Part of "Who Should Win," a series of video essays co-presented by Indiewire Press Play and Fandor.
This year’s Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role will be the first for whoever wins it. Each nominee plays a character who faces extraordinary circumstances, and in some cases I wonder if it’s the role that people are praising more than the performance.
Naomi Watts is nominated as a tsunami victim in The Impossible, but basically all she does is look traumatized for the entirety of the film. Her face plastered with disaster movie make-up, Watts essentially gets credit for playing a victim, and we project pathos and profundity onto her wounded appearance.
There’s a similar issue with Emmanuelle Riva’s role as a dying woman in Amour. I don’t understand why Riva has been getting most of the acclaim, when it’s her co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant who has the more difficult job as her husband, trying to make sense of her decline and manage their tragedy. Once again, the pathos of a character catches our attention more than the actual performance.
Compared to Watts and Riva, I actually prefer eight-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. As a young girl fending for herself amidst unspeakable poverty, she is a compelling presence. However, presence is not quite the same as performance. For the most part, Wallis’s standout work is made in the editing room, as short glimpses of her are interspersed among the film’s extravagant imagery. But there is one remarkable scene where her character has to stand up to her abusive, unpredictable father, and Wallis gives as good as she gets. Wallis is a diamond in the rough, and she has a ways to go to truly deserve an Oscar.
There might be some pathos to Jessica Chastain’s character, a female CIA agent caught in the dangerous world of Zero Dark Thirty. But Chastain doesn’t rely on our sympathy, and in fact she works against it when her character takes part in the movie’s notorious torture scenes. Chastain brings a no-nonsense professionalism to the role, and what’s really impressive about it is the force of her restraint. As she listens to interrogations and sifts through endless leads in her search for Osama bin Laden, you can see her mind processing all this information. And it’s that thoughtfulness that brings extra power to the moments when she does take bold action.
But ultimately it’s Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook who deserves to win, though part of it is due to the role, which is probably the most complex of the five roles to play. Tiffany is an emotionally disturbed widow fighting a sex addiction, looking to have a real relationship with a guy who has plenty of his own problems. That’s a lot of character issues for an actress to handle, but Lawrence grounds it all with an intelligence that’s disarmingly frank. In this early scene, she sets the terms. There’s so much hyper-awareness in her look and her voice, as if her character is too smart for her own wreck of a life. She thoroughly knows her problems but she doesn’t know what to do about them, and that makes her vulnerable.
But through all of Tiffany’s mood swings, Lawrence never plays them for pity. Even her destructive rages are informed by a piercing perceptiveness. And in this monologue which feels practically written to win an Oscar, Tiffany shares the tragedy of her husband’s death, but Lawrence doesn’t play up the melodrama. She simply treats it as a series of facts. All the emotion she needs to convey are in split-second blinks and eye twitches that betray her deadpan delivery.
Now that’s a pathos that doesn’t come easy, one that emerges through a performance that’s as smart as it is expressive, and is truly exceptional.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor’s Keyframe, and a contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.