A very good year for women's roles

Commentary

January 13, 2006|By CHRIS KALTENBACH

Reese Witherspoon may be the closest thing to a lock in this year's Oscar race, having won every acting award short of the Razzie for her portrayal of steel magnolia June Carter in Walk the Line.

The National Society of Film Critics, San Francisco Film Critics, New York Film Critics Circle, Boston Society of Film Critics ... all have named Witherspoon the best actress of 2005. And she's earned the plaudits; her Carter is a welcome source of strength and stability in the film, as she struggles to steady the roller-coaster life of music legend Johnny Cash.

If Witherspoon's name isn't listed when Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 31, expect a congressional investigation into why. But her dominance is threatening to overshadow one of the best years for women's roles in recent memory ... a year far better than the buzz might suggest.

Critics seem annually to complain about the dearth of good movie roles for women. Some are already complaining that, excepting Witherspoon and Felicity Huffman's role in Transamerica, the pickings in 2005 have been pretty slim.

What nonsense. Besides Witherspoon and Huffman, actresses up for a Golden Globe Monday include Charlize Theron in North Country, Ziyi Zhang in Memoirs of a Geisha, Laura Linney in The Squid and the Whale, Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice and Maria Bello in A History of Violence.

These are the actresses who fill out the nominations lists, and there's not a weak performance in the bunch. But what's even more notable this year is the number of quality performances that aren't even being considered for awards.

Foremost among them is an actress who should sue her studios for nonsupport, so wonderful were her performances in a trio of 2005 films and so inexplicable has been the lack of buzz surrounding them.

Joan Allen has been nominated for Oscars three times before, for 1995's Nixon, 1996's The Crucible and 2000's The Contender, but has never won. This year, however, she turned in a trifecta of distinguished, praiseworthy performances.

In The Upside of Anger, she played a stern, authoritarian mother whose pain at being abandoned by her husband colors her every waking moment. Allen could easily have played Terry Ann Wolfmeyer as little more than a walking piece of granite, stern, unfeeling and absolutely unpleasant to be around. But the movie's supposed to be a comedy, and so Allen allows the occasional crack in her facade, letting her character's humanity, as well as her very human fallibility, show through.

Such a bravura performance would have been enough for most actresses, but Allen also shone as a very different character in Off The Map. As a free-spirited Earth Mother serving as the anchor for both a catatonic husband (Sam Elliott) and restless teenage daughter (Valentina de Angelis, touchingly conflicted in her film debut), Allen had to serve as the nucleus around which the film's events swirled. She's rarely been better, even if the movie was seen by almost no one.

Allen also starred in Yes, as an American woman having an affair with a Lebanese man. The film, written entirely in iambic pentameter (think the language of Shakespeare), never opened in Baltimore, but Allen's performance has been received warmly by critics who have seen it.

The actress' misfortune, it seems, was to appear in films that were released early in the year. Awards-givers really do seem unable to recall what happened in the early months of the year when bestowing annual honors.

Allen isn't the only actress being shortchanged this year. Dakota Fanning, only 11, stole War of the Worlds right out from under Tom Cruise. Claire Danes seemed both submissive and seductive in Shopgirl, as a young woman forced to choose between romance and reality. And Naomi Watts held her own alongside a 25-foot ape in King Kong. Ignoring her stellar performance perpetuates the ridiculous notion that good acting is impossible in a big-budget, special effect-laden action picture.

No knock on Reese Witherspoon, who deserves the accolades she's been getting. But her competition is tougher than most awards lists seem to recognize.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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