2011 Oscars: Best Actress nominees

This article originally appeared on Capital New York.

Viola Davis as Aibileen in “The Help”

As Aibileen, the strong yet pained maid in The Help, Viola Davis finally steps front and center. It’s about time. She’s been doing phenomenal supporting work on Broadway and in film for years, and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Doubt (2008). Despite the serious issues I had with The Help‘s engine of white guilt searching for redemption, Davis’ performance has undeniable power. When alone with her young charge, Aibileen is open and playful and free. Aibileen is the kind of woman who can’t help but love children. Children are innocent. When in the presence of adult white women, Aibileen strives to become invisible, hovering on the sidelines of bridge parties, watchful, stoic. There is great anger in Aibileen, coming from her circumstances as well as the tragic loss of her son. Her anger has nowhere to go. It cannot be expressed. Davis, a beautiful woman, is stodgy here, clumping along the sidewalks in her boxy maid’s uniform, a stalwart figure. Octavia Spencer, as Minny, the rebellious maid, has the crowd-pleasing part. Minny speaks her mind, she talks back, she doesn’t hide her feelings. Davis has a tougher job. She must show the pain underneath the facade. Davis’ voice is a careful one, slow and measured, afraid to inadvertently let slip her true feelings. I have never heard Viola Davis use that voice before, which shows you her chameleon qualities as an actress. Davis never overplays, and her performance is the quiet boiling-over center of the film.

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady”

The Iron Lady is not a great movie, but it is one of Meryl Streep’s finest creations, along with her great comedic performances as Madeline Ashton in Death Becomes Her and her Carrie-Fisher-avatar in Postcards from the Edge. I’ve always felt Streeps true gifts lay in comedy. Meryl Streep has not won an Oscar since 1983, although she has been nominated 12 times since then. Enough already. It’s getting embarrassing. Give the lady the gold.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

It’s not easy to portray a well-known character from literature. It is even more challenging when there has already been an acclaimed film adaptation of the novel in recent memory. But Rooney Mara stalks onto the screen as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, quivering with barely repressed rage, decked out in mohawk and tattoos, becoming a star in her own right. The rage is interesting, even more so because of Lisbeth’s antisocial unsmiling personality. But what makes the performance special is the fragility Mara reveals, beneath the intimidating exterior. She has barely any language to explain why she is the way she is, and that gives the performance its power and mystery. Everyone she encounters has to look at her twice. Everyone wonders what she is thinking. The best performances never reveal all. They hold something back, to draw the audience in. Rooney Mara’s portrayal of Lisbeth Salander was one of the most talked-about performances of the year.

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in “My Week with Marilyn”

Marilyn Monroe is one of the most imitated women in the world: the sensual shimmy, the breathy voice, the sleepy eyes. But what is often missed in imitations is Monroe’s twinkle of humor and mischief (a huge part of her appeal, perhaps the most important part). The humor let us know Monroe was in on “the joke”. It made her silly, it made her a good comedienne. Billy Wilder, who directed Monroe in one of her most beloved performances in Some Like It Hot said that although her behavior was often infuriating to him (not showing up on time, not showing up at all), she “always knew where the joke was” in the script. This comic sensibility cannot be taught. You either have it, or you don’t. Michelle Williams, nominated in 2011 in the same category for her shattering performance in Blue Valentine, does an uncanny imitation of Monroe that digs deeper than the familiar surface trappings. I admit I was skeptical. I would never think of Michelle Williams and Marilyn Monroe in the same breath. They seem like totally different types. But Williams can go deep, and from the opening musical sequence in My Week with Marilyn, it is clear Williams understands Monroe’s magic as a performer, so even if she doesn’t have the same magic herself (nobody does), she understands it and therefore can embody it. There’s one scene where she gives a press conference for the voracious London reporters, agog that Marilyn has arrived in England to film The Prince and the Showgirl with Lawrence Olivier (played by Kenneth Branagh, nominated as Best Supporting Actor). Marilyn is in her element in that chaotic environment, questions being screamed at her, and if we were predisposed to think of Monroe as some poor victim, our expectations would be dashed by watching Williams manage that press conference. Every question thrown at her gets a witty response, every seemingly sexist remark is turned around into a triumph by Monroe. This was how Monroe operated. This was why she was so well-loved, by men and women alike. As I said, you got the sense that not only was she in on the joke, but she created the joke in the first place. While My Week with Marilyn delves into Monroe’s formidable demons, what I am left with is the image of Michelle Williams batting off the joshing questions of reporters, with a twinkle of humor and mischief.

Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs in “Albert Nobbs”

Janet McTeer walks off with Albert Nobbs (and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for it). Every time she enters the action, things get exciting and real. Glenn Close plays Albert, a woman who lives her life as a man, while working as a servant and waiter in an upscale Dublin hotel. Close was the engine behind getting the film produced (she had done the play), and while her interest in getting it made is understandable, the nomination for Best Actress is completely baffling. Close’s Albert Nobbs is a frozen statue of repression whose only moment of abandon seems to come when she puts on a dress and runs across a beach. Nobbs remains, at all times, the least interesting character onscreen. The screenplay (by Glenn Close and Irish novelist John Banville) has not dealt adequately with the transition from stage to screen, and saddles Albert Nobbs with talking out loud to herself in her room, so we can know the character’s inner thoughts. “If I save up enough money, I can open up my own shop,” she says out loud to herself. This may work onstage, but it is tremendously awkward on screen. Close, a fine actress, is frozen, timid, and fearful. There is nothing felt about the performance. Maybe doing it over and over again in a theatrical production calcified the performance. Was she nominated just for dressing up as a man? Is that all it takes?

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