Back Row Thoughts – Best? Actress Blitz

When the Oscar nominations came out this past Tuesday, I ended up with more than half the categories already covered, which was definitely a good start. And all told, I only had eight total movies to watch to complete the viewing portion of this year’s Blitz. Despite that, there were two categories that were not only incomplete, but required me to watch a whopping THREE films to finish. One was Makeup & Hairstyling, which was somewhat understandable, because as a “Bake-Off” category, the entries ran the gamut of quality, so missing the overall movies wasn’t the biggest of deals.

The other, however, was Best Actress, one of the fabled “Big Five,” which also includes Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and whichever Screenplay category is appropriate. All the other major areas were taken care of, but this was a glaring exception. Thus, I made it the top priority to clear this category as quickly as possible, which took all of three days.

Now, I’ll get deeper into the core performances that earned each film’s leading lady their recognition when I cover the specific category later in this process. For now, we’re interested in judging the movies as a whole. That said, it’s impossible to truly rate them without including the lead actress, so there will be some analysis of their roles, but I’ll do my best to keep them limited, and within the context of the greater work. However, I can’t exactly hide my opinions, and if you had suspicions based on my use of a question mark in the headline, well, trust your gut. I am definitely skeptical, if not outright dubious, about some of the Acting Branch’s collective thinking on this one.

Parallel Mothers

This is one of those rare moments when a foreign film gets Oscar nominations despite not even being submitted for International Feature. It happened last year with Italy’s The Life Ahead, but that was just for yet another Diane Warren ballad getting a nod for Original Song (although a behind-the-scenes companion piece, What Would Sophia Loren Do? was shortlisted for Documentary Short), so I don’t give it that much credence. Whatever the reason, Spain’s nominating committee submitted The Good Boss (which got shortlisted, but not nominated; in a tease for my Best Actor coverage, I wholeheartedly believe Javier Bardem should have been recognized more for that film than Being the Ricardos), while this work was put on the general ballot, receiving a Best Actress nomination for Penélope Cruz, as well as submitted in the specialty categories, where it got a nod for Original Score.

It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had this been submitted, mostly because it would have pit two films about photographers with complicated viewpoints on the institution of motherhood against each other (the other being The Worst Person in the World). The comparisons would have been most intriguing, though thankfully that’s mostly a surface level similarity. The actual stories are much more divergent.

Pedro Almodóvar directs his regular muse in Cruz in this tale of two women joined by the coincidence of having babies at the same time. Cruz plays Janis, a photographer in her late 30s who gets pregnant via an affair with an archaeologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde from Magical Girl), who agrees to help excavate a mass grave near Janis’ hometown to recover, identify, and properly inter ancestors who were executed by fascists during the Spanish Civil War, a very difficult process shown in The Silence of Others, which was shortlisted for Documentary Feature three years ago. Despite the pregnancy being an accident, and despite the fact that Arturo is married and cannot leave his wife, Janis decides to keep the child and raise it on her own, as she wants to be a mom and comes from a long line of single mothers.

Her roommate in the maternity ward is Ana (Milena Smit of Cross the Line), a teenager from a broken home whose pregnancy was not nearly the result of such a romantic tryst. She’s scared and woefully unprepared for motherhood, and it doesn’t help that her own mother, Teresa (veteran actress Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, who’s appeared in several English-language films such as A Walk in the Clouds and The Machinist) is more concerned with resurrecting her stalled stage acting career and going on tour than in raising her daughter and granddaughter. Janis and Ana become fast friends, bonding over their shared entry into parenthood, and after their daughters spend a day in neonatal observation, the two part ways with the promise to stay in touch and support one another.

Things go well for several months, with Janis doting on little Cecilia and Ana finding an inner tenacity to make things work with her Anita. But things start to go awry when Arturo visits Janis to meet his child, even though given his circumstances, he and Janis decided to separate and she absolved him of any responsibility. He notices that Cecilia’s skin is darker than both of theirs, and she has no features he can recognize from his own family. Janis chalks it up to her father, whom she never knew, but had heard was from South America and had a much deeper skin tone. Still, doubt drives her to take a DNA test, which is but the first step in a spiraling affair that inextricably joins Janis and Ana permanently.

Cruz’s performance is largely subdued until it has to be otherwise, which is something of a hallmark for Almodóvar’s films. As noted in his semi-autobiographical film, Pain and Glory from a couple years ago, he feels that emotive acting is an American affectation and should be avoided as much as possible. As such, Cruz has to get across a lot of the drama via eye movements and stage direction, and she handles the task admirably. Having appeared in several of Almodóvar’s movies, the two have a deep professional understanding of what one needs from the other, and so Cruz saves the emotion for the most key moments in order to sell them even more. Because of this discipline, we in the audience can see how well she copes throughout the moodier scenes, until she reaches a breaking point she can no longer control. Milena Smit, only 25 and new to this style, acquits herself admirably alongside two of Spanish cinema’s titans. Much of the heavy thematic lifting is actually done by Alberto Iglesias’ nominated score, which vacillates from calm, jazzy tones to something bordering on a telenovela when the situation calls for it, an almost Hitchcockian shift in tone to accompany the twists and turns of the story.

Honestly, the biggest problem I have with this movie is its title, and that’s just because I get peeved when vocabulary is misused. The word “parallel” implies two separate but equal paths that never meet. They run forever in the same direction, but do not cross. The only “parallel” in these stories is not between the titular mothers – Janis and Ana – but between their story and the lost family members during the Franco regime, which Janis and Arturo are trying to resurrect for the sake of historical accuracy and healing. Oddly enough, had the film been called Intersecting Mothers, it would have been much more accurate by dictionary definition, and given at least one scene in the film, enticingly literal.

Grade: A-

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Sadly, it’s all downhill from here. This film is up for Makeup as well as for Jessica Chastain’s performance in the title role of former televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. While the former nod is certainly warranted, given the subject’s well-known sense of fashion and beauty (the film opens with a 90s Tammy Faye in a chair with a makeup artist trying to alter her look, but the star notes that by this point most of the eye and lip colors are essentially tattooed in), the latter is most definitely not.

Based on the documentary of the same name from 2000, the film seeks to tell the life story of Tammy Faye’s rise and fall in the world of evangelism, but falls woefully short because it makes the character feel just as cartoonish as her face paint would suggest at times. But even worse, whereas the documentary sought to soften the image of a woman who was often mocked for her appearance, this one goes further by basically declaring her an innocent naïf, lacking any responsibility for anything that happened in her life. It’s one thing to let people know that she wasn’t so bad. It’s quite another to outright lie and pretend she was a victim.

The manipulation is front and center right from the beginning, as a flashback to Tammy Faye’s childhood (where she’s played by Chandler Head) shows her intentionally kept out of her community church by her mother Rachel (Cherry Jones), because being a divorcee, Rachel invites scandal from the parish by admitting to having a child from her “sinful” first marriage. Right away, we can see just how awful this film is going to be to every single person except Tammy Faye. She’s just a sweet girl who wants to worship Jesus like everyone else, but her mother keeps her down (a theme that’s going to pervade the rest of the film). Now, is it right to hide your daughter away? No, especially if you’re doing it to please a church of all things. But it’s by no means abusive, and should not be in any way interpreted as a form of antagonism for Tammy Faye to rebel against. Of course, the moment Tammy Faye sneaks into the church and starts “speaking in tongues,” she’s considered a “miracle child” and welcomed into the pews with open arms, her mother’s “sins” no longer an issue. Yup, we’re in for two more hours of this bullshit, folks.

Fast forward to her days at North Central Bible College, where she meets Jim Bakker, played by Andrew Garfield, who was thankfully able to shake off this role and get nominated for Best Actor for the vastly superior tick, tick… BOOM!. Jim’s grifter persona is on display immediately, as he argues in class that God intends for people to be wealthy, despite all that “blessed are the poor” and “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle” stuff. Jim and Tammy Faye marry quickly, mostly so they can bone, the pair using scripture as foreplay, which is gross for a lot of reasons, and I’m not even religious.

The rest of the film is a cycle of scenes meant to demonize the entirety of the televangelist era (which is a good thing) while also deifying Tammy Faye (bad thing). Vincent D’Onofrio plays Jerry Falwell, who basically only exists to check in periodically and assert a political agenda. Occasionally we get a sexual interlude, be it Tammy Faye’s brief temptation to dry hump her record producer through pants or Jim’s full-on adultery and hush money scandal. The pair use television to pass around a nationwide collection plate, which they then use to live in opulence, Tammy Faye gets sad, then she sings a terrible song about Jesus, because God speaks to her and tells her to do that. Lather, rinse, repeat.

There’s just no hint of irony to any of this. The heavily “don’tcha-know” Midwestern voice Jessica Chastain affects for the role is grating in the extreme, only to be outdone by her horrendous singing voice. I don’t know if it was meant to echo the fact that Tammy Faye couldn’t sing for shit or if that’s a genuine attempt, but no, just no. The binary treatment of everyone in the film as being horrible yet Tammy Faye being a pure good is sickening at best. The political grandstanding on all sides is insulting to our collective intelligence, even worse than the movie’s constant insistence through Tammy Faye that there was any kind of plausible deniability or ignorance when it came to her and Jim’s malfeasance. At least Jim went to jail, though sadly he’s served his time and is right back to his nonsense, recently being ordered by the federal government to stop selling fake medicines that he asserts are COVID cures. You know, because JESUS!

As for the makeup, the team did do a wonderful job on Chastain. Not once did I see one of the most beloved actresses of this generation. Only in the earliest scenes can you recognize even the slightest facial feature that’s her own. Unfortunately, all the effort seems to have stopped there. While side-by-side photos during the credits show competent approximations for the rest of the cast, particularly a young Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), the results for Garfield as Jim Bakker are wildly inconsistent. Sometimes he looks like Bakker, sometimes like a bastardization of Mr. Rogers, and still more times like Dana Carvey’s impression of George H.W. Bush from his days on Saturday Night Live, which is unintentionally ironic, as clips of Carvey as the Church Lady are used in a montage to show how mean everyone was when they made fun of Tammy Faye for being *checks notes* a public figure ripe for parody due to her looks, actions, personality, and literal CRIMES!

It’s one thing to try to rehabilitate someone’s image a bit. It’s quite another to try to make them a hero just because they were the least of the myriad evils in the room. If not for the makeup job, this would be a complete waste.

Grade: D

Spencer

And woefully, dear reader, things still only get worse. I had absolutely no desire to see this movie, and while I do give everything a fair shake, this film is an unmitigated disaster from beginning to end. Had I seen it during calendar year 2021, it would not have been the worst on the list, but only just barely.

Directed by Pablo Larraín, who also directed the “Best Actress Showcase” film Jackie a few years ago, this too is a showcase film for someone to hopefully rack up hardware playing an underappreciated wife of a power political figure. Only in this case, we have Kristen Stewart in the lead role, and Natalie Portman in that earlier work displayed more talent in a sideways glance than Stewart’s entire career to this point.

Set in Christmas 1991, after news broke that Prince Charles (Jack Farthing, looking nothing like his real-life counterpart) was having an affair with his eventual second wife, Camilla Parker Bowles (Emma Darwall-Smith in a brief appearance), the film focuses on Princess Diana attending holiday festivities with the royal family while wishing against anything for a way out of her situation.

Now, there’s potential in that premise for high drama and literal palace intrigue, but Larraín has apparently no interest in that, and Stewart, who has not had a decent performance since Panic Room, does not have the ability to pull that off. Attempting to build a creeping paranoia inside the cavernous Sandringham estate, the film plays mostly like a parody of The Shining, except where that film had its lead slowly going insane as a metaphor for alcoholism, this one skips all that nuance and character development and just has Diana be nuts from moment one. She’s standoffish, bulimic, absolutely refuses to abide by any rules, regulations, or traditions, and is seemingly obsessed with trespassing onto the neighboring estate where she lived as a child to take a tattered coat from a scarecrow (because I guess she too wishes she had a brain) that ostensibly belonged to her father.

This is why having someone like Kristen Stewart in the lead role simply doesn’t work. Throughout her career she’s delivered one performance after another where she’s dead behind the eyes, barely reacts to anything, and stares with her mouth hanging open like she’s about to start drooling. The same goes here. Despite the madness that we’re supposed to expect from her given the atmosphere, she doesn’t show the slightest bit of emotion until nearly a half hour in, and even that’s in a fantasy sequence where she’s LITERALLY CLUTCHING PEARLS! I mean, I can be a masochist, but you don’t need to smack me across the face THAT hard.

And for what it’s worth, we’re supposed to just intuit and understand the context of the situation as read, because we are given very scant exposition, and what we do get doesn’t come until after halfway through. Now normally I’m all about eschewing excessive explanations in favor of visual storytelling, but this is not a situation that calls for it. Those of us who didn’t follow this scandal in all the tabloids wouldn’t necessarily know the exact sequence of events, so all we see is a madwoman traipsing around a royal estate, steadfastly refusing to do anything that’s asked of her like a child, and throwing the occasional hissy fit. She also complains about how cold the place is and why they won’t turn the heat up, an issue that is never resolved and is completely undermined at the end of the film when she “triumphantly” drives away in a top-down convertible… in late December. Fuck you.

Much of the work to even attempt to make this movie watchable comes from Timothy Spall as Major Alistair Gregory, who is in charge of keeping tabs on Diana, and from Sally Hawkins as Diana’s personal dresser, Maggie, who apparently is in love with her. Because why not? Let’s just throw in a lesbian subplot for no reason. It’s not even the most absurd thing about this movie, because on top of everything else we have the ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson).

I’m not saying royal traditions aren’t silly. And I’m certainly not saying that Charles wasn’t a dick for cheating on her. But as a member of the royal family, and really as any government official in any country, you are expected to perform certain duties for the sake of that government, even if it’s a figurehead like Elizabeth II. So to constantly dismiss people, change clothes with the curtains open knowing that paparazzi are skulking about, sneak about the grounds to find a dilapidated building, and declare your intentions to masturbate to well-meaning employees simply trying to do their job just scans as ungrateful and petulant, and saps any sympathy we might have had.

And again, all of this might be forgiven if Stewart was even capable of giving a competent performance, but she’s not. Every emotion and reaction feels perfunctory, as if Larraín had to remind her, “Kristen, you’ve not said anything above a whisper in 10 minutes. Would you mind screaming this line?” By the time she’s actually in her old house contemplating suicide, I’m sitting here chanting, “Do it! Do it! Do it!” like midnight movie crowds at the end of The Room. Honestly, Tommy Wiseau would have given a better turn here. Really the only way to enjoy this movie is to do so ironically, in a “so bad it’s good” kind of way. I mean, am I really supposed to take anything seriously when a montage of happier moments sees Diana wearing a bright yellow pantsuit with a tricorn hat (see above) that makes her look like a pirate captain from a ship made of Twinkies?

All that said, there is one, ONE, truly great scene that prevents this movie from being worse than Eternals. Late in the first act, Diana wakes up her sons, William and Harry (Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry, respectively), shortly after midnight on Christmas morning, to give them presents, as tradition dictates they open their gifts on Christmas Eve rather than the actual holiday due to their official duties (she gives them stuffed lobsters and crabs that she bought at a petrol station, which she follows up with “It’s the thought that counts” even though she just demonstrated that she put no thought into her presents whatsoever; such a garbage script). Afterwards, they play a game together where they pretend to be military officers reporting to one another, including telling the truth about how they really feel about everything that’s going on. It’s the one honest scene of the whole film, showing Diana as a loving mother despite all the nonsense, and humanizes her more than the rest of the proceedings put together. It’s also the only time Stewart seems to act naturally and come across as a real person. It truly is a sweet moment and a well-shot scene, and unfortunately only serves as a hint of what might have been.

That’s about five minutes out of nearly two hours of pure, agonizing tripe. There’s a reason why Stewart didn’t get nominated for a BAFTA, and why this film was completely shut out of that ceremony. This year will mark 25 years since Diana died, and opinions are still heavily divided about her life and how much the royal family bears responsibility for her mental issues, amplified further in the last few years by Harry and Meghan’s departure from their active roles in the clan. But this film somehow united Britons in a way that few things can, because while American critics seemed to like the film, audiences around the world – and especially in the U.K. – found it to be insulting to both the royals and Diana’s memory. The movie begins with on-screen text declaring it “a fable from a true tragedy,” even though there’s no moral to be had or lesson to be learned, unless that moral is that responsibility is irrelevant if it conflicts with the whims of a crazy lady. It’s pure exploitation couched in the derivative guise of a psychological thriller, and it’s disgusting, one of the worst movies I’ve seen in years.

Grade: F

Join the conversation in the comments below! What did you think of these movies? Should any of these lead actresses get serious consideration for an Oscar? Should nominating Kristen Stewart for one before Robert Pattinson be a crime punishable by jail time or worse? Let me know!

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