With the Oscars now only four days away, it's time for our Early Gems series to come to a close. Over the last week, we've been highlighting performances and films from those nominated in the acting and directing categories, from Amy Adams in "Junebug" to Benh Zeitlin's short film "Glory At Sea" (read about the Best Actors, the Best Supporting Actors, the Best Supporting Actresses and the Best Directors). But all good things must come to an end, and so our final entry will focus on the last major category we haven't yet covered: Best Actress.
It's a curious line-up this year, featuring both the youngest-ever and oldest-ever nominees in the category, with an average age of only 39 (versus 62 for Best Supporting Actor), one debut performance, one actress who is on her second nomination despite being only 22, and one who's an international cinema icon, and will celebrate her 86th birthday on Oscar night. It's a diverse and extraordinary collection of women, all of whom gave great performances, and all of whom did the same at the start of their careers. Read our picks below, and let us know who you're rooting for in the comments section.
Jessica Chastain – "Jolene"
One could argue Jessica Chastain is leading a semi-charmed life thus far. In the beginning of her career the Julliard graduate worked with Al Pacino, Terrence Malick, John Madden, and shortly thereafter was being directed by Kathryn Bigelow and John Hillcoat. With only 10 movies to her name thus far, she already has two Academy Award nominations. But everyone's gotta start somewhere and for Chastain that was 2007's "Jolene" (though the still unreleased Pacino movie "Wilde Salome" was shot first, in 2005). Following the unfortunate experiences of an impoverished young girl as she moves around the country looking for work and purpose, Chastain's title character is a hard-luck woman who perseveres, her life always defined by the men in it — and they are myriad. She ends up with an adulterer (Dermot Mulroney), a Vegas mobster (Chazz Palminteri), a douchebag tattoo artist/wannabe rock star (Rupert Friend), an abusive, religiously devout oli heir (Michael Vartan) and even an older female caretaker (Frances Fisher) from the corrections facility she lands in after being indicted for killing one of her suitors as a teenager. Featuring appearances by Theresa Russell, Denise Richards and directed by Dan Ireland ("Living Proof"), suffice to say "Jolene" is not very good and gets more silly and unbelievable as the hardships the protagonist has to endure mount up to almost cartoon-ish levels. The saving grace of it however is Chastain who goes from teenager to a pregnant 30-year old without missing a nuanced beat. Its not her best performance by a long shot, but she does make the mediocre movie as tolerable as it is. And she won the Best Actress prize at the Seattle International Film Festival where the movie premiered, so clearly she was turning heads with her talents from the very beginning.
Jennifer Lawrence – "The Burning Plain"
An Oscar nominee a couple years ago for her breakout role in "Winter's Bone," Jennifer Lawrence had impressed even earlier than that, albeit in a film that few saw. In "The Burning Plain," the directorial debut of "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams" writer Guillermo Arriaga, a then-17-year-old Lawrence played Mariana, the eldest daughter of Kim Basinger's New Mexico mom Gina. She discovers that her mother is carrying on an affair with a local man (Joaquim De Almeida), and in a bid to scare them into stopping, causes a tragic accident in which both are killed. She becomes pregnant by the son of her mother's deceased lover, abandons the child, and grows up to be the promiscuous, suicidal Sylvia (Charlize Theron). It's a big ask to get someone to fill the younger shoes of an Oscar-winning actress like Theron, let alone in your ostensible feature film debut, and in a part that asks you to carry much of the emotional heavy lifting. But while the film is only semi-successful (it's grim, joyless, contrived and, well, Arriaga-ish to the point of self-parody), Lawrence in particular more than rises to the challenge; she's the most vibrant and passionate thing in the film. Theron, also a producer on the film, wrote in EW about her discovery of the actress saying, "I remember us watching her on tape — we were both crushed with silence. We didn't want anyone else to play the part. She had this stilllness and power of conviction that made you believe in her every moment." And for all the film's flaws, the audience have much the same reaction watching Lawrence for the first time.
Emmanuelle Riva – "Hiroshima Mon Amour"
For a film made over 50 years ago, the cast and crew of 1959's "Hiroshima Mon Amour" are doing remarkably well these days. Director Alain Resnais premiered his very good "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" at Cannes last year, and the film's star, Emmanuelle Riva, earned her first-ever Oscar nomination at the age of 85 for Michael Haneke's "Amour." Riva's given many fine performances in her career, but it seems fitting that the two most iconic seem to bookend her career, with 'Hiroshima' being her first major big-screen role. Like "Amour," it's essentially a two-hander, one haunted, as the title might suggest, by World War II. Riva plays a French actress, making a film in Japan, who's had an affair with a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada). The pair are about to separate, and hold a series of long conversations, about both the end of their affair, and war, and the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima in particular. It's a desperately sad, modernist masterpiece, one of the most important films of its era (and one of Resnais' finest), and Riva, then in her early 30s, is the deeply human fixed point, positively bursting with feeling and shame (mostly over her affair with a Nazi soldier during the war, for which her head was shaved in punishment). Impossibly profound, bold and unlike anything else, it's one of the greatest films ever made, and an Oscar for Riva on Sunday night would be a wonderful way to cap off her career.
Naomi Watts – "Mulholland Drive"
Speaking of some of cinema's greatest achievements: hey, "Mullholland Drive." Australian actress Naomi Watts might have been vaguely familiar to some thanks to roles in "Flirting" and comic-book disaster "Tank Girl," but her career wasn't exactly on fire. As the '90s closed out, she was appearing in things with titles like "Children of the Corn: The Gathering" and "The Hunt For The Unicorn Killer," and toplining a short-lived NBC series called "Sleepwalkers." But everything changed when she was cast in a new pilot by David Lynch, one that, when it failed to get picked up, morphed into a new film that stands as a highlight of the filmmaker's career, and features, from Watts, one of the greatest goddamn performances we've ever seen. The Australian actress (who Lynch cast from a photo alone, having never seen her previous work) plays (at least at first) Betty, an aspiring actress, who arrives in L.A. for the first time, only to encounter an amnesiac woman (Laura Elena Harring), who she promises to help, falling for her in the process. There's more to it than that, as you might imagine, but Watts is phenomenal, going from wide-eyed ingenue to manipulative, murderous, guilt-ridden killer. One doesn't have to read too much into the film to believe that Watts' own frustrations with her career informed her performance, not least in the instantly-legendary audition scene you can see below. It's a spectacularly textured and complex turn, and one that still remains one of the peaks of Watts' filmography. Somehow, Watts failed to get an Oscar nomination for the film (clearly, it was more important for the Academy to honor Renee Zellwegger in "Bridget Jones' Diary"), but she did pick up her first two years later for "21 Grams," with another following this year for "The Impossible."
Quvenzhane Wallis – "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
We were somewhat lacking when it came to options for young Quvenzhane Wallis. She is, after all, nine years old, and was only five when she was cast as Hushpuppy in Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild." There are other parts on the way (Steve McQueen's "Twelve Years A Slave," possibly the lead in the remake of "Annie"), but her IMDB page was bare before 'Beasts.' Fortunately, her Oscar-nominated debut performance is a match for anything else on this list; despite another great performance from Dwight Henry as her screen papa, you can't take your eyes off Wallis as the resourcesful, ferociously brave young Hushpuppy, who can stand down a charge of Aurochs, yet become the tiny girl she is when lost in the brothel looking for the woman who may, or may not be, her mother. There were questions in some quarters about whether a performance from one so young could ever really be called "a performance." But as un-self-conscious and unguarded as Wallis is, it seems from the film that there's no question she's an enormously gifted actress, one who's created a very detailed and three-dimensional performance, able to pull off everything from the acts of heroism to powerful emotional points. It's a truly miraculous turn, one that finds her channeling both wordly wisdom and naive innocence with ease.