Women Have Risen: Examining the Year’s Best Actress Nominees, Narrative Tropes, and the Human Experience

A few years ago, I published online an essay whose title encapsulated my frustration at the time with the apparent lack of compelling, universally humanistic film roles for women: “Can Female Film Characters Rise to Their Potential?” Inspired by a vision I had of a lone woman astronaut shuttling through space (Sally Ride had just died), I contemplated a future where women characters in film might “have interesting, fully realized inner lives that eschew all the narrative tropes that heretofore define women,” mainly being a wife and/or mother. The potential I see in women film characters, and women in general, is the narrative ability to illuminate the human condition for everyone.

On the eve of the 87th Academy Awards ceremony’s television broadcast, I habitually observe and reflect on the nominations. At this point, each of the four acting categories appears to offer no surprises when it will come time to announce the winners. Julianne Moore (Lead Actress, Still Alice), Patricia Arquette (Supporting Actress, Boyhood), Eddie Redmayne (Lead Actor, The Theory of Everything), and J.K. Simmons (Supporting Actor, Whiplash) have routinely won acting trophies for their respective film roles while competing on the awards circuit this season. With the outcome of these contests all but a certainty, I recognize that the most competitive category is that of Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, and it collectively represents the fulfillment of my wish from over two years ago, with a few caveats. In other words, most performances in this category capture, for lack of a better turn of phrase, what it’s like to be human. If film is an art form that helps us make sense of our lives, we cannot take the woman’s experience for granted, as Academy voters have done. Of the five nominees for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, only one top-lines a film that is not nominated for Best Picture: Steve Carell in Foxcatcher. However, only one nominated female lead performance appears in a Best Picture contender: The Theory of Everything, as if to say that women-centered films are not prestigious (read: worthy) or capable of addressing everyone.

Rather than run through the list of nominees alphabetically, I want to discuss them in the chronological order that I first encountered them. Maybe it’s the simple passage of time or the workings of an unreliable memory, but every performance seemed to be better than the last one I saw. Fair warning: in my analysis, I give away many plot details of each film.

Gone Girl movie posterAt the beginning of October, Gone Girl kicked off the season of awards-friendly motion pictures, and I remember thinking throughout my viewing of it that Rosamund Pike, the titular “girl,” deserves a nomination for her portrait of a bonafide psychopath. As Amy Dunne, the dissatisfied wife of Ben Affleck’s mysterious charmer Nick Dunne, Pike both fakes her own kidnapping (and possible murder) and then frames her husband for it. It isn’t until halfway through that the viewer discovers that Amy, the subject of a statewide search, is in fact alive and on the run. Having set as her mission the complete and humiliating obliteration of Nick’s character as well as his eventual imprisonment, Amy watches from afar (using the national media circus surrounding their small Missouri town) as the forged artifacts and clues that she doctored to point towards Nick’s guilt gradually fall into place. The most lethal part of her scheme (killing a man in supposed self-defense in order to fake her abduction) ultimately reunites husband and wife. In the media spotlight she has helped orchestrate and direct, Amy uses the public court of opinion to both absolve Nick of any crime that the American public previously found him guilty of committing and to imprison him in an emotionally, mentally, and physically abusive marriage.

A snapshot of Amy Dunne's fake journal. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
A snapshot of Amy Dunne’s fake journal in Gone Girl. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

While Gone Girl and Amy’s role in it do not exactly conform to fulfilling my desire to see women in films who are unattached, undefined by their relationships to men and/or children, the David Fincher-directed thriller, which author Gillian Flynn adapted from her bestselling novel of the same name, at least deconstructs the sanctity of the institution of marriage. Keeping Amy’s machinations hidden until halfway through the picture, her perspective only relayed through fake found journals, not only shifts perspectives on the couple’s lives (from Nick’s to Amy’s), it also produces one helluva denouement. Amy’s cold and clinical calculations upend our previous idea of her, whether as flirtatious (the memory of their meet-cute), sacrificial (a longtime cosmopolitan, she left New York for suburban Missouri when Nick’s mother became terminally ill), or even physically abused (her fake journal embellishes an altercation with Nick in order to vilify him). More than this, Amy presents a pathologically sociopathic and misandrous response to patriarchy, going to libelous and murderous extremes to pervert the idea of a traditional marriage. As the primary breadwinner upon their transplant to the Midwest, Amy strikes back at Nick for his philandering ways and emotional neglect so that when he finds himself trapped in this controlling and harmful marriage (to say, “loveless” would be an understatement), she is not defined by her relationship to him so much as he is defined by whatever she thinks or says about him. In this way, Gone Girl examines how relationships bind us and in this process, redefines the rules of attachment. The opening and closing scenes, wherein Nick strokes his wife’s hair and, through voiceover narration, muses about how we really don’t know what goes on in the mind of our chosen companion, index our struggles with loneliness and desire to be free.

The Theory of Everything movie posterA Best Picture contender, The Theory of Everything is ostensibly a handsome biopic of British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Based upon Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir of the thirty years she was married to him, Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen Hawking, the film is mostly focalized through her experience. While Eddie Redmayne receives almost unanimous praise for his physical transformation as Stephen, who was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1963 at age 21 and around the same time that he met fellow Cambridge student Jane, it is actually Felicity Jones as the scientist’s first wife who does most of the emotional heavy lifting in the film. The Theory of Everything doesn’t propose a film story about a woman uncharacterized by her relationship to a man and their children. Just the opposite, but it is worth discussing very briefly, to correct notions that the film is about a famous man and the people in his life. In fact, given the film’s source material, it is easy to argue that the film is about a woman and the famous man in her life. This does not mean that The Theory of Everything is a so-called “woman’s film,” but it is a family drama centered from the woman’s perspective.

In his review of the film, New York film critic David Edelstein writes that, “as the film’s focus drifts to [Jane], I found myself resenting the character—not for wanting more from her life, but for yanking the narrative away from by far the more fascinating figure.” I agree that the first part of the film focuses primarily on Stephen’s experience, combining his academic coming-of-age (meeting advisors’ expectations—or not—and choosing a dissertation topic) with his struggle to adjust to a rapidly degenerative disease as well as a nascent romance with Jane. She may have walked into his life at a party, but I argue that as soon as Jane determines that he should be a part of her life, she wrestles the picture away from him, and that gesture does make her both fascinating and compelling. I still cannot shake the image of the couple’s pronounced declaration of togetherness (it’s been used in the film’s marketing campaign, to boot) wherein they hold hands and joyously spin around. Significantly, it is Jane who initiates their little ball of energy, pulling Stephen into her orbit. Young and in love, Jane doesn’t realize the kind of life she commits herself to when she refuses to forget Stephen. For he far out-lives his life expectancy of two years, and as time marches on she becomes increasingly frustrated with her life. Taking care of Stephen and raising their children are two full-time jobs, and her own academic ambitions take a backseat to her husband’s. We witness the effect that choosing Stephen has on her life, and a romantic dalliance with a widowed choirmaster offers her some release. Jonathan (Charlie Cox) assists Jane with raising the kids and caring for Stephen, who condones their sexual relationship. Unable to face up to the rumors that Jane’s third child is his, Jonathan makes himself scarce. After Stephen loses his ability to speak and acquires a computer that will serve as his voice box, Jane recognizes that she can no longer support Stephen the way that he needs and reunites with Jonathan. She is a fascinating character, because she is willing to change her life and seek the fulfillment of her desires.

Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde Hawking with husband (Eddie Redmayne) and baby. Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde Hawking with husband Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and baby. Image courtesy of Focus Features.

The Theory of Everything shines a light on one of the brightest minds of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but it also demonstrates that, to rephrase that old adage, “behind every great mind is a woman.” The title derives from Stephen’s quest to marry Einstein’s theory of general relativity with quantum mechanics, but it just as equally signifies that love is the answer to what binds people together for however long they can hold on. In this way, contextualizing Stephen Hawking’s life story and scientific and cultural contributions through his wife’s experience makes the case that they couldn’t have accomplished as much separately as they did together. If finding (self-)gratification is one of the tenets of the human condition, then Theory of Everything demonstrates how our desires are constantly in flux.

Wild movie posterMonths later, and with memories of Rosamund Pike and Felicity Jones sloshing around in my head, I finally saw Wild, the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir. I fell so hard for this film, I don’t understand why it wasn’t nominated for its screenplay (by novelist Nick Hornby), cinematography (Yves Bélanger), and direction (Jean-Marc Vallée). Hell, I think Wild is easily one of the best films of the year and deserves one of those coveted spots not to exceed ten. Although I have never been a fan of Reese Witherspoon, I was in awe of the humanistic depth of her physical performance. It wasn’t so much a transformation—not like Eddie Redmayne’s or Charlize Theron’s for her Oscar-winning role in Monster where she turned out completely unrecognizable. Instead, Witherspoon perfectly embodies a woman who has been too hard on herself, on her spirit and on her body. When her young mother (Laura Dern in an achingly small but beautiful performance) dies of cancer, Cheryl grieves in an unexpected way, one that leads her astray from her husband (Thomas Sadoski) and into the arms of heroin addiction. With a painful divorce and an extramarital abortion behind her, Cheryl continues on her path to recovery under the most extreme of conditions: hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone. Along the way from the Mojave Desert to Portland, Oregon, she treks across a variety of terrain and climates (arid deserts, snow-capped mountains, Pacific Northwest rainforests) and encounters myriad threats, ranging from animal attacks and lost shoes to death by starvation/thirst and violent sexual assault.

Although Cheryl’s grief and infidelities may have instigated her pilgrimage, Wild isn’t about a woman defined by her relationship to her ex-husband Paul. The experience of losing him and herself in her grief even influences Cheryl to invent a new last name on the divorce papers: Strayed. In fact, Wild is a film about a woman’s self-programmed reinvention, or as the memoir’s subtitle states, she goes “From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” Cheryl takes ownership of the mistakes that she has made and grapples with how she took her mother for granted (but thankfully, like in this year’s indie rom-com extraordinaire Obvious Child, she unapologetically chooses an abortion when she stumbles into an unwanted pregnancy). By letting go of her social attachments for three months, during which time she calls on Paul and friends for support of the motivational and material kind, Cheryl learns to forgive and love herself again. For me, the most poignant aspect of the film is that Cheryl chooses her relationship with Bobbi as the one to define her, saying, “My mother was the love of my life.”

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon, unpictured) remembers how much she wanted to be like her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) with that irrepressible smile. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon, unpictured) remembers how much she wanted to be like her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) with that irrepressible smile. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Moreover, Wild comes the closest of the Best Actress nominees so far in proposing a film about the human condition that just happens to be focalized through a woman’s experience. As I have already mentioned, the film is about self-programmed reinvention, love and regret, life and death. I imagine that we can all relate to a character who hurts the people who are closest, sometimes purposefully, sometimes without thinking at all. This doesn’t make the character a bad person, just someone who needs to learn to appreciate what life and love can offer. Crucially, it is too late for Cheryl to treat Bobbi as she deserved, but Cheryl’s arduous and

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) goes her own way. This obstacle course is the least of her problems. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) goes her own way. This obstacle course is the least of her problems. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

somewhat ascetic pilgrimage brings this all into focus. Presenting a woman’s story as universally humanistic is feminist in its own right, but Wild also engages the philosophy in more pointed ways. For example, virtually everyone she meets on the trail is astonished at her abilities and takes umbrage at her insistence to hike the trail without a male companion. She even locks heads with a reporter from The Hobo News who cannot comprehend her voluntary choice to drop out of society for a while and thus identifies her as a lost soul, a “hobo” with no job, home, or family. But most surprising of all, a group of three young men on the trail adopt Cheryl as their personal hero, having read her poetic entries in guest-books, which quote feminist icons such as Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich. Believing feminism to be part and parcel of humanism, Wild makes clear, as bell hooks once wrote, “Feminism is for everybody.”

Two Days One Night movie posterJust when I thought this year’s nominated lead performances by women couldn’t get any richer, I saw Marion Cotillard, de-glamorized, in Two Days, One Night. It is a much smaller film than the others, both in scale and, seemingly, in depth. Cotillard plays a working-class laborer who, given the weekend, must convince a majority of her co-workers to forgo their one thousand-euro bonuses so that she can keep her job. Whether or not the solar panel factory can legally put her continued employment to a vote by its employees is never questioned, but almost everyone she confronts points out that the boss’s ultimatum is unfair. Shot in their characteristic social realist/fly-on-the-wall style, the latest film by Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne plays out like a thriller of a cruel joke: Will she get enough votes to keep her job? How many more times do we have to hear her plead with her co-workers to vote for her? Asking for anyone’s help is an ordeal in and of itself for Sandra, who, when the film begins, is on the brink of returning to work following a long absence (it gradually becomes clearer that she suffered a mental breakdown). A pathetic decision, choosing to speak with people in person whenever possible is costly in terms of time (she zigzags all over town in order to track them down at their homes, on the street, or in corner groceries or laundromats) and an emotionally draining exercise in futility. Thankfully, no two encounters are exactly the same, even if those unwilling to help her always have the same reason: they need the money, whether to pay their child’s tuition, build an addition to their house, or cover the electric bill for six months.

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) confronts a co-worker who cannot see beyond himself. Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.
Sandra (Marion Cotillard) confronts a co-worker who cannot see beyond himself. Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.

What makes Two Days, One Night so quietly impressive is its premise: to what lengths will someone go to keep her job? How will she convince human being after human being, with wants and needs not completely unidentical to her own, to sacrifice material gain in order to come to her aid? How will she react when, based on the number of votes pledged in her favor so far, her future looks bleak? Providing Sandra with a psychiatric disorder heightens the stakes—and the Dardennes do go to some dark places—but otherwise Two Days, One Night could be about anyone. In fact, there isn’t much character development in terms of Sandra’s familial role so as to make the part gender-specific. In other words, she spends so little time with her two children that her identity as mother does not define her. Even Sandra’s greatest champion, her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), frames her ordeal as one about recovering her lost pride. Her humanity, and her repeated attempts to coax the more humane choice out of her peers, defines Sandra. Of course the couple needs her income to get by, but their situation is no more dire than that of most of her co-workers. In this way, the film is about overcoming adversity and preserving your own self-worth, arguably the most humanistic ideal. Come Monday morning, Sandra is one vote shy of keeping her job. Touched by the generosity of some of her colleagues, she refuses the boss’s offer to rehire her at the end of the season, because it would mean that one of her pledges would lose his contract with the company. Initially stunning, her decision to incur further economic hardship isn’t just about worker solidarity but also personal integrity. The final scene of Sandra’s bad-news phone call to Manu represents a revolution of some sorts: walking away from the factory, smiling, Sandra is buoyant with every step, personally motivated by the support of Manu and her co-workers to find another job. If she can get through this past weekend, she can approach any new challenge with enough courage and integrity to overcome it.

Still Alice movie posterRounding out the five nominees for Best Actress, Julianne Moore presents a deeply moving and sensitive portrayal of a woman diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice, an adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name. Admittedly, I am not Moore’s biggest fan (she’s usually too showy for my tastes), and the negative reviews of the film colored my perception of it going in. Jason Bailey of Flavorwire wrote that the film “plays like a dusted-off, mid-‘90s Movie of the Week.” However, not only was I pleasantly surprised by the quality of the film, I was also overcome by profound sadness and grief, unable to talk about what I had just seen without choking up. Who cares if Still Alice is emotionally manipulative? More than any of the other films nominated in this category, Still Alice examines what makes us who we are while confronting our own mortality.

A world-famous linguistics professor at Columbia University, Alice Howland is the first to recognize that “something is wrong with [her].” Sometimes she can’t find the right word, and at other times she gets disoriented on her aerobic runs around the neighborhood. Her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), writes off her worries as evidence that at 50, she’s simply getting older. Determined to find the root of her newfound problems (it feels like her brain is slipping farther and farther away from her), she sees a neurologist in secret and eventually receives the dreaded diagnosis. The effects of the disease would be difficult for anyone to cope with, but as her doctor explains, since Alice carries the familial gene for early onset Alzheimer’s and is extremely well-educated, she can expect to deteriorate more rapidly than if she didn’t have the gene and wasn’t so well-educated. She simply has much more to lose, and for a linguist whose life’s work has been the study of human communication systems, the thought of losing her ability to relate who she is with words is devastating. As it is for me, as it is for anyone.

As her mother's primary caregiver, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) tries to comfort a sad and spacey Alice (Julianne Moore). Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
As her mother’s primary caregiver, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) tries to comfort a sad and spacey Alice (Julianne Moore). Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

But Alice is intellectually resourceful, and she can better compensate for her incapacities. It takes a while for her to admit defeat and leave her tenured position (her meeting with the chair of her department is the most implausible scene in the whole picture, for it would never be up to her colleagues to dismiss her because she has a health issue). John and their three children try to look after Alice as best they can. Eventually, their youngest, the Los Angeles-set aspiring actress and free spirit Lydia (Kristen Stewart), agrees to move back to New York to serve as Alice’s primary caregiver when John accepts a position at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. In the exploration of this mother-daughter relationship, Alice’s older children, the lawyer Anna (Kate Bosworth) and the medical student Tom (Hunter Parrish), suffer from a severe lack of character development. While Anna and Lydia sometimes butt heads as to what is best for their mother, Tom’s only real function is to accompany Alice to a talk she gives at the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Film critic Jason Bailey denigrated this speech as a “forced, false moment” by writer-director duo Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, thereby completely forgetting that the scene parallels an earlier keynote address she gave at a linguistics event where she spoke confidently on topics related to her main line of inquiry: why do humans talk and how to they learn to communicate? In the later scene, the transformation that Alice has undergone throughout the film is palpable. Anxious and insecure, she must use a highlighter as she speaks at the podium so that she does not lose her place in the speech. Frustrated with her inability to write a persuasive argument using medical and linguistic jargon, she takes Lydia’s advice and writes about how it feels to lose her mind. There isn’t a dry eye in the house. For, as it is made clear throughout the picture, we are who we are because we have made ourselves into whoever we want to be. For Alice, that has been an expert on language acquisition, an equal partner in a loving relationship with a man who confidently says she was the smartest person he’d ever met, and a dependable and accepting mother.

Still Alice also makes the case that we are who we are because of what we remember. As Alice grapples with her diagnosis, slipping farther and farther away from the people in her life, she returns to memories of her sister, whom she lost as a teenager. I initially dismissed the final scene of the film, failing to recognize that Alice’s imagining she and her sister on a beach is her defiant stance against the havoc that Alzheimer’s wreaks on her mind. She clings to this memory as if to remind herself of who she is. This shot immediately follows the scene in which Lydia reads from the play Angels in America and asks her mother if she knows what the speech is about. Alice smiles and struggles to say, “Love.” Again, in his review of Still Alice, which he labels “desperate” and unoriginal, Bailey fails to see how the film’s ending illuminates something fundamental about the human experience: our appreciation and understanding of art and how it reflects our perception of what the meaning of life is. The Flavorwire film critic finds Glatzer and Westmoreland’s “desperation… particularly rancid at the end” because, “in lieu of saying anything moving or profound, they simply shoplift the ending of Angels in America.” In presumably one of Alice’s last moments of clarity, she demonstrates for Lydia that she is still present, that she can understand Tony Kushner’s complex speech, and that she loves her daughter and her long-lost sister. It doesn’t matter that these “moving and profound” words, to correct Bailey’s statement, are not Alice’s or Lydia’s. Not everything we say or do is original; the purpose of art is to draw connections between experiences, and the meaning of life is to see how art shapes us.

Contrary to what Russell Crowe thinks about roles for older women in Hollywood, the reality is that quality parts for women at any age are terribly lacking. While most Oscar prognosticators, critics, and cinephiles like myself watch the Academy Awards tonight and lament the fatedness of Julianne Moore’s, Patricia Arquette’s, Eddie Redmayne’s, and J.K. Simmons’s prize-winning, I will remember that for the first time in a long while, it seems that every nominee in the Best Actress category was phenomenal. Rather than choose a winner, I wish we could simply celebrate these five actresses and many more, because they brought to life film characters whose experiences illuminated different facets of the human condition. I hope this trend in representing women with “interesting, fully realized inner lives” continues. And I don’t care if they are wives or mothers anymore. Restricting what kinds of parts women play in film and in society isn’t humane.

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