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Best actress: Why doesn't Hollywood care?

As usual the best actress nominees come from little-seen films. By Erik Lundegaard

Remember late last year when everyone was wringing their hands over the dearth of best actress candidates? Seems ages ago. In fact, if there’s any category that points up the absurdity of artists competing with one another it’s this one. How do you compare Annette Bening’s vulnerable diva with Imelda Staunton’s sweet-spirited abortionist with Hilary Swank’s gritty boxer with Catalina Sandino Moreno’s brave drug courier with Kate Winslet’s kooky, punkish object of our affection? You resort to cliché. Truly all five are winners.

By which I don’t mean the actresses so much as the five moviegoers who managed to see all their performances. Yes, “Eternal Sunshine” did okay business last spring, and Oscar nominations will help “Million Dollar Baby” get out there, but you’d be hard-pressed to find three outstanding movies more marginalized than “Being Julia,” “Maria Full of Grace” and “Vera Drake.” Hell, they don’t even make it to marginalized status, since none managed a marginal release (“Julia's” 233 theaters was tops). None made even $10 million at the box office — the “Titanic” of the three, “Maria,” earned a whopping $6.5 million. Did you blink last fall? That’s your problem. That’s why you missed them.

Swank vs. Bening
No weak links among the nominees but also no surprises. In its January 14 issue, “Entertainment Weekly” correctly predicted every best actress nominee, and for most handicappers it’s already down to a two-woman race: between Golden Globe winner (for comedy) Annette Bening and Golden Globe winner (for drama) Hilary Swank. Since the Academy generally chooses drama over comedy, most are already handing the statuette to Swank and cueing shots of husband Chad Lowe crying in the audience.

According to these folks, it’s 1999 redux, when Swank and “Boys Don’t Cry” beat out Bening and “American Beauty” for the statuette. This sense of déjà vu is actually the one thing in Bening’s favor. Swank has the dramatic and more-honored picture, not to mention the youth (no actress over 40 years old has won best actress since 1995); but the Academy also likes to spread the wealth around. Hilary Swank is a fine actress, but if she wins she’ll have more best actress statuettes on her mantle than Meryl Streep. Meanwhile, Bening’s mantle is filled with just Warren’s crap. Perhaps enough Academy people think she deserves some crap of her own.

Besides, to be honest, the “more-honored film” doesn’t mean much in this category. In the last five years, the best actress appeared in a best picture nominee only twice (Kidman’s “The Hours” and Roberts’ “Erin Brockovich”), while four of the five best actors came from best picture nominees (Spacey’s “American Beauty”; Crowe’s “Gladiator”; Brody’s “The Pianist” and Penn’s “Mystic River”). This year’s no different. Four of the five best actor nominees are from best picture nominees. Only one best actress nominee (Swank) is from a best picture nominee.

Women? Your stories don’t matter
All of this continues a trend in effect since World War II. In the first 15 years of the Academy (roughly 1928-43), the woman who won best actress appeared in that year’s best picture three times: Luise Rainier for “The Great Ziegfield” in 1936, Vivien Leigh for “Gone with the Wind” in 1939, and Greer Garson for “Mrs. Miniver” in 1942. The number of best actors who appeared in best pictures during this period? None. (Throughout this discussion we’ll ignore the three years in which both best actor and best actress appeared in the best picture: 1934, 1975, and 1991.)

Did women’s stories suddenly seem silly and unimportant after D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge? Perhaps. Because the next time a best actress appeared in a best picture wasn’t until 1977: Diane Keaton for “Annie Hall.” During that same period, 15 best actors starred in best pictures, and to this day, best pictures tend to be testosterone-filled enterprises: “Braveheart” and “Gladiator” and the like. It’s the Academy’s way of telling women their stories don’t matter.

I’m surprised there’s not a bigger outcry over this. Is “Ray” better than “Maria Full of Grace”? Is “Finding Neverland” better than “Vera Drake”? Best picture nominees sprawl expensively; these best actress pictures, in contrast, tend to be tight, emotionally-draining films about trapped, flawed women. Some of these women manage to escape but none manage to win. Even those who win.

Let’s talk about this “flawed” aspect for a minute. It didn’t hit me until now but the only character who isn’t particularly flawed here is Swank’s Maggie Fitzgerald. Her family is certainly flawed (absurdly so), but she? She’s just determined, spunky, loyal, tough and unbelievably brave. The characters in the other four movies all have their flaws, and it’s part of what makes them complex and fascinating to watch. Bening’s Julia is vain and deliciously revengeful; Moreno’s Maria has the itchy pride of one who feels she’s better than her small town (she is); Staunton’s Vera is incredibly short-sighted (no matter your view on abortion); while Winslet’s Clementine: Impetuous, nutty, impossible. That Swank’s Maggie is complex without a flaw is a testament to her acting; but if it’s a flaw not to have a flaw, then this could be a chink in her armor.

Sum up
So here are the nominees, in easy-to-read format:

Hilary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald in “Million Dollar Baby”
Strengths: Lots of buzz, youth, a Golden Globe winner and her movie has seven nominations, including best picture. Weaknesses: Already beat Bening once. Has she no heart? Plus the “no flaw” thing, but, okay, nobody’s going to listen to me on that one.

Annette Bening as Julia Lambert in “Being Julia” Strengths: A distinguished Hollywood actress with no Oscars on her shelf who’s already lost to the upstart Swank once. Weaknesses: A light comedic performance in a picture that few people saw. In fact, she’s the film’s only nominee. (On the other hand, so was Charlize Theron in “Monster.”) Plus she’s over 40, which is like death for women in Hollywood.

Imelda Staunton as Vera Drake in “Vera Drake” Strengths: Won virtually every film critics association award in America. Weaknesses: Won virtually every film critics association award in America. (The Academy seems to care even less what critics think than the general public.) And she’s over 40. And fewer people saw her picture than “Being Julia,” which is almost impossible.

Catalina Sandino Moreno as Maria Alvarez in “Maria Full of Grace”
Strengths: She’s a babe, and the elderly, heavy-breathing Academy likes babes these days.
It’s a little-seen, Spanish-language film. As with Bening, she’s her picture’s only nominee.

Kate Winslet as Clementine Kruczynski in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
Strengths: Another babe, who appears in the most popular film in this category — which is to say the 76th most popular movie of the year (and dropping). It’s also her fourth nomination — the most of any of these actresses — with no award yet. Weaknesses: When was this movie released again? Wasn’t it a comedy or something, with, like, Ben Stiller?

After you parse it out like this, it appears to be a slam-dunk for Hilary Swank. But if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that slam-dunks can miss, too.