Nearly every year, as the Oscar race begins to take shape, there’s plenty of lamentation about the fact that while the Best Actor field is deep and formidable, the Best Actress contenders remain thin. This has more to do with Hollywood’s reluctance to write interesting, complex roles for leading women than it does the number of talented actresses working today, and so it’s with great delight that I look at 2015 and see as deep a bench of Best Actress contenders as ever.
And while the particulars of the race won’t take shape for some time, a number of interesting contenders emerged just this past week at the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF is always home to the beginnings of Oscar campaigns—from The King’s Speech to 12 Years a Slave, this is where many major winners kick the tires and light the fires, so to speak. That’s certainly true of this year’s festival, and though I’ve already singled out a few films and performances in particular in other Oscar Beat columns filed from TIFF, today I’d like to focus on the bevy of leading actress performances that I saw at the festival, and that I imagine will be much discussed as awards season continues.
We begin with Room, a film that was already beginning to gather some steam at the Telluride Film Festival. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of a book about a woman and child held captive in a small room for seven years is fascinating if a bit too ambitious, but it features a pair of tremendous performances from young Jacob Tremblay (expect to see the 8-year-old in the Supporting Actor race—he’s incredible) and Brie Larson, who is truly stunning as the boy’s mother, his only connection to the outside world. Larson garnered critical acclaim for her leading turn in the indie Short Term 12, but Room is the kind of game-changing performance that is sure to rocket her towards the top of many Best Actress shortlists, and I would certainly count her among the cream of the crop at this point.
TIFF also played host to screenings of Brooklyn, an impeccably crafted and incredibly emotional tearjerker that actually premiered way back in January at the Sundance Film Festival. The few who were lucky enough to catch director John Crowley’s gorgeous period piece at Sundance know how special it is (ahem, I was one of them), and Fox Searchlight appears to be playing its cards right as it begins to build buzz here on the festival scene. Among numerous potential nominations for the picture is Best Actress for Saoirse Ronan’s beautifully measured performance as a young Irish girl trying to build a new life in mid-century New York. It’s really incredible work, and Ronan’s name is already being bandied about as a serious candidate for a nomination come January.
This year might also see Sandra Bullock back in the Oscar race for her dogged turn in David Gordon Green’s satirical political dramedy Our Brand Is Crisis. Filling a role that was originally written for a man, Bullock plays a notoriously unpredictable yet brilliant political strategist who is brought in to help a candidate win a Bolivian presidential election. While the film itself is a bit messy, Bullock’s performance is undoubtedly great as she tackles the troubled character head-on with confidence and vigor, breathing life into some of the film’s more tired scenes like a tornado encroaching on quiet plains. Though the movie’s reception could hinder her overall chances, Bullock is well liked and it’s really a swell performance, so a third nomination for her could very well be in the cards.
Speaking of women filling roles traditionally played by men, Emily Blunt’s turn as an FBI agent in Denis Villeneuve’s haunting, perfectly pitched thriller Sicario is a fantastic sort of twist on gender roles in thrillers. There’s a deep complexity to the character and how it serves the overall theme of the film that’s frustrating at times, but the means justify the ends as Blunt brings it home in a third act that sees her doing some of the best work of her career, which could very well result in her first Oscar nomination.
And then there’s Cate Blanchett, who in 2015 has made it abundantly clear that she is one of our greatest living actresses. While Blanchett is garnering the majority of her buzz for Todd Haynes’ period drama Carol (for which The Weinstein Company is officially submitting her as Lead Actress), the CBS/Dan Rather scandal drama Truth could launch her into a race against herself. Writer/director James Vanderbilt’s feature debut reeks of hagiography and pales in comparison to another journalism-centric drama bursting onto the 2015 scene (Spotlight), but Blanchett’s turn as CBS producer Mary Mapes is astoundingly good. While Robert Redford gets the big name role as Dan Rather, this is Mapes’ movie through and through and Blanchett absolutely kills it. For most actresses, two solid performances in one year would mean “pick one,” but Blanchett is so incredible that it’s entirely possible Sony Pictures Classics will have to submit her Truth performance as Supporting in order to avoid running up against a very dumb Academy rule that states an actor cannot be nominated twice in the same category in the same year. Though it’s also possible SPC goes up against TWC and submits Blanchett in Lead for Truth, which according to Academy guidelines would mean a preferential ballot decides which performance gets the nominations. Whatever the case, it’ll be fascinating to see how this shakes out.
But right alongside the veteran actress is an up-and-comer who is having an incredible year: Alicia Vikander. The Ex Machina actress has been receiving her fair share of praise throughout 2015, but her turn in The Danish Girl has a very strong shot at landing Vikander her very first Oscar nomination. There’s some word bubbling that The Weinstein Company may submit Vikander in the Best Supporting Actress category rather than lead, and while some films can get away with this kind of switch, this would be an instance of absolute category fraud. Vikander gets more screentime than her co-star Eddie Redmayne and she absolutely steals the movie as the wife of one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. It’s a role that’s just as tough to pull off as Redmayne’s, as Vikander injects the character of Gerda Wegener with a mix of complexity and compassion that is positively brilliant. She’s not only a candidate in the race—Vikander’s a serious contender for the win.
And this is only the performances seen at TIFF! There’s still plenty of year left, with promising turns from Jennifer Lawrence (Joy), Carey Mulligan (Suffragette), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), etc. on the docket. After years of suffering through thin Best Actress fields while the men get all the good parts, 2015 is a refreshing jolt of excitement to a race that’s become all too predictable. Bring it on.
[Update: In my post-TIFF daze I neglected to mention Charlotte Rampling‘s tremendous, emotionally devastating performance in the relationship drama 45 Years, which will absolutely be part of the Best Actress conversation going forward. Click here to read my review of that film.]
Click here to catch up on all of our TIFF 2015 coverage thus far, and peruse recent TIFF Oscar Beat articles below:
- ‘Spotlight’ Explodes as Major Contender Across the Board
- ‘Sicario’ Has the Goods to Be a Significant Awards Player
- ‘The Danish Girl’ Launches Redmayne, Vikander, Hooper into Awards Mix
- ‘Black Mass’s Johnny Depp Impresses, But Joel Edgerton Is the Standout
- Can ‘The Martian’ Put Matt Damon Back into the Awards Fray?