By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com February 20, 2013 at 1:04PM
With the Oscars now only four days away, it's time for our Early Gems series to come to a close. Over the last week, we've been highlighting performances and films from those nominated in the acting and directing categories, from Amy Adams in "Junebug" to Benh Zeitlin's short film "Glory At Sea" (read about the Best Actors, the Best Supporting Actors, the Best Supporting Actresses and the Best Directors). But all good things must come to an end, and so our final entry will focus on the last major category we haven't yet covered: Best Actress.
It's a curious line-up this year, featuring both the youngest-ever and oldest-ever nominees in the category, with an average age of only 39 (versus 62 for Best Supporting Actor), one debut performance, one actress who is on her second nomination despite being only 22, and one who's an international cinema icon, and will celebrate her 86th birthday on Oscar night. It's a diverse and extraordinary collection of women, all of whom gave great performances, and all of whom did the same at the start of their careers. Read our picks below, and let us know who you're rooting for in the comments section.
One could argue Jessica Chastain is leading a semi-charmed life thus far. In the beginning of her career the Julliard graduate worked with Al Pacino, Terrence Malick, John Madden, and shortly thereafter was being directed by Kathryn Bigelow and John Hillcoat. With only 10 movies to her name thus far, she already has two Academy Award nominations. But everyone's gotta start somewhere and for Chastain that was 2007's "Jolene" (though the still unreleased Pacino movie "Wilde Salome" was shot first, in 2005). Following the unfortunate experiences of an impoverished young girl as she moves around the country looking for work and purpose, Chastain's title character is a hard-luck woman who perseveres, her life always defined by the men in it -- and they are myriad. She ends up with an adulterer (Dermot Mulroney), a Vegas mobster (Chazz Palminteri), a douchebag tattoo artist/wannabe rock star (Rupert Friend), an abusive, religiously devout oli heir (Michael Vartan) and even an older female caretaker (Frances Fisher) from the corrections facility she lands in after being indicted for killing one of her suitors as a teenager. Featuring appearances by Theresa Russell, Denise Richards and directed by Dan Ireland ("Living Proof"), suffice to say "Jolene" is not very good and gets more silly and unbelievable as the hardships the protagonist has to endure mount up to almost cartoon-ish levels. The saving grace of it however is Chastain who goes from teenager to a pregnant 30-year old without missing a nuanced beat. Its not her best performance by a long shot, but she does make the mediocre movie as tolerable as it is. And she won the Best Actress prize at the Seattle International Film Festival where the movie premiered, so clearly she was turning heads with her talents from the very beginning.
An Oscar nominee a couple years ago for her breakout role in "Winter's Bone," Jennifer Lawrence had impressed even earlier than that, albeit in a film that few saw. In "The Burning Plain," the directorial debut of "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams" writer Guillermo Arriaga, a then-17-year-old Lawrence played Mariana, the eldest daughter of Kim Basinger's New Mexico mom Gina. She discovers that her mother is carrying on an affair with a local man (Joaquim De Almeida), and in a bid to scare them into stopping, causes a tragic accident in which both are killed. She becomes pregnant by the son of her mother's deceased lover, abandons the child, and grows up to be the promiscuous, suicidal Sylvia (Charlize Theron). It's a big ask to get someone to fill the younger shoes of an Oscar-winning actress like Theron, let alone in your ostensible feature film debut, and in a part that asks you to carry much of the emotional heavy lifting. But while the film is only semi-successful (it's grim, joyless, contrived and, well, Arriaga-ish to the point of self-parody), Lawrence in particular more than rises to the challenge; she's the most vibrant and passionate thing in the film. Theron, also a producer on the film, wrote in EW about her discovery of the actress saying, "I remember us watching her on tape -- we were both crushed with silence. We didn't want anyone else to play the part. She had this stilllness and power of conviction that made you believe in her every moment." And for all the film's flaws, the audience have much the same reaction watching Lawrence for the first time.