This weekend’s box office results may not have brought any good news to the by-the-numbers new studio releases, but in terms of the Best Actress Oscar race they added to the mix with some very reliable older stars who are helping to continue to define this nascent race with veteran actresses who could dominate the field. Getting strong reviews, 75-year-old Lily Tomlin’s Grandma from Sony Pictures Classics scored $30,000 a screen on four screens, while 55-year-old Patricia Clarkson’s Learning To Drive, which she spent nine years trying to bring to the screen, did about half that — still a great result for a much older-skewing drama that even featured its star in a tantric sex scene no less. Both performers could find themselves in the hunt for the Best Actress Oscar if the films can continue to gain traction.
Clarkson and her co-star Ben Kingsley received a tumultuous standing ovation at their SAG nominating committee screening Saturday afternoon at the WGA Theatre in Beverly Hills (which I moderated), and followed that up with a successful Academy screening across the street right afterwards. Seven-time Emmy winner Tomlin, an Emmy nominee for the first time next month in the Outstanding Leading Actress in a Comedy Series race for Netflix’s Grace And Frankie, is enjoying a kind of resurgence lately, and could ride that to her first — and only other — Oscar nomination since 1975’s supporting bid for Nashville.
Continuing the year of the vet, earlier we saw strong performances that could attract voters’ attention from a past winner, 70-year-old Helen Mirren, in Woman In Gold (a film The Weinstein Company has already started campaigning for its star); and 72-year-old Blythe Danner getting a full-bodied leading role in the hit adult indie I’ll See You In My Dreams which has grossed over $7 million so far for new distributor Bleecker Street, which will probably be encouraged to launch an Oscar campaign on her behalf. And let’s not also forget 19-time nominee Meryl Streep, now 66, who showed she could rock with the best of them in TriStar’s Ricki And The Flash. She was excellent, but the film’s lackluster box office and early release date could hold back possibilities for a 20th Oscar nod this year (she’s also in Suffragette, but the role is tiny, about half the time even Judi Dench had in her minuscule Oscar-winning Shakespeare In Love part). A Golden Globe nod for Comedy or Musical Actress could definitely be the cards though. And who said older actresses are forgotten by Hollywood? Of course the bigger question is will these performances from movies released out of the fall “Oscar zone” be forgotten by voters?
Still to come on the festival circuit with release plans for this year is another possible Oscar magnet, 80-year-old Maggie Smith, a past two-time winner, in Sony Pictures Classics’ December release Lady In The Van (still unseen — by me at least) which first hits Toronto next month. And there’s the always brilliant 69-year-old Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years hitting Toronto, and reportedly Telluride next month after first taking on Berlin. On top of all this there are several other stars in the Oscar hunt who are already Oscar winners including last year’s champ Julianne Moore in Freeheld; Charlize Theron in a kick-ass turn in Mad Max: Fury Road; and Cate Blanchett in both Cannes sensation Carol and Sony Pictures Classic’s Truth, both heading to Toronto, with the former also taking on Telluride too.
Sandra Bullock has what may well be her best ever performance in Toronto-bound Our Brand Is Crisis in which she plays the hell out of a burned-out political consultant advising on a Bolivian presidential campaign. She could blindside the competition again. Then there is the yet-unseen Julia Roberts in the remake of the Argentinian Oscar winner The Secret In Their Eyes opening in October from newbie distributor STX, and the very young Jennifer Lawrence already looking for a second Best Actress Oscar already in December’s Joy, directed by David O. Russell who guided her to her first Academy Award in 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. Still to be seen is the performance Angelina Jolie may have directed herself to in the November 13 Universal offering By The Sea, which judging by the trailer for the film about a marriage (real-life husband Brad Pitt co-stars) could be pretty intense. And we probably shouldn’t count out Macbeth’s Marion Cotillard which Amazon’s new film operation will be unveiling in concert with The Weinstein Company before year’s end. The film may have received mixed notices upon its Cannes premiere in May, but Cotillard is very popular with Oscar voters — witness her surprise nod just earlier this year for Two Days, One Night. And no one knows this better than Amazon’s Bob Berney who guided Cotillard to her first Oscar for La Vie En Rose with a very smart campaign.
In other words it looks like a year in which we will see some very familiar faces going for the Best Actress Oscar, proven names looking for a first shot or road-tested past winners. Much of this will soon come into focus on the Fall Festival circuit which kicks off September 2 in Venice, followed in close succession by Telluride and Toronto.
All of this isn’t to discount the chances of genuine fresh faces who may upend the vets including past An Education nominee Carey Mulligan in either Far From The Madding Crowd or far more likely Suffragette (very likely headed to Telluride before hitting the London Film Festival). Mulligan is nearly ready to give birth, so don’t expect her on the circuit during the fall festivals. There’s also the wonderful Emily Blunt in Sicario, Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, Saorise Ronan (nominated once previously for Atonement) so great in Fox Searchlight’s Brooklyn, and Brie Larson in A24’s Room, likely headed to both Telluride and Toronto.
A few days ago a studio consultant told me she was thinking there was room for another stealth-like contender to sneak in before the December 31 cutoff because she thought the field was somewhat light. It’s always possible. At this time last year eventual Best Actress winner Moore’s film Still Alice had yet to be seen, or even sold until shortly after its mid-September premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Among as yet unsold films that could possibly compete if the stars align and they get a willing distributor in time are The Dressmaker with Kate Winslet, Maggie’s Plan with the aforementioned Moore, and The Last Face directed by Sean Penn and starring the aforementioned Theron who is said to be great in it (the fact that they broke up will likely only increase the curiosity factor there).
But based on what I just laid out here, I think this might be one of the stronger, more intriguing Best Actress races in a while — especially if Hollywood wants to recognize some of its longtime veteran stars getting the rare chance to once again play a full-bodied leading role. Looks like a very interesting contest on the female side is starting to percolate and that obviously isn’t always the case. Stay tuned.