Best Actress Is The Strongest Category Of The 2015 Oscars

The Academy has taken great effort to estrange itself from any semblance of good judgment. This is hardly news; for many years, the Oscars has been a showcase for mediocrity, lining all major categories with familiar fluff and showy vacancy. Usually, however, there is at least one holdout within the top tier: a last vestige of quality among the sections of high regard, representing with the majority of its nominees some halfway decent filmmaking.

You can’t credit this year’s Best Picture lineup with that honor, noting a distinct lack of inspiration in half the category’s nominations. Best Director, too, has its own gaping holes, and Best Actor is one big mess of chagrin. So what’s the big standout this year? We’d have to grant that superlative to the Best Actress category, which is the closest thing to spotless that this year’s Academy Awards has to offer.

The latest lineup of Best Actress nominations is not only recognizant of exemplary performances, but of some wonderful films on the whole. Unlike Best Actor nominee Eddie Redmayne, whose physical performance stands as the sole impressive feature of his film The Theory of Everything (nominated likewise for a Best Picture Award, thanks to Oscar’s proclivity toward “business as usual”), the varied nominated parties of the Best Actress category are strengthened and enlivened by robust material and filmmaking.

The kingpin (or queenpin) of the category is without question Julianne Moore, whose “always great, never nominated” narrative has boosted an already tremendous performance’s chances in vying for the gold. Moore stars in Still Alice, a drama film about a 50-odd-year-old professor, wife, and mother of three who succumbs to a bout of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Moore’s physical grapplings with the claws of the illness are no doubt a sight to behold, but her emotional journey from diagnosis to acceptance (and beyond), especially in connection with her husband (Alec Baldwin) and youngest daughter (a magnificent Kristen Stewart), are what make Moore’s performance truly sensational.

Although she’s a shoe-in for the Oscar, Moore isn’t exactly surrounded by second-rate performances. More than worthy of Moore’s company is Reese Witherspoon, whose veritable one-woman-show Wild is a sublime treat, and one that shows off her tenacity for heroism, emotional disarray, and humor. Granted, Wild doesn’t command the subtle sophistication from Witherspoon that Still Alice does from Moore, but not without good reason: banking the majority of its runtime on Witherspoon’s shoulders alone — partnering her more often than not with little other than her own thoughts — the film calls on her to play “big.” And she does, churning out the extremes of fear, anger, sorrow, desperation, and comedy, and managing an empathy all the while.

Upping the ante on the fun, we have Rosamund Pike, nominated as the titular missing lady at the center of Gone Girl. Somehow, Gone Girl was deprived nomination in the category for which it most deserved Academy recognition: Best Adapted Screenplay. But the sharply written pulp mystery lends much of its debonair delivery to narrator and star Pike, the beating heart in its vivacious body. Pike demonstrates a cunning balancing act in her tricky role, standing firmly in grounds of enthralling humanity and cartoon demonism without ever abandoning footing in either. There are a lot of parties to laud in Gone Girl: Ben Affleck, Kim Dickens, Carrie Coon, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, and the great Scoot McNairy. But the movie would be nothing without Pike.

Finally, we have the category’s surprise entry: Marion Cotillard, starring in the Dardenne brothers’ film Two Days, One Night — easily the most interesting movie and performance of the lot (and certainly those least familiar to American audiences). The deceptively low concept story has Cotillard traveling from door to door in her small Belgian town in an effort to convince her coworkers to vote in favor of her sustained employment over the alternative, a communal bonus for the lot.

What Cotillard does with this role is next-level brilliance. The evolution (or devolution) of her demeanor and motives as she replays the same conversation over and over and over, shifting minutely with each new turn, is spectacular character work on her part, abetted by the brilliance of the Dardennes. Although Cotillard’s performance isn’t likely to compel as many tears as Moore’s is, laughs as Witherspoon’s is, or thrills as Pike’s is, it might well be the most intriguing and innovative one of the bunch.

The aforementioned ladies, alongside a fair but effectively uninteresting turn from the admittedly talented Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything (it’s the movie’s fault, not hers), make for a pretty impressive Best Actress category. When it comes to the Oscars, four out of five ain’t bad — it’s miraculous.

Images: Fox Searchlight Pictures; Sony Pictures Classics; 20th Century Fox; Cinéart