Monday, October 08, 2007

Making a Case for Mrs. Coulter

We're into the second week of October, and by this time, we should have a pretty good idea of at least who has the greatest potential to break into the ranks of acting nominees. At this time, in last year's Supporting Actress category, Jennifer Hudson was practically a lock, Cate Blanchett was not so far behind, and Abigail Breslin and the Babel girls were looking like real possibilities. This year, however, the two actress categories are suffering from a serious and unusual lack of serious contenders whose performances scream Oscar. The closest thing we have to a lock (though of course, the Dreamgirls experience last year has taught us that there's no such thing as that) for the Supporting nom is Blanchett's bravura turn as Bob Dylan in I'm Not There.

Way before Blanchett started getting buzz for her performance, veteran actress Jennifer Jason Leigh got the most Oscar-related mentions for her role in
Margot at the Wedding. In the face of less than stellar reviews for the film, Leigh has lost a significant amount of pre-Oscar buzz, despite general praise for her performance. Of course, the film's wider release on 16 November can improve her chances for a first nom.

In the last ten years, four times has the list of nominees in this category included two actresses from the same film (Almost Famous, Gosford Park, Chicago, Babel). The same could very well happen to one of this year's hottest tickets, Atonement. Any one or two (or all?) of the three actresses who play Briony Tallis can get into the nominees' list, with Saoirse Ronan (13-year-old Briony) and Vanessa Redgrave (elder Briony) having the edge over Romola Garai (18-year-old), coincidentally the earliest to get the advanced buzz. Ronan is the safest bet; there's most likely going to be at least one of them up there, and this category is friendly to newcomers and very young thespians. The trend of multiple nominations for one film could have worked for Samantha Morton and Abbie Cornish of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, had the film not been generally panned. Blanchett's turn as the Queen getting a nom is being doubted now. What more Morton's and Cornish's chances? The resounding praise for Sean Penn's Into the Wild can bring either Catherine Keener or Marcia Gay Harden or both into the thick of the competition.

Two much-buzzed performances have yet to be seen, and these are from prestige films that seem destined for Oscar glory. Both Helena Bonham Carter in
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson's War have plum roles in their respective projects. But both are hinging on the success of their films (iffy at best at this moment, though the trailer for Sweeney Todd sure looks good), and neither one is sure to be campaigned for this category and not for lead.

So aside from Blanchett, and maybe Ronan and Leigh, anyone, from the actresses named above to Susan Sarandon of In the Valley of Elah (or, dare I say, Enchanted?), Tilda Swinton of Michael Clayton, and Amy Ryan of Gone Baby Gone could sneak into the top five.

There is one actress who has been mentioned and is still in the lists of many prognosticators, but at this moment her chances are generally being dismissed. Seeing the wide-open nature of the category this year, I am now making a case for a highly possible nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Nicole Kidman, for her turn as Mrs. Coulter in
His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass.

For the uninitiated, Mrs. Coulter is, as suggested by the trailers and film synopses, somewhat of a villain, cold and manipulative, seeking to use Lyra (the heroine, played by Dakota Blue Richards) for her own gains. And yet Mrs. Coulter is far from being a one-dimensional villain. Her character has great depth, and though the second and third books flesh her out more completely, her substance will (should) be expressed quite well in the first film.

In her bid for an Oscar nomination, there are of course things working against, and for, such a possibility.


1) Mrs. Coulter is a villain. As I had discussed in a previous article ("Best Supporting...Villainess?"), women playing nasty have not had much success gaining traction in the Supporting Actress category. The category is far friendlier to long-suffering wives than it is to women who'd sooner ditch their husbands than be martyrs. Kidman has to play on the depth and multi-dimensionality of Mrs. Coulter's character to even be considered for a nod.

2) Mrs. Coulter is a villain in a FANTASY movie. The Academy is notorious for passing up on performances in fantasy movies, with Alec Guiness (Star Wars) and Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) being rare exceptions (and losers in their respective years). The character has to be extremely iconic and memorable to be considered for a nomination despite being in an imagined setting. Could that be said about Mrs. Coulter?

3) Julia Roberts, and other actresses from yet unseen prestige films. As mentioned above, there are still big names and former nominees with Oscar-targeted films coming out to potentially wow audiences. Add to the bunch former nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno for Love in the Time of Cholera. If former winner Roberts and Bonham Carter decide to run in the supporting category, they'll likely get slots in the top five and diminish Kidman's (and the others') chances. That is, unless Charlie Wilson's War and Sweeney Todd crash and The Golden Compass does not.

4) A nomination for for Kidman is highly dependent on how the film performs. If the film is anything less than fantastic and universally praised (say, less than 85% on the Rotten Tomatoes scale), Kidman's turn will likely be ignored. The leading contenders (Blanchett, Ronan, Leigh, Roberts, Bonham Carter) only have to hope that their films are not critical disasters (RT scores of 65% or higher would do just fine). It's all about what type of film they have; Kidman's is an effects-heavy fantasy adaptation that must work extremely well with both audiences and critics to be taken seriously by the Oscar voters.


1) It's Nicole Kidman. She has been nominated twice, with a win for The Hours. While this means that the Academy does not owe her anything (heck, she won for wearing a prosthetic nose!), it's also indicative of general Oscar favor for Ms. Kidman. Though of course, there is the matter of the stinging snub for her performance in Cold Mountain (co-stars Jude Law and Renee Zellweger were nominated), not to mention having been ignored for strong roles in Birth, Dogville, and, as far back as 1995, To Die For. Since winning in 2002, Kidman has been playing strong roles in small films and ignored for them. Perhaps the Academy does owe her after all.

2) She might very well get a Golden Globe nomination. The HFPA, the people behind the Golden Globes, have SERIOUS love for Nicole Kidman, having given her seven nominations and three wins since 1992 and even citing her for two films (Moulin Rouge! and The Others) in 2002. She will most likely get a nomination in the Best Actress - Comedy/Musical category for her performance in Margot at the Wedding. Given the HFPA's predilection toward Kidman, they just might give her a nod in the Supporting Actress category, which would give her a big boost for the Oscar nom.

3) Mrs. Coulter is elegant, regal, and juicily nasty. Her having been cast as Mrs. Coulter is a real casting dream, a decision loved by fans of the book, much like McKellen's as Gandalf. The role fits Kidman perfectly: just like her Hollywood persona, Mrs. Coulter is stylish and strikingly beautiful, all glitzy glamor. Add to the mix a cruel streak and the Oscar voters might find it hard to resist placing her in this year's top five. It sure would make the actress categories significantly more interesting.

4) The role is a co-lead. If there is any type of role aside from long-suffering wife that this category favors, it's the co-lead, the role that could have worked in the lead category but was bumped to supporting for whatever reason. Julianne Moore (The Hours), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago), Cate Blanchett (Notes on a Scandal), and any of the long-suffering wives are examples of this. Straddling the line between co-lead and supporting definitely applies to the role of Mrs. Coulter. Campaigning for lead would be suicide, so she should stick to this category.

5) It's a big film. The Golden Compass will likely be a major player in the technical categories of the Oscars and be a major box-office draw. It is also based on a critically praised, beloved novel. If the film adaptation ends up being a resounding critical success (see Against item #4 above), it can get attention even in the major categories, such as Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actress for Kidman.

So am I completely sold on a nomination for Kidman? Not quite yet. All I'm saying is that it is a definite possibility that must be given more attention, and so in my next prediction update, Kidman will be in my list of top 10 potential nominees. We'll know pretty soon if I'm just being overly optimistic about her chances.

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