Tuesday, February 14, 2012

OSCARS 2012: Streep versus Davis for Best Actress

Much to my surprise, the 2012 Oscar race for Best Actress has come down to a contest between Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady and Viola Davis in The Help. I had previously predicted that the race would be between Meryl and my longtime favorite Glenn Close (who I still think should have won years ago for Dangerous Liaisons) for her gender-bending portrayal of Albert Nobbs. There was no surprise when the official nominations were announced that Streep, Davis and Close were all on the list.

I have made my official predictions for the 2012 Oscars, and I have picked Davis to win, although I think that Streep should win. Davis will win because Hollywood is still predominantly white and "white guilt" is a real force among the Academy. They probably don't even know that's why a significant fraction (perhaps the winning edge) will be voting for Davis. I am not saying that Davis is going to win because she is Black, but I am acknowledging that race is a significant reason why I think she'll win. Additionally, the Academy takes Meryl for granted. They know she does excellent work, she is universally acclaimed as the Greatest Actress Ever, often taking acting to places no one else has ever gone, but fourteen other times they have given an Oscar to someone else. In my mind, familiarity has begun to breed contempt, and it's a crying shame. Meryl deserves this Oscar, she gave the Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for a film released in 2011.

But the Oscars are hardly ever about "the best performance" (whatever the heck that means).

Sasha Stone over at Awardsdaily.com has an absolutely brilliant think piece on the state of the Best Actress race:
When you’re talking about the Best Actress race you are talking about Hollywood history, the status quo and the industry’s unwillingness — and the audiences unwillingness — to shift their perspective. Two of the roles — Margaret Thatcher and Marilyn Monroe are icons in the white community, of course, because no black actress during Monroe’s time could have become Monroe, and no black citizen of Britain could have ever gotten close to being Prime Minister — can you imagine? In all of their history, the BAFTA has never given their top acting award to a black woman. What that says is 1) there aren’t many black heroes whose story Hollywood wants to tell that will sell (they try, audiences ain’t buying). For all of the talk of apartheid and segregation and Jim Crow, Hollywood itself plays that out every year when the Oscar race rolls around. Black women are fine and well to be rewarded in supporting, but lead? That says something entirely different about the power dynamic, doesn’t it? An actress like Viola Davis, despite her training and ability, could never be in Streep’s position because there would never have been a time when she would have been plucked from her world of theater and thrust into the leading lady roles as Streep was. Davis could never have simply bleached her hair blonde in order to accommodate the Aryan tastes of the American public.
Viola Davis in The Help, though, has broken all of the rules and in so doing created one of the most memorable and moving characters of the year. She led a film that made $165 million dollars. She found a way to access her character that far transcended the cliche of the black maid and in so doing she kicked down a wall. No one can make the argument that films with black characters can’t make money off of white audiences.
Maybe she doesn’t get as much screen time as other characters, maybe. But as Davis always does in any movie she’s in, whether it’s a tiny character part, or a decent sized one — she blows that shit out of the water. She commands the frame. She draws you right into her internal world and keeps you guessing about what it is she’s thinking and feeling until all at once her emotions burst forth. I don’t know how anyone can look at the two performances side by side and not lead towards Davis for soul alone.
But I also recognize Streep’s greatness. What she does with The Iron Lady (despite the fact that one really has to only regard it as a portrait and not a great film about that historical figure) is simply genius. She is probably the only working actress in Hollywood that good at nailing voice, movement, and stature of people. Streep disappears into Thatcher. The only key thing missing is who she really was — not what she looked and sounded like, but who she was — what drove her. But perhaps that doesn’t really matter in the end. Perhaps this win for Streep will be to cap off a brilliant career as well as a grand performance. No one is going to complain. On the contrary, she will get a standing ovation.
You really deserve it to yourself to click over and read the entire thing. I will actually be happy regrdless of which one wins. Surprisingly, Davis' biggest supporter for the win is Streep herself, who after working with her in Doubt (which earned Davis her first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress) talked up her co-star's performance and publicly implored Hollywood to give Davis a leading role. I just feel that there's no question that no other actress in the world could have done what Meryl did in The Iron Lady (with the possible exception of Cate Blanchett or Helen Mirren who can do just about anything, but their Thatcher's would have been quite different but no less compelling). However, I could easily name a good handful of actors who could have brought exactly what Viola did to the role in The Help (Angela Bassett, Regina Taylor, Taraji Henson, Alfre Woodard and Naomie Harris).

I'm not sure Meryl expected Viola to be competing against her so soon, but you could tell that at Screen Actors' Guild awards that Meryl was thrilled that Davis received the award and recognition from her peers, leading the standing ovation when Davis' name was announced. It should be noted that the entire Academy votes for the winners. Although Davis has a clear lead with the Actors branch (the largest branch) it is very possible that other names will be favored by the other branches. It should be noted that the same night that Streep won the Drama Best Actress Golden Globe, Michelle Williams won the Comedy Best Actress Golden Globe

Some have even suggested that this year we may have a repeat of the 2002 disaster where Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York and Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt were considered the frontrunners and 29-year-old Adrien Brody walked away with the prize (presumably because Nicholson and Day-Lewis had split the vote). This year, if Streep and Davis are splitting the vote does that help Close, or perhaps could it help Williams, who is Heath Ledger's widow (and mother of his daughter), to walk off with the prize for her acclaimed portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn?

We'll know the answer on Sunday February 26th.

No comments:


Blog Widget by LinkWithin