JUST about every fall, a familiar lament is heard throughout the land -- and by "the land," of course, I mean the portion of the media dedicated to handicapping the Academy Awards -- over the dearth of solid roles for women. It's one of those Oscar-season perennials, like crowded screening rooms and poinsettias.
There are exceptions, of course, and these are generally met with the declaration that it's an unusually good year for women and taken to be a sign that things are looking up. (But then, a cursory Google search reveals that the phrase "weak year for women's roles" brings up comments and articles going back at least a decade.) But no matter. After a couple of lackluster years for women, the last one topped with the rancid cherry of a ho-larded Oscar stage to celebrate "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," the rest of this year promises to be one of the fat ones.
Already, the year has yielded a wide variety of noteworthy performances by actresses in leading or ensemble roles, some of them in surprisingly womanly milieus. There was Kate Winslet as a depressed suburban mom in "Little Children," Meryl Streep as the intimidating powerhouse boss in "The Devil Wears Prada," Helen Mirren as a beleaguered Queen Elizabeth II in "The Queen" and Kirsten Dunst as the teen queen of France in "Marie Antoinette," among others.
With Oscar season just kicking into high gear, there seems to be more where that came from. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" includes three memorable performances: Cate Blanchett as a mother who finds herself at the center of a political and media storm after being wounded on vacation in Morocco, Adriana Barraza as a Mexican nanny who gets caught up in an immigration quagmire, and Rinko Kikuchi as a lonely, deaf Japanese teenager grieving her mother's death. And then, of course, there's Pedro Almodovar's "Volver," whose ensemble cast (which includes Penelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, Blanca Portillo, Yohana Cobo and Chus Lampreave) collectively won the best actress award at Cannes in May.
Also promising are "The Painted Veil," in which Naomi Watts plays an unhappy wife transformed by a love affair and her work fighting cholera; "The Good German," starring Blanchett as a desperate woman in post-World War II Berlin; "Notes on a Scandal," based on the novel by Zoe Heller, in which Blanchett plays a high school art teacher who becomes involved with a teenage student and Judi Dench plays her staunch, strange friend; "Fur," an imaginary biopic of photographer Diane Arbus, starring Nicole Kidman; and "Miss Potter," a traditional biopic of the beloved children's book author, Beatrix Potter. Renee Zellweger stars as the writer, whose life was marked by romantic heartbreak and an improbable second career. In "The Holiday," Winslet and Cameron Diaz play single women -- one British, one American -- who trade lives and loves. Ashley Judd has also received some positive notices for her role as a promiscuous drunk in Joey Lauren Adams' "Come Early Morning."
A cynic might shrug at the sudden proliferation as a pure product of Oscar season -- the only time of year it's deemed safe to let the girls out of the barn and into the art houses.
But what stands out this year, from this vantage point at least, is the extent to which the roles seem to represent a panoply of female behaviors and inner lives and social spheres. In other words, it's unlikely that this year's best actress award will go to the actress playing the protagonist's wife.
It could be a blip, it could be a trend, but it beats rapping hookers onstage at the Kodak any day.