Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her: What Makes a Best Actress Contender
The recent Golden Globe nominations caused some serious grumbling and complaints around these parts, but most of the curses directed toward the Hollywood Foreign Press Association related to the TV categories. The film ones had their surprises and snubs, too, but as is the case lately for the major awards, especially for the Academy Awards, most of the nominations are forgone conclusions months before they’re announced. Predicting Oscar nominees is getting easier by the year. All you have to do is look to the past.
The Best Actress race, notably, is starting to look the same in that the women who won the top prize all endured a sort of physical transformation for their role. The trend began with the 1998 Oscars, when Gwyneth Paltrow donned a wig and pretended to be a man for Shakespeare in Love. Since then, 8 of the 13 winning roles have been based on real people: 1999, Hillary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry, Brandon Teena; 2000, Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich, Erin Brockovich; 2002, Nicole Kidman, The Hours, Virginia Woolf (at left); 2003, Charlize Theron, Monster, Aileen Wuornos; 2005, Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line, June Carter; 2006, Helen Mirren, The Queen, Queen Elizabeth II; 2007, Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose, Edith Piaf; and 2009, Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side, Leigh Anne Tuohy. (The trend is similar in the Best Actor category, with 5 of the 13 winners being based on real-life men.) The remaining winners — 2001, Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball, Leticia Musgrove; 2004, Hillary Swank, Million Dollar Baby, Maggie Fitzgerald; 2008, Kate Winslet, The Reader, Hanna Schmitz; and 2010, Natalie Portman, Black Swan, Nina Sayers — relied equally on physical changes.
Some transformed their looks remarkably (Kidman, Theron, Cotillard, at right), while others simply changed their hair and clothing (Roberts, Witherspoon, Bullock) and delivered enough spunk on screen to win over voters. Some learned a skill that required intense physical dedication (Swank for Baby with boxing, Portman with ballet). And sex always sells (Berry, Winslet, Portman again). Voters really want to see the acting; you’ve got to show them something beyond a great delivery. You need heavy makeup! You need to channel someone else! Period costumes always rock! And show us some skin, too! Not that this automatically means an actress is selling out or something. On the contrary — most of these performances were truly Oscar-worthy, and others that better fit the transformation track were nominated and didn’t win, such as Meryl Streep in 2009 as Julia Child in Julie & Julia … or Streep in 2008 as Sister Aloysius Beauvier in Doubt, or in 2006 as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (another “change of hair and plenty of attitude” role). But that doesn’t make them any less predictable.
Streep (pictured at top) is another frontrunner this season for her turn as former British Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. She already has Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for the role. But she’s got competition: Glenn Close (at left) dresses and even looks like a man in Albert Nobbs (eat your heart out, Paltrow and Swank), and Michelle Williams has earned raves for her channeling of Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn. Viola Davis goes the period route in The Help, and so does Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre. Rooney Mara also goes for transformation thanks to piercings and unflattering hairstyles in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. And Tilda Swinton, well, she just looks normal in the modern-day We Need to Talk About Kevin. So do Theron in Young Adult, and Winslet and Jodie Foster in Carnage. Those roles get nominations, too, but these days, they usually don’t win.
It’s interesting so many of the films dominating awards season year after year are examinations of past events, fiction or nonfiction. But, perhaps, considering the overall trend of art and fashion in American culture these past two decades, it’s not surprising. Kurt Andersen writes about devolution in January’s Vanity Fair, saying as a culture, even as we’re making huge strides technologically, we’re no longer forging new territory in terms of style. Rather, we’re hell-bent on reliving the past. It’s not that the top actresses are only taking roles in biopics or period pieces; it’s that for the most part, those are the top roles available, or at least the ones in films likely to be produced by studios.
So, transform away, ladies. We’ll still cheer you on. But one of these days, one of us has got to actually change.
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Pembroke Welsh corgi.