To glance at the Academy Award nominees for lead actor is to get a quick but thorough lesson in the major themes that dominated American movies last year. Almost to a man, Daniel Day-Lewis, Johnny Depp, George Clooney, Tommy Lee Jones and Viggo Mortensen played avenging anti-heroes in an immoral, amoral or morally relativistic world. They were grim, compromised and pessimistic, embodiments of the queasy morass we find ourselves in and a reflection of the national mood.
To glance at the Academy Award nominees for lead actress is to get nothing of the sort. Granted, the actor category is flukishly consistent this time around, but the actress category has traditionally been a grab bag. It's no wonder why. Major studio motion pictures with women in the lead are rare enough that they're unlikely to spawn trends. The problem isn't the lack of good performances, it's the lack of roles that can truly be considered leading.
There are years when the category seems as if it was tossed together from whatever was left in the pantry -- inventive but a little meager. Whereas other years -- 2006, where are you now?-- can feel unusually strong. The nominees a year ago were notable not just for their great performances but also for the strength and singularity of the roles. Winner Helen Mirren's empathetic transformation into Queen Elizabeth in "The Queen" quietly accomplished what would have seemed impossible earlier: shifting some of the sympathy for the wildly beloved Princess Diana to the then-unpopular queen. From Judi Dench's turn as the bitter schoolteacher in "Notes on a Scandal," Meryl Streep's as the powerhouse editor in "The Devil Wears Prada," Penelope Cruz's as a working-class force of nature in "Volver" and even Kate Winslet's as a suburbanite adrift in "Little Children," the lead actress nominees embodied characters full of forward momentum, driven by ambition, duty or obsession, characters for whom the central drama is not domestic, and who, more notably, are neither icons nor symbols of anything.
This year's nominations fall into depressing patterns. Either the roles are archetypal in a way that Oscar voters recognize as "worthy," or the nominations feel like an attempt to honor a film or an actress for impressive box office returns or a nostalgic comeback. This is not to undermine the performances, all of which were good and some of which were technically virtuosic or wonderfully naturalistic. But what they seemed to lack as a whole is the visceral punch, the spit and vinegar of last year's nominees and of their counterparts in the actor category.
Talented as the actress nominees indisputably are, their roles (with the exception of one) felt contained and conscribed in a way the actor roles did not. There is not, for one thing, a villain among them. They're also nary an internal smack-down; no matter how morally compromised or sticky their situation, the characters sail through their dilemmas feathers mostly unruffled (Ellen Page's Juno, Julie Christie's Fiona), or default to diva mode (Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth, Marion Cotillard's Piaf) in a crisis, an evasive tactic if ever there was one.
COTILLARD'S portrayal of Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose" is a technical tour de force, making it the likely front-runner. As the troubled singer, whom she portrays from her late teens to her death at a ravaged 47 (going on 90), Cotillard gets to travel to wildly exotic emotional states courtesy of Piaf's bad mother, irresponsible father and terrible luck in love. Cotillard disappears completely into the role, emotionally and physically, transforming herself from a lovely young woman into a blowzy street waif and later a woman ravaged by years of tragedy, hard living and morphine addiction.
Nothing pleases academy voters quite like the sight of a beautiful woman transforming herself into a human wreck, but artist biopics are essentially hagiographies. They're intended for worship and idealization; they don't pose questions or invite identification so much as they demand a kind of distanced reverence. (See Edith suffer. See Edith suffer for France's sins.) As well-wrought as Cotillard's performance is, it's also hermetically sealed.
The Costume as Drama
The same, or similar, goes for great historical figures with whom we have no current beef; any questions they pose become rhetorical. What else was "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" but a chance for Blanchett to rage, emote, strike awe and dress to intimidate? Of all the nominations, this is the one most redolent of category filler. Of course it's always possible for a performance to outclass a movie, but in this case, it doesn't. Blanchett plays dress-up and hams it up with the rest of the movie. It looks like fun, and Blanchett is as always a lovely and commanding presence, but there's nothing here that draws us into it or illuminates the character in a new way, in sharp contrast to, say, Mirren's portrayal of her contemporary counterpart and namesake.