By Peter Knegt | Indiewire October 29, 2013 at 11:48AM
Instead of dipping into the already repetitive waters of late October Oscar talk, this column will take the next two weeks as an opportunity to discuss a few names that aren't getting as much talk as they may deserve (though here's updated weekly predictions to supplement that).
Every year, a few actors from small films manage to make their way into the
Oscar race. Like Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and Emmanuelle Riva in "Amour" last year (neither of whom were sure bets for nominations going into it), Demián Bichir
in "A Better Life" (a huge surprise two years ago), Jennifer
Lawrence and John Hawkes in "Winter's Bone," Woody Harrelson in "The
Messenger," Richard Jenkins in "The Visitor"... The list goes on and on.
So in keeping with Indiewire's indie spirit, it seemed appropriate to make arguments for twenty performances that deserve to be the next Wallis or Bichir or Lawrence or Jenkins. The ladies come first this week, the gentleman next.
Commentators should keep in mind that the list does not include
work that looks like a safe bet for a nomination (Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine" and Lupita Nyong'o in "12 Years a Slave," certainly, as well as June Squibb in "Nebraska" and Octavia Spencer in "Fruitvale Station" -- both of whom might not quite be locks yet, but most people are reasonably predicting both of them), and that it only includes films
currently scheduled for release during the 2013 eligibility period (thus
excluding recent Toronto pick ups like "Tracks" and "Can a Song Save a Life?," for
example). Keeping that all in mind, here are 10 underdog actresses (whether
lead or supporting) for your consideration.
Bérénice Bejo, The Past
Two years after scoring her first Oscar nomination for not saying a word in "The Artist," French-Argentine actress Berenice Bejo makes clear she can act up a storm when dialogue is involved too in Asghar Farhadi's French language "The Past." The heavily lauded performance (it won her the best actress prize at Cannes) finds Bejo playing a woman who asks her estranged Iranian husband to come to Paris -- where she is living with another man -- to finalize their divorce. What unravels is a complicated portrait of human relationships, and one that allows Bejo to deliver one of the rawest, most affecting performances of the year. Though even with the backing of Sony Pictures Classics (which got a French language performance from Emmanuelle Riva in last year), it's going to be tough for Bejo to break into a category that seems to already have 4 or 5 locked in English language performances.
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Another Sony Pictures Classics-backed French actress -- though in an English language role here -- Julie Delpy really should be an assured nominee for her work in the third film in Richard Linklater's saga of lovers Céline (Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) "Before Midnight." But she's not. So hopefully voters really consider the rather unprecedented character Delpy has developed over these three films (both as an actress and as a writer), culminating in a remarkable, emotionally devastating performance as a woman struggling within a long term relationship (particularly in the film's third act). While it seems much more likely she'll share a screenplay nomination with Hawke and Linklater (which they did for the previous "Before Sunset"), Delpy -- never nominated before as an actress -- is more than deserving of the double recognition.
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, Blue Is The Warmest Color
Though 19 year old Adèle Exarchopoulos and 28 year old Léa Seydoux are getting a lot more attention for their shared explicit sex scenes and, more over, their offscreen conflicts with director Abdellatif Kechiche, that should definitely not take away from the extraordinary feat they pulled off as actresses in "Blue Is The Warmest Color." As lovers Adèle and Emma, the pair offer one of the most penetrating portraits of the rise and fall of passionate love in recent memory, leaving us devastated in its wake. Certainly more brave than their epic sex scenes is the emotional vulnerability each possess on screen, but hopefully the former gets the large older male contingent of the Academy to pop in their screeners and see what is the true highlight of "Blue." And yes, it's true Exarchopoulos and Seydoux make it four French actresses in a row on this list. The chances of them all making Oscar's cut is next to impossible, but it sure does make clear that France's tendency to bring forth the greatest actresses in the world is alive and well.
Paulina Garcia, Gloria
Sebastián Lelio's "Gloria" stands a very good chance at representing Chile in the foreign language film category (where it could compete against the aforementioned "The Past"), but it is more than deserving of a second nomination. Paulina García -- winner of the best actress prize at the Berlin International Film Festival this past February -- truly casts a spell as the title character, a 58 year old divorcée determined to defy her age and not spend her nights alone. García is heartbreaking, hilarious and honest -- sometimes all at once -- in the kind of role 58 year old American actresses would rarely ever get a chance to place. But I'd question whether even Ms. Meryl Streep herself could pull of Gloria like Paulina García.
Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
Notably the second actress on this list to be working from a script she co-wrote, Greta Gerwig gives a career-making performance in her Noah Baumbach collaboration "Frances Ha." Though Gerwig has shown considerable potential in films like "Nights and Weekends" (which she also co-wrote and co-director), Baumbach's previous film "Greenberg" and last years' Whit Stillman offering "Damsels in Distress," her turn as a twentysomething mess trying to figure it out in "Frances Ha" brought her to a whole new level (and frankly, showed Lena Dunham how it's done). Turning what could have easily been an annoying caricature into an endearing and complex character, Gerwig also showed off some impressive physical comedy skills while breaking our heart just a little bit at the same time. It's not the type of role Oscar ever seems to reward, but here's to Gerwig at least managing a deserved Indie Spirit nomination (she was bizarrely snubbed at the Gothams) and maybe even a Golden Globe nod in the musical/comedy category.
Scarlett Johannson, Don Jon or Her
Scarlett Johannson is not even 30, but it already seems like a travesty that she hasn't managed an Oscar nomination yet. She came pretty close with "Lost in Translation" and "Match Point" (and should have come close with "Ghost World"), but no cigars. This year will likely be the same story with two very deserving bids for best supporting actress, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's "Don Jon" (which earned her somewhat surprising nod in the Gotham Awards' new best actress category over the aforemetioned Gerwig), and Spike Jonze's "Her." Neither are Oscar-friendly performances, with "Don Jon"'s Barbara a gloriously comedic take on a Jersey Girl who has watched too many romantic comedies, and "Her"'s Samantha, well, a voice-only portrayal of an operating system that Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with. The former has happened with Oscar before (ask Marisa Tomei), while the latter not so much (ask Eddie Murphy, Ellen DeGeneres and Andy Serkis). But given the weak category that is supporting actress so far this year, a dose of Scarlett in either form would be more than welcome.
Brie Larson, Short Term 12
Another Gotham nominee, Brie Larson gave us one of the most complex, naturalistic performances in any American indie this year with her work in Destin Daniel Cretton's SXSW winner "Short Term 12." As Grace, a twentysomething supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers, Larson (who oddly had small roles alongside Gerwig and Johannson in "Greenberg" and "Don Jon," respectively) seizes a considerable opportunity with her first major lead role. She gives Grace both strength and vulnerability in a performance of challenging dramatic extremes, pulling off something with, er, grace that few other actresses could. It would seem like the exact type of performance to take the Melissa Leo or Jennifer Lawrence slot in the best actress Oscar category, but given her established competition (Streep, Dench, Thompson, Bullock, Blanchett -- oh my!) and the fact that "Short Term 12" is being released by tiny distributor Cinedigm, it's going to be an uphill battle. Unless the critics awards really rally behind her, though her main competition in that sense are women already noted on this list (Delpy and Exarchopoulos, most likely). Either way, the greatest award Larson could probably get from this film is a major career, and at this point she's a shoo-in.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said
Nicole Holofcener's "Enough Said" has turned into of a major critical and commercial hit for a film its size, with glowing reviews and box office receipts heading toward $20 million. And while the late James Gandolfini and Holofcener's original screenplay are both getting deserved Oscar buzz, it's a bit more muted for its lead actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Beyond the aforementioned competition she faces, this is probably because of two things: The Oscars rarely reward comedy, especially in the lead categories, and they also seem to have an adversity toward television actors. But Louis-Dreyfus isn't just a television actor. She's the freaking Meryl Streep of comedic television, winning Emmys for three different series in the past 20 years. And she brings that talent over to Holofcener's lovely, lovely film, carrying it with a magnetism that few possess like Louis-Dreyfus. Enough said.
Waad Mohammed, Wadjda
Not just Saudi Arabia's first film ever submitted to the Oscars, "Wadjda" is the first feature ever (!) directed by a woman in the county (where women still don't have the right to drive cars). It's a remarkable feat for director Haifaa al-Mansour, but also for her young muse. Twelve-year-old Waad Mohammed -- in her first acting role -- is this year's answer to Quvenzhané Wallis, carrying nearly every scene of the film. She plays a young Saudi Arabian girl who will do just about anything to buy her first bicycle, though as her mother tells her: “You won’t ever be able to have children if you ride a bike." It's a deceptively simple narrative that says a lot about the situation facing women in Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed charms us each and every step of the way.
Peter Knegt is Indiewire's Senior Writer and awards columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
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