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Supporting actress the real race for women

Hollywood just doesn’t offer the best lead roles to the ladies. By Paige Newman
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The sad truth is that the best performances by women in film are not to be found in the best actress category, but rather here in best supporting. Even the lead performance that will probably win this year’s best actress Oscar — Reese Witherspoon, in “Walk the Line” — is arguably a supporting role. It’s hard not to wonder: if they didn’t have the gender divide, how many women would be nominated in the lead category at all (consider if you will, the thought of a best female director category)?

All of which is to say, that despite Hollywood’s long-standing gender bias, many women did wonderful work this year, including a handful that were overlooked. Maria Bello deserved a nomination for her stellar work in “A History of Violence.” In the course of that movie, as she realizes the truth about her husband’s past, her interactions with her husband (Viggo Mortensen) transform completely, and you can see it in every action and every look.

Scarlett Johansson had her first real adult role in Woody Allen’s “Match Point” and came through with a performance that would have made Barbara Stanwyck proud. Johansson, like Charlize Theron, proves you can be gorgeous and still do excellent work. She, however, doesn’t feel the need to cover up her beauty.

Other notable performances from this year include Robin Wright Penn in “Nine Lives,” Anne Hathaway in “Brokeback Mountain,” Tarij P. Henson in “Hustle & Flow,” Michelle Trachtenberg in “Mysterious Skin” and Laura Linney in “The Squid and the Whale.” That’s a pretty deep bench for this supporting actress team. But despite the howling omission of Bello, let’s move on and talk about the actresses who were nominated.

Wily veteran

Actress Frances McDormand is shown in a scene from 'North Country.' in this undated publicity photo. McDormand received a best supporting actress nomination for his role for the upcoming 78th Academy Awards. The nominations were announced in Beverly Hills, California, January 31, 2006 and the Oscars will be presented March 5, 2006. NO SALES NO ARCHIVES REUTERS/Richard Foreman/Warner Bros./HandoutRichard Foreman / Warner Bros. / X80001

The biggest factor going against Frances McDormand is that “North Country” simply isn’t as good a movie as the other five on this list. McDormand, as always, is dependably good as Glory, the only female union representative who also just happens to suffer from Lou Gehrig’s disease (movie of the week, anyone?), but she’s done better work in much better films.

Glory is such a saintly character that without the McDormand spark, she would have been completely uninteresting. I kept thinking, what if the screenwriter hadn’t saddled her with the disease? It would have been more interesting to see McDormand’s character, who has succeeded to a degree by working within the system, have to struggle with whether she’s taken the right path — whether she’s actually made things better for the women of the mine. With the disease, her actions within the film take on a “nothing left to lose” quality, which makes them a lot less interesting.

McDormand is good in the role, but she already has an Oscar for “Fargo” and a lot better work ahead of her.

The go-to girl

Catherine Keener as Nelle Harper Lee in Sony Pictures Classics' Capote - 2005Sony Pictures Classic

Catherine Keener may have been nominated for her outstanding work as Harper Lee in “Capote,” but the actress also showed her versatility on screen in four separate roles this year including, “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “The Interpreter.”

In “Capote,” Keener has to be the moral conscience of the movie. She loves her friend (Philip Seymour Hoffman), yet sees, as we do, exactly what dark road he’s traveling down. She doesn’t use histrionics to express herself — and there’s not one large dramatic scene that will be showcased come awards night — what she does is work quietly, observing as a writer would (appropriately enough since she’s playing a writer) and witnessing his downfall.

All of Keener’s roles have one thing in common: They are smart women. In the past Keener has played the vixen (“Being John Malkovich”), the neurotic (“Lovely & Amazing”), the bitch (“Your Friends and Neighbors”), but she’s never had to work in this subtle way, and though she won’t take home the Oscar for this role, it proves that she is an actress who can take on any challenge.

The darkhorse

Amy Adams in Sony Pictures Classics' Junebug - 2005Sony Pictures Classics

For those who haven’t seen “Junebug,” this film about a woman (Embeth Davidtz) who meets her new husband’s (Alessandro Nivola) Southern family for the first time, is well worth renting. As Nivola’s pregnant sister, Amy Adams provides the engine for this film. Her sunny spirit, which is seemingly undaunted by her sour husband (Benjamin McKenzie) and a mother-in-law (Celia Weston) who waves her away like an irritating but harmless house fly, is contagious. She’s fascinated by Davidtz’s worldliness, without being envious.

The heart of the film comes in a scene between Nivola and Adams, in which we see how vulnerable she’s been throughout the movie and how much she needs someone to see her pain. And it’s not a moment that feels like victimhood — that optimist that we’ve seen through the course of the film is still there.

The best thing that can be said about Adams’ performance is that she surprises. And if Academy Award voters take the time to view this small film, she could come through and steal this award. If nothing else, it’s hard not to hope that this is the breakthrough that will help directors and casting agents think of her in the future.

More than an ingénue
There’s an urban myth that winning the best supporting actress Oscar can lead to obscurity — witness Mira Sorvino and Marisa Tomei — but remember that Angelica Huston has won it, as has Jessica Lange. Though Williams isn’t the favorite in this category, if “Brokeback Mountain” has a dominant evening, she could also bring home the prize. And in her case, let’s hope that’s not the last we hear from her.

Michelle Williams in Focus Features' Brokeback Mountain - 2005Focus Features

Though, she’s primarily known as the “Dawson’s Creek” girl, she’s actually carved out an intriguing career, choosing primarily supporting roles in independent films. She played a London teen in “Me Without You” and a hapless fan of Richard Nixon in “Dick” and the comely librarian in “The Station Agent.” It was that final role that led Ang Lee to cast her as Alma in “Brokeback Mountain.”

As Alma, Williams has to bury her knowledge of the present day. She has to approach the character as someone who’s innocent — someone who is so shocked by her husband’s actions that it takes her years to actually find the words to confront him. She has to feel her own pain above anything else — and her own sense of loss. She’s a character who can’t empathize with her husband’s plight because the thought of doing so would mean destroying her own sense of identity. It’s a powerful role that relies on physicality over dialogue and shows just how far she’s come from “Dawson’s Creek.”

And the winner is…
What good fortune that Rachel Weisz, the favorite in this category, actually gave the best performance. When you consider that Whoopi Goldberg won for 1990’s “Ghost,” beating out Lorraine Bracco (“Goodfellas”) and Annette Bening (“The Grifters”), it’s easy to see how voters can easily go wrong.

The most striking thing about Weisz’ work prior to this role is how absolutely unstriking it was. She had roles in “The Mummy” films, played the love interest opposite Hugh Grant in “About a Boy,” and a duplicitous jury tamperer in “Runaway Jury.” She was utterly unmemorable in all of them.

All of which makes her work in “The Constant Gardener” (a film that really deserved “Munich’s” spot on the best picture list) that much more exciting. As Tessa Quayle, we have to believe in her passion for her activism and in her love for Justin (Ralph Fiennes). But what makes the film interesting is that we, like Fiennes, also have to have doubts. Is she using him? Did she have an affair? Weisz takes us on that journey — and as Fiennes perceptions of her evolve, so do ours.

Seeing an actress connect with a role the way Weisz does with Tessa is thrilling to watch. She paints a picture of a woman so driven by passion that it’s hard not to feel stirred up just watching her. It’s a role that, hopefully, will take her to the next level in her career and will most definitely earn her that gold statue on Oscar night.