This piece originally appeared on Capital New York.
Melissa McCarthy: “Megan” in Bridesmaids.
Melissa McCarthy came up through the vibrant improv and standup scene in New York City. Up until now, she was mainly known for her recurring role on Gilmore Girls, but her performance as “Megan”, the serious-eyed unabashed tomboy bridesmaid in Bridesmaids has taken her career to another level, garnering her her first Oscar nomination. Comedies often (unfairly) get short shrift during Oscar season, and usually it is in the Best Supporting categories where they are recognized. They may not win, but they are given a “nod”. This is one of the many annoying things about the Oscars, which tends to congratulate serious (or self-serious) work over the more “popular” genre of comedy. That being said, Melissa McCarthy’s creation of “Megan” is a true original. It is virtually impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Megan has nothing to do with anything audiences have seen before. If you have seen McCarthy on talk shows and in personal appearances, then you have seen her effervescent sweet personality. This is nothing at all like the swaggering blunt Megan. A lot of the commentary on Bridesmaids mentioned only the notorious “pooping” scene and worried op-ed columns asked, “Do we need to see a fat girl pooping in the sink?” Focusing only on that show-stopper of a scene (as well as McCarthy’s weight) is worry-warting and unfair. Don’t “white knight” for her. She’s got this. Don’t miss the subtlety of McCarthy’s characterization, how deep that character goes in her. Humphrey Bogart said good acting should be “six feet back in the eyes”, and McCarthy’s acting here applies. She’s a comedienne on the level of Madeline Kahn and has undergone the deepest transformation of all of the nominees.
Bérénice Bejo: “Peppy Miller” in The Artist
Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, an ode to the silent film era, stars Best Actor nominee Jean Dujardin as George Valentin (a silent film star along the lines of Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert or Rudolph Valentino) and Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller, a rising star reminiscent of Clara Bow. Bejo is Hazanavicius’ wife and regular collaborator. Peppy’s journey from obscurity to stardom is given sentimental power through Bejo’s eloquent face and glimmering mischievous smile. The fact that The Artist is a silent film has been given much commentary, some sneering, some adulatory, but one of the best things about it is a reminder that the cinema is a visual medium. An expressive face is all you need. Bejo’s Miller idolizes Valentin, and early on she finds herself alone in his dressing room. Rapt, she looks around, examining his objects. She then notices his coat hanging on a rack. Slowly, she starts touching the coat, and then slides one of her arms into a hanging sleeve. It becomes an illusion, a visual joke: her arm in the coat-sleeve looks like his arm, and, in a fantasy, she begins to hug herself with “his” arm. Out of all of the scenes, this one reminded me most of the power of silent film, and the power of pantomime (a lost art). I wasn’t crazy about The Artist but Bejo is lovely in it.
Jessica Chastain: “Celia Foote” in The Help
Jessica Chastain has had a huge year. In 2011 alone, she appeared in Take Shelter, Coriolanus, The Help and The Tree of Life. She was unforgettable as the nearly wordless Mrs. O’Brien in Tree of Life, bringing a primal cinematic presence to the screen. As Celia Foote, she is unrecognizable, with platinum hair, tight white pedal pushers and halter tops, and a nervous laugh hiding a world of pain and hostility. I was not a fan of The Help, but Chastain is heartbreaking as Celia, a lonely misunderstood sexpot, who hides her misery from her husband and hires a Black maid so that she can have some company (as well as learn how to cook). Celia is shunned by the “respectable” ladies in town, and this breaks the well-meaning Celia’s heart. If you took one look at her, you would think she was a delicate flower, but seeing her decapitating a chicken in her backyard shows Celia is really just a simple country girl who happens to reside in the body of Jayne Mansfield. It’s a good performance, but any number of actresses could have played Celia Foote. Whereas nobody but Melissa McCarthy could have played Marge in Bridesmaids. And it’s difficult to imagine anybody else in Chastain’s role in The Tree of Life. It wasn’t a character so much as it was an evocation of the life force. Celia Foote is a cliche. Celia is a character we have all seen before. This is a strange nomination.
Janet McTeer: “Hubert Page” in Albert Nobbs
Janet McTeer has had a magnificent career onstage: her “Nora” in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was hailed as a groundbreaking reinterpretation of that famous role. She won the Tony Award for it. She’s done a lot of television, and her nomination for an Academy Award in Albert Nobbs is her second (the first being a nomination for Best Actress in 2000’s Tumbleweeds). Albert Nobbs is a muddle of a film, belabored and confused, and extremely over-praised. McTeer plays Hubert Page, a woman living in disguise as a male (complete with happy wife), making her living as a house painter. Through this job, she comes into contact with Glenn Close’s Albert Nobbs, another woman living as a man in Edwardian Dublin. Albert Nobbs is repressed and silent, while McTeer’s Hubert has a confident swagger. Close, in a wildly over-acted performance, huddles in corners and off to the side, hoping to remain completely invisible. Page, on the other hand, strides into rooms, smoking a cigarette, comfortable in her own skin. Page glories in her visibility, in the fact that “being” a male sets her free. The way she crosses her legs, the way she enters a room, all of these small elements are made exciting by McTeer’s performance. Through her we can see the unquestioned freedom of men, their mobility, their unembarrassed way of taking up space. McTeer has a lot of fun with the role, but it is in the specificity of her listening that the performance really shines. Listening is the most important part of acting, and the most underrated. Watch how McTeer listens. She thinks a lot more than she says. Nobbs is a cowering figure, unused to speaking at all. And Close is one-note quivery-fear throughout. McTeer squints at Albert, seeing right through him. With McTeer, we are in the realm of the real.
Octavia Spencer: Minny in “The Help”
Look at Spencer’s resume on IMDB and it is immediately clear that not all that much has changed for African-American actresses, despite all of the great strides in Hollywood. Up until two years ago many of her characters don’t have names, they are listed only by their professions: lots of “Nurse”s, a “Detention Teacher”, a “Streetwalker”. In that respect, Spencer’s nomination for her performance as the hotheaded straight-talking Minny in The Help is a giant triumph, not just for Spencer professionally, but for African-American actresses doing their thing, playing roles that are categorically beneath them. Spencer’s Minny provides a lot of the comic relief in The Help, but there is something about her ferocious face cluing us in to the pain of her situation. She treats her mistress, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), with the impatient condescension of someone who knows she is better and smarter, and furious that life has put her at the “bottom” and idiots like her mistress at the top, merely because of skin color. The scenes between Chastain and Spencer are the highlights of the film. Spencer’s is a crowd-pleasing role, and in a film like The Help, primarily about white guilt, Minny’s rebellious maid provides catharsis. Despite my reservations about the film, this is a well-deserved nomination. The Best Supporting Actress category has often been a death-knell for the actress who win the prize. My hope is that whatever happens on Oscar night Octavia Spencer continues to get good roles worthy of her gifts.