While we spent the majority of the 2014 lamenting the dearth of strong lead actress performances, this year our attention is turning to what happens when there are a surfeit of good roles for women.
A number of Oscar hopefuls feature powerful female characters at their core: Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Todd Haynes’ period love affair Carol, Brie Larson in the harrowing kidnap-drama Room, Charlotte Rampling in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, Blanchett again in the Dan Rather scandal tale Truth, Alicia Vikander in the transgender drama The Danish Girl, Sandra Bullock in the political drama Our Brand is Crisis, Emily Blunt in the drug cartel thriller Sicario, and Kate Winslet in the Danny Boyle-directed Steve Jobs, to name a few. (Jennifer Lawrence, star of David O. Russell’s so-far-unseen Joy, is expected to contend as well.) All arguably could be featured in the lead-actress category but with only five slots, Oscar strategists are adjusting expectations to better handicap the outcomes.
The Weinstein Co. announced it would campaign Mara in the supporting category for her role as the young shop girl who engages Blanchett’s Carol in a torrid love affair. Universal Pictures, meanwhile, contends that Winslet is the supporting player as Joanna Hoffman in Steve Jobs. And Focus Features recently confirmed that Alicia Vikander, who plays the wife of Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) in The Danish Girl will also go for a supporting actress prize.
The argument for all three actresses winding up in the supporting category is that their performances reinforce the leading one. It’s a reasonable claim to make: Steve Jobs is centered on the psyche of the Apple co-founder (played by Michael Fassbender), the titular character in Carol is the one played by Blanchett, and The Danish Girl ostensibly focuses on Lili’s transition and gender confirmation surgery. But all three women receive practically equal screen time as their counterparts, and their characters undergo as much of an evolution throughout the respective films; each performance feels more like a co-lead rather than a supporting one. (In the case of The Danish Girl, the film both starts and ends with Vikander, and her character, Gerda Wegener, is referenced to as “The Danish Girl” during the course of the movie.)
We have become so accustomed to categorizing a typical supporting actress role as one that’s relatively small, often only three-to-five impactful scenes that never really add up to much screen time but make their mark via the magnitude of the performance. But this year is an embarrassment of riches, with many performances filling up the screen as much with their depth as with their length.
What does it all mean? For starters, that we can — and should — demand more for supporting actress roles. And category positioning aside, that’s not a bad thing to celebrate.