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Video: Who Should Win the Oscar for Best Lead Actress?

Some Best Actress contenders seem to be nominated for their roles more than for their performances, but the most deserving actress is a smart exception.


'Silver Linings Playbook:' Does Jennifer Lawrence deserve to win for her disarmingly frank performance?

[Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of video essays championing the most deserving Oscar nominees. For the full list of video essays, see the Oscar index main page.]

This year’s Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role will be the first for whoever wins it. Each nominee plays a character who faces extraordinary circumstances, and in some cases I wonder if it’s the role that people are praising more than the performance.

Naomi Watts is nominated as a tsunami victim in The Impossible, but basically all she does is look traumatized for the entirety of the film. Her face plastered with disaster movie make-up, Watts essentially gets credit for playing a victim, and we project pathos and profundity onto her wounded appearance.

There’s a similar issue with Emmanuelle Riva’s role as a dying woman in Amour. I  don’t understand why Riva has been getting most of the acclaim, when it’s her co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant who has the more difficult job as her husband, trying to make sense of her decline and manage their tragedy. Once again, the pathos of a character catches our attention more than the actual performance.

See for yourself. Watch the video:

Compared to Watts and Riva, I actually prefer eight-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. As a young girl fending for herself amidst unspeakable poverty, she is a compelling presence. However, presence is not quite the same as performance. For the most part, Wallis’s standout work is made in the editing room, as short glimpses of her are interspersed among the film’s extravagant imagery. But there is one remarkable scene where her character has to stand up to her abusive, unpredictable father, and Wallis gives as good as she gets. Wallis is a diamond in the rough, and she has a ways to go to truly deserve an Oscar.

Jessica Chastain's restrained performance conveys both intelligence and resilience in 'Zero Dark Thirty.'

There might be some pathos to Jessica Chastain’s character, a female CIA agent caught in the dangerous world of Zero Dark Thirty. But Chastain doesn’t rely on our sympathy, and in fact she works against it when her character takes part in the movie’s notorious torture scenes. Chastain brings a no-nonsense professionalism to the role, and what’s really impressive about it is the force of her restraint. As she listens to interrogations and sifts through endless leads in her search for Osama bin Laden, you can see her mind processing all this information. And it’s that thoughtfulness that brings extra power to the moments when she does take bold action.

But ultimately it’s Jennifer Lawrence in The Silver Linings Playbook who deserves to win, though part of it is due to the role, which is probably the most complex of the five roles to play. Tiffany is an emotionally disturbed widow fighting a sex addiction, looking to have a real relationship with a guy who has plenty of his own problems. That’s a lot of character issues for an actress to handle, but Lawrence grounds it all with an intelligence that’s disarmingly frank. In this early scene, she sets the terms. There’s so much hyper-awareness in her look and her voice, as if her character is too smart for her own wreck of a life. She thoroughly knows her problems but she doesn’t know what to do about them, and that makes her vulnerable.

But through all of Tiffany’s mood swings, Lawrence never plays them for pity. Even her destructive rages are informed by a piercing perceptiveness. And in this monologue which feels practically written to win an Oscar, Tiffany shares the tragedy of her husband’s death, but Lawrence doesn’t play up the melodrama. She simply treats it as a series of facts. All the emotion she needs to convey are in split-second blinks and eye twitches that betray her deadpan delivery.

Now that’s a pathos that doesn’t come easy, one that emerges through a performance that’s as smart as it is expressive, and is truly exceptional.

This is the fourth in a series of video essays championing the most deserving Oscar nominees. For the full list of video essays, see the Oscar index main page.

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor’s Keyframe, and a contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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  • Vanessa Ferreira says:

    Loved this, great job! Hope Lawrence wins the Oscar, she’s amazing.

  • Pablo says:

    Don’t tell me you are a mad fan of Jennifer Lawrence… ¬¬ I loved Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, but I think Naomi Watts ‘ performance in The Impossible is morr powerful than Lawrence’s, so I think Naomi should win. And if you think her acting was wounded, then you know NOTHING about good performances. There are more actresses than Jennifer Lawrence, you know?

  • Kevin B Lee says:

    Pablo, I appreciate your defense of Naomi Watts. All I can say is that I saw what I saw on the screen. I can agree that Watts’ performance has more of an immediate emotional impact as a story of sheer survival. But I think the emotional impact is mostly due to what happens to the character and to the makeup that makes Watt’s look like she’s slowly deteriorating. Lawrence’s character perhaps has less immediate emotional impact, but is infinitely more complex, and she does a good job navigating through all kinds of emotional nuances to her character’s moods and desires.

  • Catarina says:

    Finally someone able to analyze performances and characters.
    Completely agree about Naomi Watts.

    It is great to know someone who realizes that emmanuelle Riva’s performance is not so extraordinary as most people think. “The pathos of the character catches our attention more than the actual performance.” It is absolutely true. Her character has no dimensionality, however Riva has one of those faces that remind us of our older relatives and because of that it plays with our emotional. Her character wasn’t peculiar or unique, her character wasn’t complex nor too dimensional. Her character could be anyone who goes through what she goes.Also, I never realized all the praise that Riva has received when Jean-Louis Trintignant gives the best performance of the film with a more challenging and dimensional role.

    The Quvenzhané Wallis is a very good presence in the film. Maybe one day later she will win an Oscar.

    Jessica Chastain did a fantastic job, I agree with your observation. But her character doesn’t develop much, which is really unfortunate that Kathryn Bigelow hadn’t explored a little more Maya.

    Jennifer Lawrence’s performance was my favorite of all. For all the reasons you said. Like you said “Lawrence doesn’t play up the melodrama”. She doesn’t have the dramatic impact of other characters and so most people don’t give any value to her performance. Thats the reason why most people think that she didn’t deserved the Oscar. For me it was the most complex role. She had to oscillate between comedy and drama, her character was funny, rude, dirty, foulmouthed, sloppy, sexy, vibrant, expressive, vulnerable but at the same time fearless.
    In this sense it’s a more subtle performance, isn’t as obvious as others. “that’s a pathos that doesn’t come easy, one that emerges through a performance that’s as smart as it is expressive, and is truly exceptional.”

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