come Oscar time however, Huppert and the movie were nowhere to be seen, which is rather obscure for what turns out to be the performance of the year.
Carey Mulligan for Shame (2011)
For shame indeed, as the phrase goes. Or sham, as its treatment goes. A movie famous not just for it’s sheer, gritty brilliance, but also because the talking point ever since has been more about Michael Fassbender’s Oscar snub than his penis. Carey Mulligan, as Fassbender’s “troubled” sister, does not get tongues wagging as much perhaps, but she really fucking ought to. In a much more sedate, but still excellent, role in Drive, the feisty, fragile character in Shame marks a fantastic year for Mulligan. As Sissy, not only does she provide the heat and adrenaline to Brandon’s cold and static sex addict, Mulligan certainly matches the great man in the acting stakes when she is on screen. Both siblings are damaged and lonely, but as Brandon tries to suffer privately and internally, Sissy explodes her anxieties outward into the world, her heart splattered across her sleeve as she craves some attention that might save her from herself. A bratty, excitable young woman, Mulligan makes Sissy sympathetic and honest, dragging her along admirably – adding a fine American accent and a simply heart-stopping rendition of “New York, New York” into the mix. Two well-deserved Oscar nominations to-go please, Academy.
Melanie Laurent for Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Christoph Waltz stole the majority of the limelight in Quentin Tarantino’s historical retelling Inglourious Basterds, winning at the Oscars and in Cannes. In a special, personal way though the heart and soul of the movie is Melanie Laurent as Shosanna, fleeing for her life only later to be floundered with her enemies. She is fearless and smart, though very aware of the dangers in her path, and eager to develop the means to banish them. Laurent is pitch-perfect here, portraying a young woman who must have the weight of the world at war on her small shoulders, but externalizes her cool and courageous attitude. Sure, Waltz was the showy masterclass, but Laurent had depth and feeling, a character you warm to instantly and root for right to her very end. She does somehow triumph with a great spirit and sense of freedom at the film’s close, in spite of what her writer-director had in store for her. Tarantino started to lose my fandom ever-so-slightly with the Kill Bill double-bill, but the fate he ultimately gives to Shosanna is unforgivable – I was heartbroken. The lack of an Oscar nomination for the marvelous Laurent doesn’t really tend to my wounds.
Bryce Dallas Howard for The Village (2004)
With The Village continuing the steady decline of the career of one-trick pony M. Night Shyamalan, I can still find a couple of great things about the mediocre 2004 thriller. They are both called Howard. For one, James Newton Howard’s incredibly provoking, transcending score, which owes a lot to Hilary Hahn and her magic violin I might add. And secondly, actress Bryce Dallas Howard making her breakthrough lead role. I wonder how many of you recall the minor echoes of support for Howard as a possible Oscar Best Actress contender. That never unfortunately amounted to a serious challenge. In the end the movie’s poor reception damaged its chances and even the Best Original Score nomination was considered a surprise (it was most certainly well-deserved). Bryce Dallas Howard does the best with what she has to work with here, her blind Ivy Walker is the most endearing and sympathetic character in The Village – noted this is an actress now known for playing quite unsavory characters. Howard’s performance here is both truly engaging and appropriately sedate, she gives Ivy the innocence and determination that sets the narrative in motion. An impressive, affecting portrayal of a girl who cannot physically see nor anticipate the life-changing secret before her. A pleasure to watch; I’m a real sucker for this performance (many of you likely feel this selection itself is a bit of a Shyamalan-style twist), and not sure Bryce Dallas Howard has been this captivating since.
Juliette Binoche for Three Colors: Blue (1993)
The first of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s miraculous Three Colors trilogy is certainly the bleakest. So Blue is the appropriate color, and Juliette Binoche is the perfect face that fits. Her beauty and magnetism is matched by her natural ability to display utter turmoil and self-depletion. You would struggle to find examples where Binoche has not demonstrated these qualities and such acting brilliance to this great extent in anything else she has done. Though she is never anything short of exceptional. In Three Colors: Blue the central character of Julie (Binoche) loses her child and husband in an automobile accident, and consciously fades away from the social world choosing some form of isolation and distance from society. She tries to commit suicide, before attempting to abandon her past, including an affair and her husband’s music (which she very well may have written). The somber and luminous Binoche and composer Zbigniew Preisner work in unison as the music haunts Julie throughout, following her like memories you can’t forget. It’s a mesmerizing, memorable central performance from the enigmatic Binoche – painful, poignant and beautiful.
Jessica Chastain for A Most Violent Year (2014)
Warning: some serious, unashamed, completely warranted flattery coming up. Oscar nominated in 2011 for a wonderfully quirky and sympathetic turn in The Help, this may or may not have hindered Jessica Chastain’s chances at also being mentioned for a stellar work in films like Take Shelter and The Tree of Life that year. Not many actresses can claim to have a multitude of solid award-worthy performances in a single year. Wait, Jessica Chastain can, in 2014 this time. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and Miss Julie were promoted with such promise but disperse into the industry mist – Chastain is cracking in both. And what of Interstellar, a general miss for me, but Chastain was by far the greatest entity of the picture (and campaigned accordingly). Wow, what a year. Wait, there’s more. Her best work of the year, and likely one of the finest acting displays in years was her portrayal of Anna Morales, wife of not-quite-gangster Abel (an also terrific Oscar Isaac). It’s an utterly confident, tenacious, illuminating turn, once again, relentlessly enchanting Chastain makes acting seem easier than the art of breathing. Which brings me to one of my prominent sore points from that awards season, and is still a freshly open wound with me. I’m shaking my head as I write this, reminded of that strong whiff of disappointment and disbelief. Someone needed to give the brilliant Patricia Arquette a run for her money, and for my dollar it was Chastain who ought to have won gold. But you have to be nominated first, right…
What actresses would make your list?