With the Academy Awards quickly approaching, we're going through each of the major categories and pretending we're Academy voters. Forget who will win, we have a decision to make.
The Nominees: Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook, Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty, Emmanuelle Riva for Amour, Naomi Watts for The Impossible, Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild
The conventional wisdom right now is that this is a two-person race. There's crowd favorite Jennifer Lawrence, a bright and funny box office star, and Jessica Chastain, the serious Juilliard grad perhaps destined be our next great serious actress. Lawrence and Chastain contrast interestingly, and if I were really out to make my ballot count, I might be tempted to throw my two cents in about how the story should play out. On the pro-Chastain side, I've very much liked her in roles past. She worked beautifully in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, somehow projecting both familiar motherly warmth and a graceful otherworldliness through only a few bits of dialogue. She was a captivating in-over-her-head spy in The Debt, and brought a sweet spark to the sad comedy of her role in The Help. I'm definitely curious to see where Chastain's career goes, and an Oscar might make the narrative that much more interesting. So it'd be tempting to vote for her. But she was also oddly miscast in Zero Dark Thirty, perhaps too watery and delicate and stage-y for all that low-to-the-ground grit and realism.
Jennifer Lawrence, on the other hand, was fully at home in David O. Russell's rambling residential Philly, keying in nicely to the movie's rhythms and serving as a formidable sparring partner for Bradley Cooper's brash screamer. It's a very good performance, but is it really Oscar worthy? You may have your doubts about what the Oscars actually signify, but remember, I'm in the Academy, I'm very serious about this stuff. And I just don't know if Lawrence has to do quite enough heavy lifting in the film — comedic, dramatic, whatever — to justify a win. Silver Linings is ultimately a slight, kinda schmaltzy movie. Let's wait and give this 22-year-old the trophy for something a bit more substantial down the road. Between the two Js, I'd go with Lawrence, but neither really strike a chord. So let's see who else is on this list.
Ah yes, little Quvenzhané. Truly the main force of nature in a movie all about forces of nature. She had that great untrained kid actor quality of seeming to wholly believe the world she'd been plopped into; nothing about this very irregular (in a good way) movie seemed out of the ordinary to her. In that way she was Hushpuppy. There was no discernible line between where movie kid ended and real kid began. That's impressive for a child of six — hell that's impressive for anyone, probably — but I'm not sure it was really acting in the strictest sense of the word. It might sound cruel to punish someone for naturalism, but if she wasn't really aware of the acting, if it was more loose kid instinct and play than it was craft and intent, it seems like it doesn't quite merit the award. Maybe that's harsh. But that's the way I see it, and I'm the voter here.
Naomi Watts was very good in The Impossible, suffering terribly but nobly, even while clinging to life in a hospital bed. And Naomi Watts is a terrific actress in general, her friendly, perky bunny rabbit features and soft, tinkling voice belying an incredible reserve of steel and nerve. It's no wonder we like to see Naomi Watts scream and survive; she doesn't immediately seem up to the task, so when she does it's thrilling. Watts's scenes with the youngster Tom Holland, playing one of her sons, were far and away the film's strongest; the pair created an entirely believable familial bond with easy naturalism. The remarkable Holland deserves praise here too of course, but Watts is the true power here. Still... The Impossible as a whole wasn't a very good movie, perhaps even a borderline offensive one, so I think I'd have trouble casting my vote here. Watts absolutely deserves the award someday (and arguably deserved it in the past), but it shouldn't be for this otherwise forgettable film. Sorry, Naomi. Maybe for Princess Di? That could be the ticket.
Which leaves us with Emmanuelle Riva, the 85-year-old stunner who suffered and died so gracefully and devastatingly in Amour. I like the story of Riva's elusive acting career — a beguiling breakout over fifty years ago in Hiroshima, Mon Amour, now back with a career redefining performance. It would be a thrill to see her win, and perhaps her recent BAFTA win means she has a chance. Were I to cast my ballot today, I would go for Riva. Amour was a deeply affecting film about an incredibly difficult topic, done without an announce of false sentiment or pandering. Riva played each note of her character's decline with perfect precision and humanity, in moments big and scary, and others heartbreakingly small and subtle. Give her the award for doing all that so well. The fact that she's in her 80s and has been at this business for six decades is just extra incentive. Here's hoping she reigns victorious on the 24th. Though, it's a long shot.
Previously: Deciding the Supporting Actors categories.