MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

And the Nominees for Best Actress Should Be…

Back in October, I wrote about three performances I feel merit Best Actress nominations this year: Kristin Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You So LongAnne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married, and Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky. Today, having finally seen the rest of the films with Best Actress-contending performances, I’d like to talk about the actresses who should fill the remaining two slots: Melissa Leo for Frozen River and Kate Winslet, who turns in two strong lead performances in The Reader and Revolutionary Road.

I missed Frozen River at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize; when I finally caught up with it a few months later, I was absolutely riveted by Leo’s performance as Ray Eddy, a worn-raw-by-life, struggling mom of two boys, working at a dollar store, barely scraping together enough to keep food in her kids’ bellies. Writer-director Courtney Hunt, who evolved Frozen River from a short film that played Sundance several years earlier, sets Ray up with a dramatically simple, yet compelling premise: Ray has scrimped and saved to get the rest of the down payment on a new double-wide mobile home to replace the falling-apart trailer the family lives in, and she’d planned to have it delivered in time for Christmas. Today is the day the double-wide is due to arrive, and Ray doesn’t have the money; her loser of a husband (who, by his actions and inactions, is a palpable presence in the film, in spite of never being seen) has absconded with all the cash Ray had saved back to pay for the home’s delivery, and there’s no nest-egg savings account to make it up. And from the opening scene of Ray wrapped in her bathrobe, smoking a cigarette in her driveway with a look of utter hopelessness frozen on her face, Leo has you.

From this simple set-up — a poor mom trying desperately to give her boys, and herself, something of what Ray sees as a “good life” — Hunt spins the rest of the film: Ray, desperate to raise the cash she needs before the deadline passes and she loses her entire investment in the home up to that point, ends up meeting Lila (Misty Upham, in another stellar performance), a Mohawk woman who earns extra cash driving illegals across the frozen river separating the U.S. from Canada in this relentlessly cold and snowy upstate New York town. Ray decides to take the risk of doing something illegal for the hope of giving her sons a nicer home, and thus the two women are drawn together in a plot woven of desperation and circumstance.

Part of what makes Ray such a strong character, and Leo’s performance so spot-on, is the way in which she prepared for the role. With three years between the short film and the feature, Leo had time to mull over the character of Ray on the back-burner, adding bits and pieces to flesh her out as they came along. “I’d be at a dollar store, and see a woman’s hair and think, oh, that’s Ray’s hair,” Leo says. “Her clothing, those kinds of things, I kept just sticking them in the back of my brain. I was shooting in South Africa in January; I heard they’d gotten the money to shoot Frozen River, so I went from summer in South Africa to winter in Plattsburgh. There was great value in the time it took to develop the film, time to really develop the character.”

Some of the strongest scenes in the film come from Ray’s interactions with Lila. The two women don’t trust each other, but they have to rely on one another. Both Leo and Upham play the tension in those scenes tautly, never overreaching into the realm of melodrama. The dialogue is often as sparse as the character’s lives and surroundings, evoking the coldness of a river frozen solid enough to drive hidden humans across, the bone-chilling iciness of upstate New York in the dead of winter.

Everything in Leo’s performance as Ray plays off both the desolation of the setting and the desperation of her situation. Ray lives a life on the edge that many of us prefer not to even contemplate finding ourselves in. We’re aware, certainly, that not every woman with kids to support has a cozy home, a stable husband and a savings account to draw on in emergencies, but we seldom linger over how we would act and react, were we ourselves thrust into that life. Leo steps into Ray’s shoes and shows us her inner strength and determination in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges through every moment in this film: the buried shame on her face when all she has to serve her sons to eat is microwave popcorn; her initial reaction to Lila, who she can’t really trust, but has to if she’s to have any hope of getting that double-wide; the dual-edged sword of despondency and determination that’s etched on her face in every scene.

Melissa Leo‘s performance in Frozen River captures the heart and soul of her character so completely that it stands out amid a pack of solid contenders for a Best Actress nomination this year, and she absolutely deserves to be in the running.

Kate Winslet should be in consideration for two performances this year, for Revolutionary Road and The Reader. For the latter film, she’s being oddly touted for Supporting Actress in spite of the role being a lead performance — an interesting result of the politics around Oscar season and the fact that she’s married to Sam Mendes, who directed her in Revolutionary Road.

Winslet is excellent in The Reader, as an illiterate former concentration camp guard who gets into a relationship with a teenage boy in post-War Germany. In certain ways, Winslet’s turn here could be said to be a stronger lead performance, in that building it relies more on Hannah as a character than on her relationships with others, even the boy,

But Winslet really shines more brightly in Revolutionary Road, as April Wheeler, a woman trapped in late-1950s suburbia by marriage, children, and the crushing disillusionment of an ordinary life. In many ways, the character of April reminded me a lot of another role Winslet shone in — Sarah Pierce in 2006’s Little Children. Her performance in Revolutionary Road, though, requires a misleadingly sparse drawing of character, in that the screenplay, like the book, leaves most of April’s past and motivations unspoken, relying on Winslet to draw the tension underlying the character in more subtle ways.

It helps that Winslet is given an excellent sparring partner for the domestic battleground in Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Wheeler, April’s husband. The sparks kindled by the unspoken history of a dysfunctional marriage ignite in every potent scene between the pair and you feel intimately the love, hate and internal litanies of blame that permeate their relationship. Where Winslet particularly nails April, though, is in the final sequence of the film — incidentally, the only part of the book from which the screenplay was adapted that’s told from April’s point of view and not Frank’s. The eerie calm with which she presents Frank his breakfast the morning after a killer fight, the opaque dullness of her eyes, even as she feigns interest in what he’s telling her about his work — and, equally, the stunning way in which Frank latches onto her perceived complacency and interest when he was expecting more fight from her, ignoring the signs that all is not quite as it appears — builds the tension of the scene in a way that a more overt performance would have overplayed.

There’s something to be said for two actors of the caliber of DiCaprio and Winslet matching each other step-for-step, dancing the dangerous waltz of uncertainty, self-doubt and lingering guilt that drives their deeply unhappy marriage. DiCaprio deserves an Oscar nod as well, but let’s not let Winslet get lost in the wash simply because she performed very well in two strong female lead roles in one year.

This isn’t, fortunately, a column about predicting who will be nominated for the Oscars by the Academy, but about touting who should be on that list, and Hathaway, Thomas, Hawkins, Leo and Winslet have the five strongest lead actress performances of the year. It’s worth noting that four of the films in which those performances take place are small independent films while the fifth, Revolutionary Road, feels like one. All of these roles stand out for showcasing strong female performances that take film as an art form to a higher level, and it’s interesting also that four of the five characters — Sally Hawkin‘s Poppy being the exception — rely on guilt or desperation as underlying factors that motivate and drive them. Every one of these performances feels real and true, and each of these characters will live with me long after Oscar season has come and gone. Here’s hoping the members of the Academy see fit to recognize the outstanding contribution of these actresses in bringing them to life.

by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon