Even in this age of Hollywood divas, actresses still don’t
command the power or screenplays their male counterparts do.
Looking back on the previous winner’s list for Best Actress,
there are some great actresses in the winner’s circle, but
they don’t show much of a pattern or a steady career
afterwards. The relatively thin list of choices for the Best
Actress category compared to the Best Actor category show the
disparity in quality acting roles available for women.

Candace Mui
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Candace Mui
Courtesy of New Market

While there were several powerful performances this year, the
consensus is that Charlize Theron’s channeling of Aileen
Wuornos is just about the best thing since, well … anything.
Shattering her mold as the pretty wife or girlfriend, Charlize
displayed some serious acting chops in “Monster.” She
put on a method acting clinic as she disappeared into her role and
showed the side of prostitution and love that Julia Robert’s
“Pretty Woman” never came close to.

As a maelstrom of beer and cigarettes, this is one of the rare
instances when you don’t even realize you are watching an
actress. Although it requires severe amounts of make-up to make
Charlize Theron look ugly, there remains something organic about
the transformation. Between her adoption of Aileen’s unusual
gait and the delicate balance between Aileen’s vulnerability
and strength, she conjured up a little screen magic. The Academy
generally likes when the Beautiful People pretend to be ugly, and
if the category means what it says, then she will walk up to the
podium and remind everyone how pretty she is.

If this were an odds game, the second favorite would be Diane
Keaton for her role in “Something’s Gotta Give.”
The Oscars are just as much about symbolism and politics as they
are about merit. The nomination here is more for Keaton’s
ability to look as good as ever in a middle-aged romantic comedy
than for anything uniquely grabbing about her performance. She went
the full range, voters like to see, crying, being funny, having sex
and crying some more. The Academy loves Diane, and a win for her
would be nostalgia trumping merit. It wouldn’t be the first
time.

In terms of pure emotion, the best thing after Theron was Keisha
Castle-Hughes as Pai in Niki Caro’s “Whale
Rider.” The Academy showed some courage in nominating the
11-year-old Australian over the other not-so-unknown native Aussie,
Nicole Kidman. Despite Miramax’s shameless pleading for every
award, the voters showed some preference for subtlety over
melodrama. Castle-Hughes portrays a prepubescent Maori girl
struggling with the patriarchal trappings of her society. As she
proves her ancestral right to lead, her performance was the picture
of stoic preservation and quiet restraint. However, even when a
child actor turns in an incredible varsity-level performance, the
Academy is often reluctant to hand out awards to a rookie with such
a short resumé attached to her career.

Naomi Watts’s performance in “21 Grams” was a
devastating portrait of a woman shattered by tragedy, both random
and deep. As the female third of Iñárritu’s
triumvirate of grief and chance, she rivals Benecio del Toro for
raw emotion and confusion. She suffers beautifully, wailing and
wallowing, all with intense conviction. With this film she
establishes herself as an elite actress, especially after her role
in “Mulholland Drive.” The only penalties come from her
adventurous movie choices. David Lynch’s surrealism and
Iñárritu’s fractured narrative are not the types of
movies rewarded comes Oscar night. The Academy’s myopic
vision doesn’t take her great performance.

Finally, there is Samantha Morton’s anchoring performance
as Sarah, the mother of a struggling Irish immigrant family in Jim
Sheridan’s “In America.” While powerful, her role
in the film was not prominent enough to present her as a true
contender for this award. Scene-stealing performances by Djimon
Hounsou as the dying neighbor, and the two daughters in the film,
Sarah and Emma Bolger, make it almost impossible for her role to
stand out enough to win the Best Actress nod.

One performance that was overlooked was Uma Thurman’s turn
as “The Bride” in Quentin Taratino’s sadly
snubbed “Kill Bill.” Definitely lacking the depth the
Academy seeks, she was still unusually powerful for a simple
revenge heroine. Uma may still be wiggling her big toe, but
Charlize is taking it all come Feb. 29.

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