December 23, 2010

Annette Bening vs. Natalie Portman: Who Deserves Oscar More?

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What is the issue?

Once again, I respectfully dissent. This time, with the Oscar prognosticators, whose general consensus is that Annette Bening is egregiously overdue. I understand where they’re coming from: She’s a first-rate actress and one of the few who has allowed herself to age gracefully onscreen. She also accomplished the seemingly impossible Hollywood task of taming Warren Beatty. But how overdue is she?

First, the facts. Fact #1: Bening has been nominated three times and is likely to once again make the short list for The Kids Are All Right. Fact #2: Her best bid yet was in 2005, the year she was a Best Actress nominee for Being Julia. Though it fell slightly short of being the kind of performance that’s usually called iconic, or career-defining, she was at least as deserving as The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s Kate Winslet and certainly more so than Hilary Swank, who won her second Oscar for Million Dollar Baby five years after her Boys Don’t Cry breakthrough beat out Bening in American Beauty.

Two years ago, Winslet finally got hers. Though it was for the wrong role (The Reader), Winslet was the epitome of overdue. She had starred in and been nominated for the biggest movie ever (Titanic), and had been nominated six times in 13 years, with at least two of those performances (Sense and Sensibility and Sunshine) being quintessentially Oscar-worthy and three being in Best Picture nominees.

Then there’s Julianne Moore, Bening’s costar in The Kids Are All Right, who, interestingly, is getting no Oscar buzz this year, and was up against Swank and Bening in 2000 for The End of the Affair. She’s been nominated four times, was once an early season favorite (for 2002’s Far from Heaven, beforeThe Hour‘s Nicole Kidman won by — or for — a nose), and probably should have taken the gold for Boogie Nights. She also has been un-nominated several times when she should have been (Short CutsSafeMagnolia).

Moore might be more overdue for an Oscar win than any actress who still has a good chance of getting one, but her A Single Man snub last time around and her likely second consecutive one suggests that Oscar might be over her, sort of the way he tossed aside Sigourney Weaver — a non-nominee for The Ice StormA Map of the World and Death and the Maiden in the ’90s — after three rapid ’80s nominations. At least Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close, both multiple nominees who should be Oscar winners, gave up on their own.

But what about Bening? As I said before, she’s a great actress. I love her in practically everything she’s in, but I think she’s getting Oscar attention this year for the wrong movie. Good as she was in The Kids Are All Right, to me, her performance in Mother and Child was more moving, more emotionally demanding, more nomination-worthy. That said, I still wouldn’t call her overdue, not the way Deborah Kerr, Barbara Stanwyck, Natalie Wood and Thelma Ritter, all multiple nominees who never won a competitive Oscar, were. Not when she works so sporadically, and has yet to deliver a truly iconic, career-defining performance that will be remembered and talked about in 20 years.

And that, folks, is precisely what Natalie Portman does in Black Swan. Whether or not you love the movie, it’s hard to deny that Portman gives the kind of bravura this-movie-wouldn’t-have-worked-without-her performance that people will remember, the kind that wins precursor awards, the kind that snatches Oscar from the grip of older frontrunner actresses (sort of the way La Vie en Rose‘s Marion Cotillard, then 32, pushed aside Away from Her‘s Julie Christie, then 66, in 2008).

Portman may be just 29, but she’s no less due than 52-year-old Bening. To be honest, I’m not as much of a Portman fan as I probably should be. (Before Black SwanCold Mountain was the only time I really loved her in anything). I’ve always found her acting style to be too measured, too controlled, too perfect, too full of effort, which, ironically, is exactly what it needed to be in Black Swan, until her character’s descent into madness, which Portman negotiated beautifully. Still, her work has been praised consistently over the years, and she has age on her side: Oscar likes his Best Actresses young, and this is around the time in a career when he usually lets them take him home (see Reese Witherspoon, Charlize Theron and Gwyneth Paltrow, for starters).

The bright side for Bening: If the 2011 Academy Awards on February 27 end up being another Annette vs. Hilary showdown (it’s highly unlikely, but judging from Swank’s surprise Screen Actors Guild nomination for Conviction, not entirely outside the realm of possibility), she won’t have to worry about losing a third time to the same actress. TC mark

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