By Kate Pehrson and Liv Tollefson
Welcome to the Next Ten Words Academy Awards Predictions for 2018. In a four part series, longtime Twin Cities movie writers and enthusiasts Kate Pehrson and Liv Tollefson will look at the four major Academy Award Categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress. Today we offer Part 1, Best Actress. The 2018 Academy Nominees for Best Actress are Frances McDormand, Sally Hawkins, Meryl Streep, Margot Robbie, and Saoirse Ronan.
Who will win
Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Why she will win:
Frances McDormand’s fierce and formidable portrayal of a mother in a small town in Missouri is riveting. The simmering rage of her grieving mother is unrelenting, palpable and raw. Rarely do we get to see a role where such an angry woman isn’t reduced to a caricature, or overacted to ridiculousness. The character of Mildred Hayes is flawed, difficult, prickly, wounded, and bitter, but also compassionate, loyal, and honest.
A consummate actress, who has said that her aim is always to engage in the human exchange, McDormand brings this character’s humanity to the fore with craft and skill. Her ability to convey irritation with a subtle purse of the lips, agitation with a slight tensing of bodily posture, or humor with a slight lift of an eyebrow is what makes her face so eminently watchable on the screen. We are often jolted by Mildred’s swift viciousness towards the people around her, those she believes to be her enemies, but in the next scene, we see gentleness and compassion conveyed in a slight softening of tone towards the ones closest to her, even if there is disagreement between them (as is most likely the case).
Over the course of two hours, Frances McDormand connects us to an expertly drawn character (thanks to a brilliant script by Martin McDonagh), who, with all her faults and sometimes irrational and adolescent behavior, stays true. Mildred Hayes becomes a real, complex and fascinating woman living a parental nightmare we hope we never experience ourselves.
Who Might Win
In the hands of a lesser actress, the role of mute cleaning lady Elisa Esposito, who lives above a movie theater, works at a secret government facility at the height of the cold war, and falls in love with an aquatic merman creature, would be absurd. Instead, using her superb skills, exquisitely fine face and features, expressive hands and an excellent command of the character, Sally Hawkins delivers a masterful performance.
Elisa may be “just” a cleaning lady, but it seems she has a rich life. Unable to speak, she hears perfectly well, enjoying music and displaying signs that there is a passionate and lively person with formidable inner conviction, the second such portrayal of unexpected strength from inside a petite feminine frame. When asked, Hawkins said she believed Elisa was Guillermo del Toro, (who wrote the part expressly for Hawkins), citing vulnerability and absolute commitment to one’s self and convictions.
Over the course of the film, we see Elisa bloom into her potential. Her passion grows, her love blossoms, her strength rises, her convictions cement. Hawkins’ use of her hands and sign language (a mixture of ASL and a more personal, custom form Hawkins developed for this character) go from quiet communication to fervent pleading for understanding. Her physicality goes from inward and almost invisible, to sensual. Her facial expressions are impeccably on-point – subtle smirks, wicked sneers, openly pleading and searching for understanding. During our journey with Elisa, we are pulled into this ancient and familiar tale of love yet again, rooting for this unlikely heroine and a happy ending to her romance, united with her “beast”.
What about the others?
Meryl Streep as Kay Graham, in The Post
This is Meryl Streep’s 21st Academy Award nomination, this time for her portrayal of newspaper publisher/owner Katharine “Kay” Graham. Let’s face it. Meryl Streep is just unbelievably good at her job. Not to take anything away from her work in The Post, or any other of her films for that matter, the bar for Streep is just higher. She plays just about any role given to her with a sure and masterful touch that almost no other living film actress has attained. Having played other historic and important public figures (Karen Blixen, Margaret Thatcher, even Florence Foster Jenkins), Streep brings a gravitas and truth to the humanity of these characters and translates it to the screen like no one else.
In this film, Streep captures the feel of a time when women were finally asserting themselves in the big leagues on a more equal par with men. In the 1970s, women in the working world were showing power not just as the influence behind their husbands, but – in Graham’s case – in her husband’s literal place, after his death. Raised in a generation encouraged to encourage their husband’s career, we watch Kay go from reading-glasses fiddler and soft-spoken reticent board member to confident businesswoman, willing to take on the President of the United States in a battle of constitutions – both inner and on paper in the National Archives. Streep shows us that Graham not only gives herself permission to speak, but to direct and command.
Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, in I, Tonya
On the other end of the spectrum, this is the first Academy Award nomination for Margot Robbie, playing another historic figure of recent memory, Tonya Harding. Known for playing distinctive characters in films like The Wolf of Wall Street, Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, and Suicide Squad, Robbie determinedly lobbied for this part.
Tonya Harding is a name that lives in some infamy in America, and Robbie portrays the now-47-year-old woman in all her rough complexity. In a script that jumps in between present and past, between interview-style talking head scenes and “historical” scenes played out in real time, with characters sometimes breaking the fourth wall, Robbie never shies away from the grittier side of Tonya Harding. We see the harsh realities of her lower-middle-class life in Portland, but Robbie never gives us reason to pity or hate her. We see the people around Harding who supported and thwarted her – sometimes at the same time – but throughout, Harding never loses sight of her goal.
A not-necessarily likeable character surrounded by a bunch of not-far-from crazy characters, (“boobs”, as Bobby Cannavale’s journalist character calls them) Harding is already somewhat of a caricature in the American consciousness, and that perception is not far from the truth, to be honest. Margot Robbie finds relatable human truth at the core of this person. She shows us the raw talent, physical strength, drive, ego and ambition, all of which rightfully earned Harding a position as a top American figure skater and 2-time Olympian.
Saoirse Ronan as Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson in Lady Bird
Just 23 years old, Saoirse Ronan has had some incredibly meaty and also charming roles since her first big film roles. From The Lovely Bones and The Grand Budapest Hotel to her starring role in Brooklyn, Ronan’s open and communicative features, talent and skill have brought sweet honesty and maturity to her youthful characters.
As Lady Bird, Ronan captures the end of high school as so many of us remember – anxiety and excitement about the future, determinedness to forge our own next steps, an urge to be independent yet an undeniable safety and love of the familiar, and the anticipation of what it means to step out from our parents’ homes. We see the classic teenage blunders coming from a mile away, and we know she will fall right into them, but we root for her to make it through and learn from the journey. When Lady Bird fumbles, it feels so real. There’s an honesty to the awkwardness, that comes from the desire to be adult and mature.
Ronan’s Lady Bird is young, still immature, self-centered and flawed, but she’s also real. Warm, loveable, likeable, funny and genuine, Lady Bird could so easily be angry and bitter, but Ronan delivers a quirky, entertaining and engaging young woman on the verge of flying from the nest. When Lady Bird is cruel, it’s not with viciousness, but instead comes from a place of wit and intelligence that hasn’t found a channel to express itself in her middle class, suburban life. We have every reason to believe that though it may take a few tries, eventually Lady Bird will find her place and her self…and soar.
Kate Pehrson and Liv Tollefson have been writing Academy Awards predictions together for five years and have been watching movies together for much longer than that. Kate’s musings can be found on Twitter at @K8Pehrson, while Liv is @broadwaybabee. Both may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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