A tribute to some of the legendary women who lit up the screen this past year.
If there’s one thing 2020 has been notable for when it comes to the state of the film world, it’s the undeniable abundance of better quality roles for women. All across the board from January and throughout the year, the representation of women has been impossible to overlook as many actresses have inhabited roles which simply didn’t exist years earlier. Everyone from established names like Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster to emerging stars like Nicole Beharie and Vanessa Kirby found opportunity to showcase their talents while bringing layered and complex female portraits to the screen.
It wasn’t all positive notes, however. The vicious and joyless I Care A Lot saddled Rosamund Pike with an illustration of feminism that was at best, appalling and at worst, reprehensible. Still, with a year that gave Meryl Streep two plum roles to sink her teeth into, there’s clearly more to celebrate than bemoan. In fact, 2020 at the movies has been especially good to older actresses. While Streep is usually the chief victor when it comes to rich roles for seasoned female thesps, this last year has seen her share the wealth with a handful of other names that managed to find parts and projects genuinely curious about the woman on the page.
Before the Oscar nominations are announced this Monday, I thought a congratulatory shout out was in order for some of the celebrated actresses of a certain age and the characters they’ve brought to life throughout this never ending awards season
Glenn Close in Hillbilly Elegy
Not many people liked Hillbilly Elegy. In fact, no one I personally know did. Even Close and co-star Amy Adams struggled to come up with the right kind of PR prepped sell job as to why this film was worth giving the time of day to. I’ve no doubt Close is great in the movie, which I admittedly have not seen. But her acclaim and presence this awards season seems to stem more from sentiment and the fact that she’s yet to win despite a few near misses in a career filled with rich performances. Still, Close is always a welcome sight.
*Most Recent Nomination: The Wife– There is a case to be made that Close was robbed for what many (including myself) considered to be a career-defining performance in this very fine drama.
*Biggest Oscar Crime: Dangerous Liaisons– Both Close’s wicked performance and the movie itself are still wonders to behold all these years later.
*Biggest Oscar Snub: Reversal of Fortune– Close’s narration and her inhabiting of the tragic real-life socialite help make this chilling drama all the more compelling.
Ellen Burstyn in Pieces of a Woman
Unlike Close, the response to Burstyn’s film has been one full of praise which has come with a bevy of acclaim for the actress. As Vanessa Kirby’s mother, Elizabeth, Burstyn gets to sink her teeth into one of the richest characters she’s had in years, delivering in every small moment she’s given before unleashing what is perhaps the film’s most devastating monologue, stripping away her guarded nature to show true raw pain. It’s a terrific performance from one of the acting world’s most gifted and treasured actresses.
*Most Recent Nomination: Requiem for a Dream– Burstyn remains the pulsating heartbeat of Darren Aronofsky’s masterpiece.
*Biggest Oscar Crime: Same Time, Next Year– The magic Burstyn and Alan Alda bring to their roles as cheating spouses is matched only by their warmth.
*Biggest Oscar Snub: A Dream of Passion– As a woman imprisoned for killing her children, Burstyn is at her most wild and hypnotic.
Sophia Loren in The Life Ahead
Having only sporadically worked since the 80s, it’s always an event for cinephiles when Loren decides to say yes to a project. Her latest is definitely a cause for celebration as she takes on one of the best roles of her career as a former prostitute caring after the children of other prostitutes. Tough and fierce, Loren brings her trademark Italian earthiness and underrated skill to the role of a woman looking back on the life she’s lived. It’s a role tailor made for the legend and with it, Loren proves she’s earned that title.
*Most Recent Nomination/Biggest Oscar Crime: Marriage Italian Style– Loren combines exotic glamor and an unquestionable acting prowess in this film which encapsulates all the beauty and vitality that made Italian cinema so popular.
*Biggest Oscar Snub: Ready-to-Wear– Robert Atlman’s highly enjoyable take on the Paris fashion scene is grounded by Loren in a sweet sub-plot about a woman reconnecting with her lost love.
Frances McDormand in Nomadland
Although Nomadland would have been just as rich of a project without her, McDormand’s follow-up to her previous Oscar win is a film which has been lauded (rightfully so) as a new American classic. True, Fern feels like more of a composite of different real life nomads (plenty of whom populate the film) than an actual character, but credit must surely be given to McDormand’s ability to miraculously morph into such an individual and inhabit the world being brought to the screen.
*Most Recent Win: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri– My favorite film of 2017 remains so due to a tour-de-force McDormand in what can arguably be considered her best on-screen work.
*Biggest Oscar Crime: Almost Famous– While co-star Kate Hudson got the lion’s share of acclaim, it was McDormand’s overbearing mother that made the movie stop in its tracks.
*Biggest Oscar Snub: Wonder Boys– If she hadn’t scored a nod for Almost Famous, then this turn as a sarcastic, but complicated chancellor of a prestigious college would have surely guaranteed McDormand a slot among the top five that year.
Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Davis once again proves her fearlessness as an actress by taking on the story of the real-life “mother of the blues,” Ma Rainey. The Oscar winner is unrecognizable in this tale of an African American woman’s determination to assert herself and have her voice heard in more ways than one. The performance borders on kabuki, but Davis maintains the firmest of holds on the audience through her gutsy turn, making sure that the film is never short on fireworks or theatrics when she’s in the frame.
Most Recent Win/Biggest Oscar Crime: Fences– No one could have brought the role of Rose Maxson to the screen like she did, but if we’re being honest, Davis deserved the leading statuette that year.
*Biggest Oscar Snub: Widows– The crime drama wowed everyone for its screenplay and execution with a mastermind Davis at its center in one of her most compelling performances.
Michelle Pfeiffer in French Exit
Pfeiffer has been gutsier with some of her choices in recent years and the result is some of the best work she’s ever brought to the screen. As the acerbic Manhattan society widow whose fortune has all but drained who decides to escape to Paris, the actress received near-universal praise for a performance which manages to be both tragic and funny. The genre-blending French Exit may have a complicated protagonist and a loose narrative, but it also features yet another layer of Pfeiffer’s singular talent.
*Most Recent Nomination: Love Field– This small 1960s cross-country drama is worth it for Pfeiffer as a Jackie Kennedy-obsessed housewife determined to attend JFK’s funeral. The actress’s commitment to the somewhat flashy, yet beautifully naive character is simply impressive.
*Biggest Oscar Crime: The Fabulous Baker Boys– One of Oscar’s biggest upsets is also one of Pfeiffer’s most signature roles. As the complex, streetwise torch singer, Pfeiffer more than established herself and was launched into that special realm of both actress and bona fide movie star.
*Biggest Oscar Snub: Batman Returns, The Age of Innocence, White Oleander, mother!, Where is Kyra?– Take your pick: a Countess courting scandal, an invasive houseguest, a dangerously manipulative mother, a woman on the verge of disenfranchisement and Catwoman.
Only two of these ladies have a guaranteed seat on Oscar night; and to be honest, even the surest bets are a bit up in the air in what has been the most unpredictable of all awards seasons. Still, the presence of each of the aforementioned actresses this season cannot be dismissed. Judging by the caliber of the group’s upcoming projects, this bumper crop of rich film roles is far from a fluke. Davis and Pfeiffer are currently filming turns as former First Ladies for a limited series before taking on the roles of an Army General and a Marvel superhero, respectively. McDormand will soon put her own take on Lady Macbeth, Burstyn will headline the octogenarian comedy At Last and Close has the mother/daughter addiction drama Four Good Days on the horizon. Loren is the only one without any upcoming projects, but for a woman who has been famously selective about when she wants to work, I’m sure she’ll decide when she’s ready for the camera again.
The industry still has a lot of room to grow with the way it treats older actresses. To be honest, it’s very possible that there always will be the need for improvement and even more possible that women of a certain age may never be used to their fullest potential on the screen. But make no mistake, if 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that the tide is most certainly turning.