Best “Leading” Actress – Oscar 2009
This year’s Best Actress category really calls the question, “What is a leading actress?” Is it based on actual screen time? how many actresses are actually in the movie? or is it simply a studio designation? We know it’s not the latter, because Harvey Weinstein ran a pretty hot and heavy campaign for Kate Winslet’s Hanna Schmitz to be nominated as a supporting role, and the Academy saw fit to nominate her as Best Actress. And, with the bumping of her performance in Revolutionary Road, and “upgrading” The Reader to the Best Actress platform, one has to wonder – will the Academy vote for her actual performance in the Reader, or will they vote for her based on two Oscar worthy performances in the same year.
Traditionally, if an actress is nominated in two categories, one of two things will happen – a complete shut out, or they will snag the Best Supporting Actress award. Before the nominations came out, and I was doing my pre-picking, I had Kate Winslet as a sure thing for Best Supporting Actress for The Reader. And, now that I’ve actually seen The Reader, this is the right category, this is where this performance should be nominated. The Academy simply got it wrong.
Hanna Schmitz is a supporting role, not because she’s not on screen for a significant period of time (she is), and not because there are other actresses in the film that could fit the bill as the lead actress (there aren’t). And, it’s not because of strategy – that’s the category Kate is most likely to win. It’s because the Reader is not Hanna’s story — it is the story of Michael Berg, a teenager who embarks on a doomed affair with Hanna Schmitz, a much older woman, and a former, unrepentent, Nazi prison guard, and how she changed him, and ultimately, how he changed her.
David Kross, as the young Michael Berg, was really fantastic, and that he is not nominated in the Best Actor category can only be attributed to 2 things – a. he hasn’t put his time in yet, and is too much of an unknown, and b. this was really a strong year for male performances (see below) (although I would have bumped Brad Pitt any day for this kid, and likewise, come to think of it, I would boot Angelina Jolie out of this race for that whiny, weepy performance in Changeling, a great disappointment from Clint Eastwood, and at most, a mediocre movie. Brad and Angie were nominated simply for their star appeal, and what they bring to the red carpet – which this year has fans salivating for a showdown with this superstar twosome and Jennifer Aniston and John Mayer. Team Anison/Mayer anyone?). While I was waiting in line in the bathroom after the movie, a woman was shocked that Hanna was not ashamed of her role in the war, but rather her inability to read. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate – Hanna Schmitz is a very complicated character, and that’s an oversimplification, but the movie is not about her struggles with her past, or her accountability for her actions. It’s about Michael’s struggle to understand her, not only what she did to him, but what she did in the context of national history, in the face of the overwhelming sentiment of Germany at the time, that understanding is of no moment, and irrelevant – she was responsible for the deaths of more than 300 people, what more is there to understand?
Kate Winslet’s performance truly “supports” David Kross. His need to understand is made reasonable, understandable, and almost achingly necessary because she makes an unlikable character so interesting, and her flaws almost endearing. This performance should be rewarded – but will it be in the leading spot, in the wrong category, up against an icon like Meryl Streep? I’m tentatively going to say yes, but in truth, I could easily change my mind by Sunday.
Meryl Streep is a two time Oscar winner, has been nominated 15 times, and the tagline “greatest living American Actress,” might as was well be tatooed on her forehead. But, being nominated 14 previous times, and only winning 2 times, means that she had to sit in the loser’s chair 12 times. And this year, when she won the SAG award, and gave her somewhat dopey, but endearing acceptance speech (I talked about acceptances speeches in the previous post – I think Meryl and Kate cancel each other out here), you could tell, she really really wants to win, and the Academy might give it to her, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Doubt is a good film, and Meryl’s performance, while at times over the top, was at times, also mesmerizing.
In Doubt, Meryl Streep’s Sister Aloysios runs her Catholic school with an iron fist, and in her role as principal, goes head to head with Philip Seymour Hoffman, the parish priest. When she points her steel finger at Hoffman, with her limited proof, but only her firm, resolved belief, I believed her. And, in the end when she expresses doubt – you see the pain on her face, as her doubt is not about whether the priest was actually guilty – of that she has no doubt – but a doubt at the very core of her being – a doubt in the church, with its sexist heirarchy, that would not only subordinate such behavior, but actually elevate this man to a higher position. Some people probably found her character unlikable, unsympathetic, that she could convict without proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but I liked her – I was with her in her struggles as a woman in a male run/male dominated institution. I envied her belief in her own instincts, and I respected her almost feral protectiveness of the children in her school, and a sympathized with her inability to modernize.
And, in the end, there was no doubt this was Meryl Streep’s movie. She was the undisputed lead, this was her story. And this primacy, along with the fact that it really would be painful to see her lose for the 13th time, may put her over the hump, in the face of Kate Winslet’s two standout performances.
And what of the other nominees? There’s buzz abounding that Melissa Leo is going to pull a huge upset for Frozen River – possible, always possible, but I don’t think enough people saw the movie. And Anne Hathaway – not her turn, and like Eddie Murphy who sabotaged Dream Girls with Norbit, Bride Wars killed any chance she had. But, on the other hand, she may get some pity points for having a jailed ex-boyfriend who publically humiliated her on an almost unfathomable scale. You never know.
So, in this moment, I’m going with Kate Winslet, but by Sunday . . .