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The Big O: In a Weak Year for Female Roles, These Silent Types and Big Talkers Deserve Oscar Consideration

The Big O: In a Weak Year for Female Roles, These Silent Types and Big Talkers Deserve Oscar Consideration

Silence can be golden and talk doesn’t have to be cheap — all you need is the right actress to pull it off.

As is common at year’s end, when the air is rife with Oscar buzz, film pundits often suggest potential nominees that might be overlooked by the Academy or under-promoted by studios and distributors.

But as I look down my list of memorable female performances that should by all rights earn awards attention but are more likely to slip through the cracks, they tend to fall into two categories. Haunting, nearly wordless displays of outward emotion or dialogue spoken with a special flair and passion that command our attention.

Here are five of each type that deserve to be seen, even if they don’t quite make the Oscar cut.

The Shh-ining Stars

Mia Wasikowska in Tracks

After packing Oscar heat for months, Reese Witherspoon’s Wild — the true story of a woman’s soul-searching trek along the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail — arrives in theaters on December 5.

Too bad it has overshadowed Wasikowska’s similar though more artfully told tale, which involves a nearly 2,000-mile journey across the dry and dusty terrain of Australia’s outback. Tracks offers a more meditative, often silent version of the grueling, real-life hunt for inner peace and enlightenment. But instead of Witherspoon’s patented pluck as Cheryl Strayed, Wasikowska’s standoffish yet no less determined Robyn Davidson embraces her challenge with a pricklier-than-thou attitude that isn’t afraid to alienate others. Plus, she has superior co-stars to engage with: four feisty camels and an ever-loyal black dog.

Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night (opens December 24)

Depression is a timely topic these days, including at the movies. And few have more reason to feel overwhelmed by life than Cotillard’s Sandra. Her Xanax-popping Belgian factory worker and financially strapped mother of two is near the end of her sick leave when she learns her co-workers have voted to have her laid off rather than lose their on-the-job bonuses. Instead of loudly railing against the unfairness of her situation, the already frail and barely coping Sandra must summon the strength to personally plead her case to each one of her colleagues over the course of a weekend and convince them to change their votes. Cotillard relies on her body language and facial expressions more than any words to convey her reactions to each encounter, allowing us to share in both her despair and gratitude. 

Agata Trzebuchowska in Ida

Newcomer Trzebuchowska gives a near-silent performance worthy of Garbo or Gish in this haunting black-and-white Polish drama about a young novitiate at a nunnery in the early 1960s who is about to take her vows. During a visit with her only living relative, her caustic and world-weary aunt, she learns about her family’s tragic past — including the fact she was born Jewish. More given to prayer than sharing her feelings, the delicate, demure, and devout Ida relays her reactions to the outside world in the subtlest of ways: a flash of her eyes, a flicker of a smile, a look of concern or caring, a barely audible laugh, a sudden grimace. The result is mesmerizing to watch, deeply felt, and quite powerful.

Grace Gummer in The Homesman

Hilary Swank is getting most of the Oscar talk for this female-driven Western. But at least one of the three mentally disturbed women she escorts back East to seek help for her condition makes a considerable impression on screen despite meager dialogue. That would be Gummer (Meryl Streep’s middle daughter) as young pioneer wife Arabella Sours, who falls into a near-catatonic state after losing three infant children to diphtheria. When she does speak, such as her oddly cheery “Goodbye!” that accompanies her farewell wave as the wagon takes off to Iowa, the effect is quite chilling. She might constantly clutch a rag doll as a poor substitute for her maternal loss, but Gummer is allowed to expose Arabella’s surprising fierceness at times as well.

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

Last year, all Johansson needed to seduce Joaquin Phoenix in Her was her irresistible grit- and honey-coated voice as a computer operating system. Now it is her body that beckons as an alien temptress who invades rural Scotland and lures male victims into her lethal trap with barely a word. Most critics were either transfixed by her minimalist performance, which included casual nudity, or confused. But few came away without a reaction. “As the ultimate fembot-fatale, Johansson is deceptively good in a role that demands sparkly, seductive animation one moment and dispassionate blankness the next,” wrote Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post. A near-silent role that turned into a talker? Give that woman a nomination already.

The Chatter Queens

Jessica Chastain in Miss Julie (December 5 in New York and Los Angeles)

It seems as if Chastain has a wealth of chances this season to be in the running for an Oscar, what with her choice work in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Interstellar, and A Most Violent Year. And Liv Ullmann’s movie adaptation of the often-revived Strindberg play can be off-putting in its unduly staginess, which barely allows her actors to take even the slightest break from their breathless monologues. But Chastain adds another revelatory portrayal to her ever-widening collection as the often-capricious, dangerously flirtatious, imperiously demanding yet ultimately tragic 19th-century lady of the manor, who is like a lonely exotic bird locked in a gilded cage. The push-pull sexual energy between her and Colin Farrell as the valet who worships her can’t help but set off sparks, even if the movie itself ultimately fizzles out.

Shailene Woodley in The Fault in Our Stars

Whatever faults there are in this blatant tear-jerker about two teens who fall in love while attending a cancer support group, the remarkable Woodley, with her vintage, Debra Winger-like handling of naked emotion, is definitely on the plus side. Who else could sell a line like this so deftly: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep. Slowly, and then all at once.” This is a rare young-adult romance that is as much about sharing thoughts as swapping kisses. Woodley came thisclose to a supporting actress Oscar nomination for 2011’s The Descendants, if only for her ability to silently scream underwater. Now she should be in the race for turning potentially cloying dialogue into verbal gold.

Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive

Swinton, who pocketed a supporting Oscar for her corporate monster in 2007’s Michael Clayton, puts those dull Twilight bloodsuckers to shame as Eve, an absolutely fabulous vampire with runway cool and a wicked way with a droll quips. It’s a rare treat to eavesdrop on her conversations with her undead paramour, played by Tom Hiddleston, as they endlessly discuss his days of hanging out with scientific greats Newton and Tesla, as well as literary lights Byron and Mary Wollstonecraft. “I’m a survivor, baby,” her creature of the night declares. And we believe it as they toast each other with stolen hemoglobin from a blood bank.

Carrie Coon in Gone Girl

May every aghast audience always get such an engaging and honest character to cling to while lurid events unfold onscreen. As tomboyish Margo Dunne, twin sis of Ben Affleck’s none-too-bright suspected wife-killer Nick Dunne, Coon acts as a reality check for her often clueless brother, whose wife Amy has gone missing. She also slings some of the script’s best lines during their heart-to-hearts, such as, “Just because I don’t love Amy doesn’t mean I don’t care about her. I’m really scared.” And, after she hears that Nick described Amy as “complicated” to the police: “Nick, everyone knows ‘complicated’ is code for bitch.” As the one warm individual in the film, it is hard not to cheer a little when she shows up in a scene.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Beyond the Lights/Belle

What a year this alluring, British-born actress is having as she quickly soars to the next level in her career after standing out in two very disparate roles. On the one hand, she skillfully handles a costume drama as a real-life 18th-century mixed-race noblewoman in Belle. On the other, she summons comparisons to Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard and Diana Ross in Mahogany with her electric depiction of a Rhianna/Beyonce-inspired singing sensation in the showbiz saga Beyond the Lights. In both cases, she plays women whose destiny has been controlled by others for too long. 

But by the end of each movie, her characters speak their minds quite forcefully. For Belle, Mbatha-Raw delivers a withering speech to the upper-crusty white woman whose son wants to marry her: “My greatest misfortune would be to marry into a family who would carry me as their shame, as I have been required to carry my own mother. Her apparent crime to be born Negro, and mine to be the evidence. Since I wish to deny her no more than I wish to deny myself, you will pardon me for wanting a husband who feels ‘forgiveness’ of my bloodline is both unnecessary and without grace.” As for Noni in Beyond the Lights, she boldly takes a stand with these words: “Everybody says I’m special ’cause I have this voice, but I’m just saying what everybody else wants me to say. I need to say something.”

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