6. Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream
There are few films that mainstream audiences have witnessed that they have vowed to never watch again–not because the film was bad, but because it was so effective and emotionally upsetting. Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream–adapted from the Hubert Selby, Jr. novel–is one of those films.
A remarkable film in many ways, its cinematography and editing evokes the harrowing experience of extreme drug abuse while the story follows the increasingly desperate situations its characters find themselves in because of said abuse.
With over 35 years working in the film industry, Ellen Burstyn had found a good measure of success, even winning an Academy Award for Best Actress for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (and whose own win is contested in this very list against Dunaway’s loss for Chinatown that same year).
In her later years, Burstyn found herself nominated yet again for Best Actress for her role as Sara Goldfarb, the heartbreakingly despondent mother to a heroin addict who lapses into her own lonely addiction, with tragic consequences.
While most of the film’s cast and filmmaker were snubbed for nominations, Burstyn found herself nominated for Best Actress, her fifth in the category in her career. And her chances seemed pretty good: there were some weak nominations that year, with only Laura Linney for You Can Count On Me and Julia Roberts in the populist Erin Brockovich standing as any true competition. But Roberts controversially won for Erin Brockovich, which while not a bad film didn’t necessarily require any real heavy lifting in the acting department from Roberts, who turned in her standard performance.
In contrast, Burstyn seemed to transform into the addled, sad, and delusional old mother who falls into pathetic fantasies about an ideal life that seemed just out of her reach. Her performance is heart-rendering and memorable–even if you can only sit through the movie once.
7. Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Perhaps no other year best exemplifies the wide divide between the hard-hitting portrayals of reality and the white-washed fantasies that Hollywood can produce than 2009’s nominees for Best Actress. On one side is Gabourey Sibide, nominated for her grounded performance as a poverty-stricken inner-city youth battling an abuse homelife and an indifferent world in Precious, and on the other is Sandra Bullock as an affluent white woman/savior who brings balance and stability to a poor black football player’s life.
The divergence in tone, performance, message, and characters between these two is somewhat astonishing and seem to be transmitted from two different universes: in one, the focus is on the humanity of a young black woman in dire straits as she struggles to rise above the social, economic, and personal challenges in her life to find autonomy; in the other, the focus is purely focused on the goodwill and magnanimity of a well-to-do white suburban family whose actions are the (sole) reason a young black man finds a measure of success in his life. When compared side-to-side, the stark differences between the intent of the two films is appalling.
This is all without mentioning the performances themselves: Sibide inhabits her character fully, making Precious a personification of the difficulties and struggle those born into extreme poverty and under extreme duress in the inner city. In contrast, Bullock’s character, Leigh Anne Tuohy, is pretty much just Sandra Bullock with a Southern accent and blonde hair.
Perhaps it was the lighter, more positive tone of The Blind Side that won her the Oscar that year, or else industry favoritism for one of their more bankable stars, but to pass over newcomer Sibide for a unique and soulful performance for those reasons really does highlight the two different worlds Hollywood speaks from on a regular basis.
8. Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
There’s something about a hard-hitting performance, particularly from actresses, that make them memorable: just as mentioned earlier in this list, Sigourney Weaver’s hard-charging Ripley has become an icon, so too has Rooney Mara’s performance as Lisbeth Salander. In a physically and emotionally challenging role, Mara plays Salander like a woman looking to set the world on fire–and often succeeds.
The English adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s worldwide bestselling trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which had previously been produced as a feature in Sweden in 2009) follows a young woman who takes revenge on her sexually abusive guardian and starts to collaborate with a journalist to uncover a wealthy family’s dark and murderous past.
Mara’s film career had begun only six years before TGwtDT’s release, previously starring in the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot and appearing in The Social Network. But her performance as Lisbeth Salander brought acclaim to the young actress, and Oscar buzz began to build. Sure enough, when Awards season came, Mara found herself nominated for Best Actress.
In a year with few standout performances in the category (including a nomination for Michelle Williams’ lightweight performance in My Week with Marilyn and Glenn Close in the forgettable Albert Nobbs), Mara seemed to hold a good chance to win the big prize. Instead, perennial Oscar nominee Meryl Streep won for her performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
As usual, Streep gave a strong performance, but Mara’s radical departure from the hallmarks of what a leading lady is usually considered, and her emotionally raw performance, dominates compared to Streep’s off-putting Thatcher impersonation. It seems that instead of going with the iron Oscar nominee they should have given it to the young lady playing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
9. Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Young people–those 20 and under–are not often considered for the Academy Awards, and when they are, they rarely win. Besides exceptions like Anna Paquin’s win for Best Supporting Actress at the age of 11 and Tatum O’Neal’s Oscar in the same category at the age of 10, the list of child actors winning Oscars is very short.
The record could have changed at the 85th Academy Awards, when 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated for Best Actress. Both the youngest actress to ever receive a nomination in that category, as well as the first nominee born in the 21st century, Wallis stunned crowds as the self-possessed young protagonist of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Just five years old during filming, her performance is remarkable, especially considering she had no prior acting experience.
The film–an at times hallucinatory look at a group of people living in isolation as a giant storm approaches, the ice caps melt, and the aftermath of both–is a wholly unique vision that was both widely praised and criticized for various reasons; while some appreciated its folklore approach to storytelling, others read racial and class condescension in its characterizations. However, one universal agreement all critics had was of Wallis’s performance, which led to her Best Actress nomination.
Against some strong adult competition, such as Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty and favorite Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook, it may be understandable why Walis wasn’t chosen for Best Actress. It’s unfortunate as well, considering that an untried newcomer delivered a guileless performance that still evoked so much strength, it outshined her decades-old competitors whose cynical roles that year seemed more a matter of performing from life experience than from a place of innocence.
10. Amy Adams, American Hustle
Amy Adams seems to be always the bridesmaid and never the bride when it comes to the Academy Awards: having been nominated for four Best Supporting Actress awards previously with no wins, Adams was nominated for Best Actress for American Hustle, a film that was nominated in the “Big Six” categories. After her streak of losing in Best Supporting, many commentators bet on Adams to walk away with the Oscar.
The competition that year was relatively lightweight: besides Bullock for Gravity, who had won the category a few years before, and Meryl Streep, who seems to always be nominated, it was Adams’ award to lose. Which she did, to (previously named in this list actress) Cate Blanchett, who won for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. It was a stunner, not the least of which because Blue Jasmine was an average-at-best Woody Allen film.
In fact, while American Hustle had dominated the nominations that year, it was locked out of all of the categories, not winning even one of its ten nominations. Adams’ turn as a con artist playing all sides was a revelatory one for the actress, best known for her more down-to-earth roles as the mainstream love interest or supportive girlfriend. Perhaps a similarly unique role such as the one she played in American Hustle will come her way again, and she can finally con her way into winning an Oscar.
Author Bio: Mike Gray is a writer and academic from the Jersey Shore. His work has been featured on Cracked and Funny or Die, and he maintains a humor recap blog at mikegraymikegray.wordpress.com.