The list of Best Actress nominees for the 2022 Academy Awards were announced, and it is an eclectic bunch of characters and performers vying for the coveted Oscar statuette.
It has been observed in the past that characters who are damaged in some way automatically tend to become Oscar favourites, and since, even today, there are fewer exciting roles for women—particularly older actresses– the especially gifted ones (like Meryl Streep) invariably get nominated, because the younger actresses are not getting too many complex roles.
On the list of five this year are Nicole Kidman (Being The Ricardos), Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers), Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter), Kristen Stewart (Spencer) and Jessica Chastain (The Eyes Of Tammy Faye)– the first three are previous Oscar winners. And Interestingly, three of them are playing real life characters—Princess Diana, Lucille Ball and Tammy Faye.
The youngest of the lot, and the one most written about in the media for her romantic liaisons—Kristen Stewart– earns her first nomination for her performance as Princess Diana—not the happy young woman getting a fairy tale wedding to Prince Charles, but the depressed and dispirited wife and mother, who can no longer endure the pressures of royal life. Her husband is cold, distant and quite openly carrying on an affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles. She finds out soon enough, women are not allowed to seek outside of marriage the romance or companionship that is acceptable for royal males. She then throws herself into charity work and causes that endear her to the people, but also make her a target for a vicious tabloid media. It would take a very strong person to tolerate this constant and intrusive scrutiny, where every word, every dress, every expression is analysed ad nauseam.
The film focuses on a Christmas weekend at Sandringham Estate, where the family traditionally gathers to celebrate. Diana seems to come apart, struggling with bulimia, hallucinations, and depression. She tried to be a good wife and mother, but unlike the other royals, she cannot divide herself into public and private personalities. She is unable to remain passive when the walls close in on her, and her rebellion not just ended her marriage it also ended in her untimely death in a car crash, while being chased by predatory paparazzi. In spite of so many books, documentaries, serials and films on Princess Diana, there is a continuing, almost ghoulish interest in her life, years after her death. The film does not uncover anything new, but Stewart seems to capture the troubled mind of the princess, and there’s nothing the public (that includes Academy voters) likes more than beautiful and tormented women, who need rescuing.
In The Lost Daughter, based on a novel by Elena Ferrante, Olivia Colman (best known for playing the Queen in the film The Favourite and the series The Crown) is Leda Caruso, a middle-aged professor taking a working holiday in Greece. She interacts with a large and noisy family among others and has heart-to-heart conversations with her older landlord and a young British student working through the summer— she seems self-assured and content, but at the core of her life is the unrelenting guilt of having abandoned her two young daughters, as she pursued an academic career, and an extra-marital affair. When she sees another young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson) coping with the constant demands of a whiny child she is reminded of her own past and the exhaustion of balancing a career and motherhood. (Jessie Buckley who plays a young Leda has earned a best supporting actress nomination.)
The remorse that haunts Leda would probably not even affect a father who has abandoned his children; more than sympathy, there seems to be judgment about Leda’s choices. She calls herself an “unnatural mother,” as if a woman who does not appreciate the generally accepted notion that motherhood – even suffocating, unhappy motherhood—is its own reward, is somehow unworthy of it. Now at an age when men either don’t look at her, or see her as a fussy eccentric, her loneliness is her punishment.
Penelope Cruz in Parallel Mothers, has a child out of wedlock after an affair with a married man. She is a successful photographer and wants nothing from the lover. For her, late motherhood is like an experience she left too late. Her life comes to be inextricably linked with that of a teenager, who gave birth in the same hospital at the same time.
The film is refreshing in its lack of melodrama, the cool acceptance of the transience of relationships, and treats motherhood as a joy, but not the be all and end all of existence. The teenager who found herself pregnant after a rape, is not so embittered by what happened to her—she simply learns to manage her life, expecting nothing even from her mother, who puts her career above the trauma her daughter is facing. There is no disapproval of the mother either– an actress who knows she is past her prime, gets a dream role and she goes for it. For her, duty as mother and grandmother is secondary. The men in their lives are relatively insignificant, these women have come to navigate through financial and emotional landmines on their own.
Powerful women seldom interest mainstream Hollywood, outside of the comic book universe. Nicole Kidman brings to life the wonderful comedienne Lucille Ball, who along with husband Desi Arnaz, founded a media empire and went on to become the most successful, popular and powerful showbiz personalities of her time. She did have two children, but her career was never interrupted, and from all accounts the kids grew up to be bright and well-adjusted individuals. Her marriage did not last, but her television career as Lucy, eclipsed any personal, professional, political blips that came in the way.
Finally, there’s Jessica Chastain playing the flamboyant and ambitious Tammy Faye, one half of a team of television evangelists—her husband Jim Bakker played by Andrew Garfield (nominated for another film). The film follows Tammy from her strict Catholic childhood through her marriage, her steering of their religious beliefs into a money-making business, and her escaping any taint when her husband is jailed for fraud.
Mother of two, Tammy Faye belonged to the time when women were supposed to be seen and not heard—raise families and be satisfied with their lot. Tammy Faye, quite literally crashed the men’s club—pulling herself a chair, joining the table and telling the men what they ought to be doing. She also ignored the conservative thinking of the time and supported the LGBT cause. The film portrays her as an over-painted cartoon figure singing in a childish “Betty Boop voice”—but she is shrewd enough to know what works and how to turn faith into showbiz.
She realized early on that fame and money are not handed out on a platter, a woman has to nudge a few men aside if need be to reach her goal. As she gets permanent lip-liner and eyebrows, she also acquires a thick skin and the art of persuasion. Today, they could teach Tammy tactics in business school.
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated February 11, 2022)