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Best Actress Oscar Nominees (89th Academy Awards)

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While there have definitely been years in which the Academy appeared to be having trouble filling out this category, this was definitely not one of them. Probably the most talked-about exclusion of the Oscar year was Amy Adams’ lead performance in Arrival, which managed to grab eight other nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and in several technical categories without likewise honoring Adams. It has been suggested that perhaps she split the vote with her equally fine work in Tom Ford’s entrancing Nocturnal Animals. Still more onlookers favored Annette Bening’s turn in 20th Century Women or Taraji P Henson as mathematician Katherine Goble Johnson in Hidden Figures. Clearly none of these women would have looked out of place on the final list of nominees. This is a good sign for actresses in general, but maybe not a great one for those hoping to take home an Oscar. The competition appears to be getting even more fierce.

That could also be demonstrated by how much trouble I had deciding on my own rankings in this category.

Emma Stone – La La Land
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Experts’ Rank: 1
My Rank: 2
I kept vacillating over Emma Stone’s performance in La La Land while writing this article and where it stood in comparison to those from these other fine actresses. If you’ve been with us here at LeBlog for a couple of years you might remember that I championed Stone for the Best Supporting Actress win for her nominated performance in eventual Best Picture winner Birdman. So there should be no doubting my admiration of her talent and enjoyment at seeing her onscreen. If you believe the people who make it their business to know these things, Stone is the front-runner to stand on the stage at the Dolby Theatre clutching the Oscar statuette. If that happens I will be very pleased for her and it will seem like one of those wins which represents the year well. I’m not sure it’s who I would vote for if I was in the Academy, though. There is a lot to like in what she delivers to us as aspiring actress Mia. We get to see her both disheartened with her setbacks and positively aglow with the beauty of a moment. She laughs and cries and yells and she sings and dances. Stone also gets to deliver the single most memorable and emotionally impactful scene of the year for me when the lights go down and she sings the audition which wins her that big break. Part of what makes it work is that we got to see her give an equally strong performance in an earlier audition that just wasn’t being paid any attention. She was knocking it out of the park and nobody else was watching. The absolute focus and simple interior life she displays in the third act audition is simply evidence of Mia’s freedom and confidence as a performer. She’s not better. She’s just in the right place at the right time to let her talent shine. Is the same true for Stone?

Natalie Portman – Jackie
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Experts’ Rank: 2
My Rank: 4
Playing a famous person can be tricky business. I have to admit that throughout my viewing of Jackie I was just a little distracted by what I perceived to be Natalie Portman’s far less regal stature in comparison to the former first lady she was playing. My impression of Jackie Kennedy-Onassis was always one of stateliness, and this seems to have added to her height in my estimation. While she was indeed a full four inches taller than Portman, that was actually less of a difference than I’d guessed. Her overall dress and shoe sizes were also larger than Portman’s, though I’m not sure what that difference means in practical terms. While absolutely none of this is Portman’s fault, it did help to increase my sense that her characterization of Jackie came off as much more girlish than the real-life person ever was. Her tiny, wispy frame just put that thought into visual evidence for me. The above photo is actually the one I found which most matched my memory of the real person. Maybe that’s because my memories of her are from later years than what are dramatized in the film? That said, Portman’s work in the film is pretty darn good, creating a character we both feel like we know and feel like remains, quite purposefully, a mystery to us. We get to see her both “playing the part” of dutiful first lady and dropping that pretense for the public when it no longer suits her, mostly just by inches. Her central performance, along with those of some castmates, and the visual style of the movie are the most pronounced strengths to be found here. There’s a reason nobody thought Jackie was in danger of receiving a Best Picture nod.

Isabelle Huppert – Elle
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Experts’ Rank: 3
My Rank: 3
What do you do when you absolutely hate a movie, but can’t help but recognize the skill and talent that went into making it? Here at LeBlog we have spent a good bit of time detailing some of the work of Dutch director/producer/screenwriter Paul Verhoeven. Mostly the focus here has been on his notorious Golden Raspberry winning strippers epic Showgirls, but for about a decade the guy was one of the hottest filmmakers in Hollywood, stacking up a series of hits like Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Starship Troopers. If you look at that list of movies and you know me just a little, you can probably guess what my reaction was when I showed up for a screening of Elle and saw his name displayed prominently on the movie’s poster. It wasn’t good. But this was the very last film I needed to see in order to have personal experience with all of the nominees in the major categories for this year’s Oscars, so I soldiered on, hoping Verhoeven had maybe matured in his old age. After all, the Academy had seen fit to nominate his lead actress, right? Well, when the opening scene of a movie involves forcible rape and the perpetrator is dressed like a child’s idea of a burglar, complete with all-black attire and ski mask, my expectations tend to take a nosedive. It’s not that there aren’t interesting conversations to be instigated by the film, but if you’ve sat through Verhoeven’s other movies it will all be pretty recognizable. He hasn’t grown a wit since Basic Instinct. But of course we’re not here to judge him, are we? Let me address Isabelle Huppert by saying that most of what Elle has in its favor comes from her performance. Her strength, intelligence, and naturalness almost succeeds in making this movie more than it really is. Almost.

Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins
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Experts’ Rank: 4
My Rank: 5
Many people believe that this is where one of those slots for Adams or Bening or Henson went. I’m not sure that is entirely fair to Streep. Did her not-so-subtle dig at the current administration during her speech at the Golden Globes ceremony help her grab this nomination? Maybe, but if somebody tells you the nomination is undeserved that is somebody you don’t have to worry about listening to for well-considered opinions anymore. Don’t let her position in my rankings here make you think I didn’t like Streep’s work in Florence Foster Jenkins, because that would be inaccurate. It should more closely suggest the esteem with which I regard the performances of her competitors. The well-integrated comic and dramatic elements Streep navigates while producing an effective comic performance which never leads you to feel mawkish pity or disdain for the character is quite an accomplishment. Since she is herself a relatively good singer, Streep actually went to pains which included detailed vocal training in order to produce the real-life Jenkins’ uniquely awful sound. Such attention to detail is nothing new to Streep, whose record twenty nominations have run the gamut through roles which have demanded a wide range of talents, including naturally exacting dialects and skill in a variety of tones. It should be no surprise that our readers here at LeBlog pronounced her the winner of our Best Actress bracket game which covered the entire history of the award.

Ruth Negga – Loving
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Experts’ Rank: 5
My Rank: 1
Just try sitting through Jeff Nichols’ lovely and emotionally affecting Loving without falling for Ruth Negga’s Mildred. While the audience is asked to relate more closely with her husband Richard’s troubles over the course of the story, it is Mildred who serves as the emotional anchor of the film. It is her gentle strength and stolid belief in what is right and meaningful which carries Richard and the audience through the events of Loving without any sense that the couple is simply challenging the Commonwealth of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law just to be difficult. She is both lovely and unassuming. Brave and tentative. She makes demands without being demanding. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, and Negga pulls it off effortlessly and with obvious, but unspoken depths. Prior to seeing Negga in Loving, my primary experience with her was on Marvel’s television series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” as the duplicitous, but somehow also sympathetic Raina. I was sorry to see her go when her run on the show ended. Negga is of Irish-Ethiopian descent and it wasn’t until after her audition for the role of Mildred that director Jeff Nichols realized she naturally speaks with an Irish dialect. He reportedly turned to the film’s casting director and asked “Do we really have to see anyone else?” Is it any coincidence that Virginia adopted the tourist slogan “Virginia is for Lovers” just two years after the landmark Loving v. Virginia case? I don’t think so.

It’s your turn to decide who you’d rather throw awards to. Vote here and then tell us why you love one of our ladies even more than the others.

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Posted on February 23, 2017, in Awards, Movies, Oscars, poll and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I’m trying to speed-read through all of your Oscar coverage and had to pause to thank you for such well written, engaging material. It may be that by Oscar night the only contender I will have seen is La La Land (and even that hasn’t happened yet). Looking forward to LLL, Manchester and a couple others.
    Have to just get out of the house and go, and resist the temptation to re-watch gems on Netflix etc. I watched “Broadcast News” last weekend and was blown away.

    Like

    • I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the coverage! Definitely see La La Land, because that’s the big favorite to take home multiple awards. Even if you turn out to be one of those people who doesn’t like it, the context of expectations on Oscars night is best appreciated if you’ve seen the one perceived 800 pound gorilla in the room. Remember that if you’ve got streaming available at home that there are several nominated movies you can see that way (Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Hell or High Water, Hacksaw Ridge, Captain Fantastic, Loving).
      Have fun!

      Like

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