Saturday, January 12, 2008

For Your Consideration - Best Actress

Every couple of years it turns out to be a great year for women in movies. Actresses other than Meryl Streep get excellent parts and give terrific performances and no matter whether or not people go to see them, the fact that these films got made in the first place is its own little victory. Happily, the luck of 2007's great movie year extended to roles for, and films about, women: AWAY FROM HER, THE SAVAGES, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, OFFSIDE, BLACK BOOK, GRINDHOUSE, and even an animated film like PERSEPOLIS had some of the best roles for women in a long time. Maybe not all of them were major Hollywood movies, but they were all good movies, some of them great, and they're going to be remembered; that's more important than making money, if you ask me. So with this in mind, here are two amazing performances that should not be overlooked by the Academy because I think they’ll end up being remembered by history, and the Academy wouldn’t want to look like they’re off the mark, would they? Thought not.

Nicole Kidman is one of those actresses who seem too good to be true, as talented as she is beautiful and willing to take chances on risky material. With MARGOT AT THE WEDDING she gave a truly remarkable performance, quite possibly the best of her career thus far, and no one is paying attention to either her or the movie. I think they will eventually, making MARGOT a future classic or cult hit at best, and when they do they're going to see Kidman doing work that is incredibly brave and honest that there will be a lot of forehead slapping and screams of "How could she not be nominated for this?" And I'm right there with you.

What’s fascinating about her character in MARGOT (she’s Margot) is that what you think you’re seeing is a woman who is just a total and utter bitch, cruel to most everyone around her and walking around with an air of superiority about her. Not so. In fact, what you’re seeing is an intelligent woman who is in the process of unraveling; her marriage is about over, she’s having an affair with a pompous ass, and going through an emotional breakdown. In the process of all this she’s thrown back in with her family and that sure as hell doesn’t make anything any better. But in a sense, it’s also just what was needed, too. MARGOT takes place over a few days and what you’re really seeing is Margot herself under the microscope; it’s wrong to judge her as a person based on what you see, because what you’re seeing are what are possibly the worst few days of this person’s life so far. With Kidman playing her, Margot is such a damaged personality, seemingly unsure about everything in her life and only just now becoming aware of this. She has a scene with the excellent Ciaran Hinds in a bookstore that’s heartbreaking and difficult to watch but it also happens to be the pinnacle of Kidman’s screen acting work thus far; this is when Margot realizes that she doesn’t have her shit together like she thought and it’s unforgettable, one of the best movie moments of 2007. I would be a total idiot if I didn’t also praise writer/director Noah Baumbach’s superb screenplay (this is also a great film about contemporary family relations) and make mention that Kidman is joined by a top-rank cast, namely Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black and Hinds, but I was so overwhelmed by Kidman’s work here (unexpectedly so) that I can’t picture this film without her.

It’s something to have one such incredible performance in a movie year, but to have two makes you think that the end of the world is coming or something, it’s too good to be true. OK, I’m overstating things, but before Kidman I long thought that Ashley Judd’s work in BUG couldn’t be topped and it’s a really tough choice between the two of them. I’ve always known that Judd was a fine actress, but she’d been doing one DOUBLE JEOPARDYs too many over the years to remind me of this; BUG was a revelation for Judd, a fantastic piece of material that would be tough for only any actress, but Judd came through it almost like a new actress. A bizarrely romantic film, this adaptation of Tracy Lettis’ play nails the desperation that often comes with (or without) love, that feeling that we must adopt the interests, obsessions and problems of our significant others, but also one that finds this condition within us strangely liberating. BUG ends with a scene that’s equal parts bravely fatalistic and strangely liberating that it feels like the most romantic moment you’ll see in movies this year. It’s not an easy thing for audiences to accept (and since Lionsgate sold BUG as a horror film in the SAW mode, they most certainly did not), but one of the reasons you do is how well Judd convinces us about her character’s emotional state – that she cannot live without Michael Shannon (likewise excellent), an Iraq vet convinced he’s been injected with bugs – that you accept it 100%. What’s great is how Judd opens the film as this very damaged woman with a serious drug habit, just out of an abusive marriage, who accepts this strange man into her life not just out of her own need but also because she can see that he needs her, too. It’s surprisingly very touching, and the emotional content is almost all on Judd and she handles it flawlessly. BUG certainly does get stranger as the character’s shared paranoia progresses, but what you don’t ever forget (and this why I like the film so much) is that these two honestly do love each other. Yes, BUG is a dark, often disturbing piece, and yes, these people are kinda batshit insane, but it doesn’t exactly matter. I don’t think that BUG is specifically about insanity as it about loving within insanity (does that make sense?) and it wouldn’t have worked without Ashley Judd. I hope she picks up the ball from this film and continues to work with material this daring because one of these days it’s going to get her some serious accolades. Nominating her for BUG would be a damn good place to start.

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