“At the same time, handicappers have been scratching their heads trying to figure out which actresses could be drafted to fill out the best actress category, since it’s the rare fall release, like Reese Witherspoon’s ‘Wild,’ that actually focuses on a complicated female character,” he wrote. “Hoping to take advantage of the vacuum at the top, proponents of smaller indie movies like ‘Obvious Child,’ starring Jenny Slate, which normally would have their best shot at the Independent Spirit Awards, have begun suggesting they deserve Academy consideration as well. And so when ‘Still Alice,’ starring Julianne Moore as a college professor confronting early onset Alzheimer’s, debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, the blogerati breathed a huge sigh of relief.”
But when I started going back through the list of films that were released this year, or which will arrive in movie theaters before the end of December, the cut-off for Academy Award contention, I started to think he might have a point.
Running through that list, I found less than two-dozen films with performances by women that might potentially count as leads and catch the Academy’s eye. And that was by stretching.
I included a number of movies I have not yet seen, including Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac,” alien drama “Under the Skin,” and Jim Jarmusch’s vampire romance “Only Lovers Left Alive.” Robin Wright’s performance as an aging actress who agrees to the creation of a digital copy of herself in “The Congress” would probably run into some of the same issues that have left Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performances out in the cold. “Ida,” Poland’s submission for Best Foreign Language film might be a contender.
Another place the Academy could draw from is the pool of potential Best Supporting Actress performances, of which there are a large number of fine candidates.
Patricia Arquette’s turn as a single mother in “Boyhood,” would probably be my top choice for that sort of promotion. It is true that the movie is closely trained on Ellar Coltrane, who grows up under director Richard Linklater’s lens (“Boyhood” was filmed several days a year over a period of twelve years). But Arquette’s transformation into the person she was supposed to become before divorce and sole responsibility for child-rearing sent her on the scenic route to economic stability and professional satisfaction is a marvel to watch.
Academy voters could do the same with Imelda Staunton’s performance as a mining-town resident turned gay rights activist, or Jessica Gunning’s lovely turn as Sian, a Welshwoman who is inspired by the U.K. miners’ strike to become a political activist, in “Pride” if they are craving a British drama. They could give nods to either Jessica Chastain or Anne Hathaway, transcending their material in Christopher Nolan’s space opera “Interstellar.” Keira Knightley, who plays Joan, a brilliant mathematician who would have been denied a career if not for World War II, in “The Imitation Game” is another candidate, as are Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey, who play the two very different women who love the titular painter in “Mr. Turner.”
I have seen four of these five movies, and of “Wild,” “Gone Girl,” The Theory of Everything,” and “Still Alice,” only Pike’s evil genius in “Gone Girl” and Moore’s early-onset Alzheimer’s patient in “Still Alice” really stand out. But damaged, damaging or supporting powerful men is hardly the sum total of the female experience. And intelligent moviegoers cannot live on a handful of great stories about women a year.