While it’s never a struggle to identify five strong male performances that should vie for Best Actor, in some years, it can seem challenging to do the same for women: Too often, the best roles go to men. In 2016, that’s not the case. Emily Blunt’s movie star turn keeps audiences interested in mainstream thriller smash “The Girl on a Train,” while Meryl Streep clearly delights in using her chops as a musician in “Florence Foster Jenkins.”
But Bening will be hard to overtake. In writer-director Mills’ follow-up to “Beginners” (which yielded a 2010 Supporting Actor Oscar for Christopher Plummer), Bening gets a good shot at landing a win after four nominations (a larger-than-life actress in “Being Julia,” a seductive con artist in “The Grifters,” and two complicated moms in “American Beauty” and “The Kids Are All Right”).
Set in 1979 and inspired by Mills’ own Depression-born mother, “20th Century Women” features three generations of Santa Barbara women who raise the teenage son of a single mom. As portrayed by Bening, she’s a mysterious, charismatic, mercurial, idiosyncratic, needy, hard-working, gregarious, cigarette-puffing, funny, wine-loving, generous, nurturing, private, strong, vulnerable, and withholding woman who has never seen the inside of a psychiatrist’s office.
In other words, unlike most female movie roles and like most real women, she can’t be pegged as a stereotype. (Think Shirley MacLaine’s Oscar-winning turn as Aurora Greenaway in “Terms of Endearment.”) Playing a woman in her 50s, Bening is unique, sexy, and fascinating. It’s believable that several men in the movie nurture crushes on her, even though still-beautiful Bening refuses to glam up in the role.
Makeup-free and long overdue, Bening is Oscar bait. And she’ll likely wind up in the awards race along with her actor-director husband Warren Beatty, whose movie “Rules Don’t Apply” opens November 23.
Who’s her competition in the Best Actress race?
Ordinarily, actors’ favorite Tilda Swinton (who is one for one at the Oscars with “Michael Clayton”) would squeak into the Best Actress race for her dazzling turn in Fox Searchlight’s May release “A Bigger Splash” as a temporarily mute pop star wrangling both her demanding ex-boyfriend (Ralph Fiennes) and current hunky lover (Mathias Schoenaerts) during a Mediterranean vacation.
And in a normal year, Oscar record-holder (3 wins from 19 nominations) Streep would waltz into an Actress slot for her titular role in “Florence Foster Jenkins” (Paramount, August 12), which demanded not only that she sing opera arias badly and entertainingly (as Jenkins did), but also that the audience not turn against her deluded wealthy narcissist. (My video interview with Streep is here.) The Stephen Frears comedy scored with adult audiences ($27 million domestic) and should be a soft lob for Academy actors. But it’s starting to look like old news.
Streep’s competition this year will come from actresses starring in films that are yet to open.
In well-reviewed Sundance premiere “Christine” (The Orchard, October 14), rising British thespian Rebecca Hall (“The Gift”) makes the most of her portrayal of neurotic real-life Sarasota anchor Christine Chubbock, who shot herself in the head during a newscast. But Antonio Campos’s intense drama seems destined for more attention from the indie-centric Gotham and Spirit Awards.
Every so often, the Academy embraces foreign actors (Emmanuelle Riva, Juliette Binoche, Marion Cotillard) in its acting categories. This could be the year for Isabelle Huppert, the Meryl Streep of France, who gives major performances in Mia Hansen-Love’s Berlin Best Director prize-winner “Things to Come” (IFC, December 2) and in Paul Verhoeven’s taut mystery “Elle” (Sony Pictures Classics, November 11), which debuted well at Cannes.
The veteran French actress pulls off one of the year’s most challenging characters— a rape victim who refuses to let her abuse define her — as she claims her identity as an entrepreneur, mother, and sexually active older woman.
“Preacher” star Ruth Negga broke out at Cannes in Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” (Focus Features, November 4), the true story of a biracial couple in Virginia in the ’60s. The Academy actors branch should reward Irish Negga’s low-key, refined portrayal of Mildred Loving, a woman battling race laws to live peacefully with her husband (Joel Edgerton) and children.
“Birdman” nominee Emma Stone won Best Actress in Venice for Damien Chazelle’s musical “La La Land” (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, December 16), which showcases the “Cabaret” star’s skills as an actress-singer-dancer. The film took home the coveted Toronto audience award, and Stone received the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival.
Amy Adams also broke out at Telluride in sci-fi thriller “Arrival” (Paramount, November 11), ably carrying her starring role as an empathetic linguist able to communicate with alien visitors. The five-time Oscar nominee also stars in a more glamorous vein in Tom Ford’s more divisive festival entry “Nocturnal Animals” (Focus Features, December 9th), which will buttress her Oscar chances for “Arrival.”
Breaking out at Venice and Toronto, where Fox Searchlight snapped it up for a December 9 release, was Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie,” starring Oscar-winner Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”) as the grieving widow of John F. Kennedy dealing with the aftermath of his assassination. Critics raved.
These actresses will be joined by a spate of potential contenders in films that have not yet screened, including Oscar-winners Marion Cotillard (Paramount’s “Allied,” November 23) and Jennifer Lawrence (Sony’s “Passengers,” December 21), as well as a past nominee who is overdue, Viola Davis (Paramount’s “Fences,” December 16).
But until we see those films, Bening runs away with the juiciest, deepest, richest women’s role so far this year.