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’20th Century Women’ Cements Annette Bening as Best Actress Frontrunner

The NYFF has yielded the actress to beat in a very competitive year at the Oscars.

Annette Benning in 20th Century Women

“20th Century Women”

A24

As soon as Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women” screened at the New York Film Festival, Annette Bening’s performance became the one to beat in the most competitive Best Actress Oscar race in years.

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”).

READ MORE: ’20th Century Women’ Review: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning Star In Mike Mills’ Best Film

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.

"Things to Come"

“Things to Come”

IFC

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.

Loving

“Loving”

Focus Features

“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.

La La Land

“La La Land”

Summit Entertainment

“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.

"Arrival"

“Arrival”

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.

READ MORE: ’20th Century Women’ Filmmaker Mike Mills Says Everyone Should Make a Movie About Their Mother — NYFF 2016

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.

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Comments

Leslie

Bening is brilliant. She should have ten oscars already. Hope this is her year.

Corvo

LOL There’s no chance in hell Bening will win over Portman, Stone and Davis with a weaker role in a way weaker film.

Chris Nolan

Marion, let’s go!

Harry

I’d love to see her finally win, I hear she is great in 20th Century Women. Either her or Viola Davis, both highly overdue. I also hope Jennifer Lawrence gets nominated for Passengers, cause Oscars are boring and imo not really worth watching without her ;)

Teresa

This is a ludicrous assertion- so much so that it begs the question what’s in it for you, indie wire? She is ok in a meandering, aimless mess of a film.

tyequaid

No way Bening will beat Emma Stone. La La Land will be huge in December and she’ll grow with it too.

Dustin

20th Century Women was a mess and Benning was given nothing to do.

DougW

Definitely NOT the frontrunner.

The Other James D.

Hahahahahaha, this is a delusional assumption. While Annette Bening is very overdue, to proclaim that she is the surefire frontrunner is just silly. Just wait until Viola Davis swoops in with Fences, too. It’ll be a hell of a battle.

Plus, there’s also the fact that both Davis AND/OR Bening might go Supporting to become more of a sure thing.

If both remain lead, I expect Bening to be snubbed. Emma Stone will probably beat her @ the Globes for Comedy/Musical Actress as well.

And at the Oscars, let’s say it’s Stone/Davis/Streep/Portman, I can see Huppert swooping in and being the 5th nominee.

I’m just saying, it’s a rather silly early call when the mixed reviews for 20th Century Women should be giving everyone pause.

Ricardo

It’s only October. This year, this column has become so relentlessly Oscar-focused that it’s getting as tiresome as the Trump-dominated political news. Please consider cutting back on the Oscar stories.

    The Other James D.

    Well, Anne primarily writes Oscar articles in the Awards section of a film site. What do you expect, an exposé on puppy mills?

Dillon Mack

I hope Streep won’t get nominated in the lead actress race considering so many strong performances this year: Rebecca Hall, Isabelle Huppert, Sonia Braga, Viola Davis. Granted that Emma Stone and Natalie Portman gave compelling performances, I wish Jennifer Lawrence won’t sneak in. It will be another “Oh no, must we nominate her again for a performance no different from the ones we see every year?” For me it would be great if the lineup is as solid as: Viola Davis, Rebecca Hall, Isabelle Huppert, Ruth Negga with a possible inclusion of Amy Adams, Emma Stone, Annette Bening and Natalie Portman. But no Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep, please.

Chris

Hmm, I would not comment on Natalie Portman’s turn in Jackie as little as almost a footnote like it is in this article, as it has been , along with Emma Stone, dominating the Best Actress conversation so far.

Also, funny how according to the author the Academy has been embracing *foreign* actresses and then the list reflecting it consists of three white french actresses. I’d just like to point out that it is not a signal of the awards embracing different groups or nationalities, but we all know what their problem with diversity is.

Finally, the paragraph about La La Land should be checked, as the same thing is written twice.

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