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The Big O: Actresses Often Benefit When Musicals Catch Oscar’s Ear

The Big O: Actresses Often Benefit When Musicals Catch Oscar’s Ear

Let’s sing the praises of musicals — especially when it comes to providing opportunities for female performers to shine at Oscar time.

Such celebrations of song make up what is probably the female-friendliest film genre of them all when it comes to awards attention. Movie careers have been launched and even revived with an Academy Award win (and, sometimes, just a nomination) for a musical role.

Actresses who broke out in such parts include such trophy holders as Luise Rainer (1936’s The Great Ziegfeld), Rita Moreno (1961’s West Side Story), Julie Andrews (1964’s Mary Poppins) and Barbra Streisand (1968’s Funny Girl). Meanwhile, Liza Minnelli solidified her triple-threat status as an actor, singer, and dancer on the big screen in 1972’s Cabaret.

With two tune-filled Broadway-based extravaganzas coming out at the end of the year, the very female-driven Annie and Into the Woods, it is as good a time as any to look back at how the current movie musical revival that began with 2001’s Moulin Rouge! and 2002’s Chicago has benefitted actresses in the Oscar race.

Some might argue that Nicole Kidman should have gotten her first Oscar nomination for her fiendish femme fatale in 1995’s To Die For. But Moulin Rouge! — the first live-action musical to be nominated for best picture since 1979’s All That Jazz — took her to the next level of stardom by allowing her to sing and dance her heart out as the tragic cabaret performer Santine.

She would lose to Halle Berry, who made history as Oscar’s first black lead-actress winner for the drama Monster’s Ball. But the voters made up for it the next year by giving Kidman the best actress honor for The Hours.

Best-picture champ Chicago proved to be an even greater opportunity for women. Both Catherine Zeta-Jones as a murderous chorine who wails the show’s signature “All That Jazz” and Queen Latifah as a corrupt jail matron were first-time nominees for their supporting roles. While Zeta-Jones won the category, both talented ladies were soon promoted to headlining status.

Renee Zellweger, up for best actress as the ambitious Roxie Hart, lost to Kidman. But she would get a consolation prize for her supporting role in Cold Mountain the following year.

As for Chicago’s male cast, they fared less well. While the Academy gave a supporting nod to John C. Reilly as Roxie’s sadsack husband, the voters snubbed lead Richard Gere as a conniving tap-dancing lawyer.

Since then, three actresses have been nominated for their supporting roles in movie musicals, and two have won.

Jennifer Hudson became a movie star, thanks mainly to her show-stopping rendition of the iconic ballad “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” and won an Oscar for her big-screen debut as Effie White in 2006’s Dreamgirls.

Penelope Cruz, a supporting winner for 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, was recognized again for her performance as a filmmaker’s feisty mistress in Nine. Much like Hudson, Anne Hathaway secured her prize by nailing the anthem “I Dreamed a Dream” as the distraught Fantine in 2012’s Les Miserables.

And, if you stretch the definition of what constitutes a musical slightly, you could include the best actress wins for Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash in 2005’s Walk the Line and Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose. That would bring the total to nine nominations — five of which translated into wins.

Meanwhile, just four men have been nominated for traditional musicals since 2001. Besides Reilly, they are Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls, Johnny Depp for 2007’s Sweeney Todd, and Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables. Add two more if you count Joaquin Phoenix for Walk the Line and Jamie Foxx, a winner for 2004’s Ray.

If anything, musicals are even more invaluable as platforms for women to strut their stuff these days, considering how mainstream Hollywood rarely bothers to build award-worthy stories around central female characters.

“Movie musicals provide women with the opportunity to be far more expressive on screen,” says Tom O’Neil of the awards site Gold Derby. “When you think of opera, you think more of the female divas, not the men. These characters are more broadly drawn and showy. Oscar voters always go for more — more sound, more costumes, more production design. And that goes for more emotion, too. Since they don’t make enough expressive female roles these days, musicals are one of the few genres that offer them a showcase.”

Consider how much Frozen, last year’s best animated film winner, was elevated by allowing its female lead characters to express themselves in song. Not unlike 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film to be nominated in the best-picture category.

How Into the Woods (Dec. 25) and Annie (Dec. 19) will fare when Oscar nominations are tallied remains to be seen. Annie, a contemporary version of the Broadway classic about an orphan who wins over a wealthy bachelor’s heart, is not being pegged as an awards contender. That’s despite having a cast topped by two former Oscar contenders, Quvenzhane Wallis (nominated as best actress for 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Foxx. It is more likely to stand a chance at the Golden Globes with its categories dedicated to comedies and musicals.

Into the Woods, on the other hand, is a likelier choice for awards fodder, considering that it’s based on a Stephen Sondheim stage production and is directed by Chicago’s Rob Marshall. The most probable beneficiary is Meryl Streep (no surprise), who could add to her record as the most Oscar-nominated actor of all time with No. 19 for her supporting role as the Witch in the fairy tale-inspired fable. That might placate those who believe she was wrongly overlooked for her lead work in 2008’s musical blockbuster Mamma Mia!

Anna Kendrick, an actress who has proven quite adept in musical parts, including 2012’s Pitch Perfect (and its upcoming sequel) and next year’s The Last Five Years, could also be considered for her supporting part as a disillusioned Cinderella.

Awards attention or not, musicals that place female talent front and center deserve to be applauded and supported. For the sake of talented women, here is hoping the curtain does not come down on the popularity of this genre for a very long time.

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