Meryl Streep has been lamenting the lack of good roles for women for most of her career, most famously in 1990 when she said Hollywood was run by a men’s club of “stupid, greedy people” who seemed determined to erase women from the screen. Who could blame her? She had just turned 40, well past Hollywood’s expiry date for leading ladies. But this year Streep, now 59, starred in the highest grossing musical of all time (Mamma Mia!) and broke records with her 15th Oscar nomination, for Doubt. And finally she is not alone. All those actresses who once complained that Meryl took all the good female roles can relax: suddenly it seems there are more than enough to go around.
All five nominees vying to be named Best Actress at the Oscars this Sunday—Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway, Kate Winslet, and Melissa Leo—play formidable, self-sufficient women who come armed with their own stories. None of these characters is dependent on a man. None is even involved with a man, unless you count Winslet coldly seducing an adolescent virgin in The Reader. These are women on the attack. Compare that to recent years, when the most reliable way for a woman to seduce Oscar was to play a martyr or victim. During the past decade, half the Best Actress winners portrayed damaged souls who died at the end of the movie. And curiously, seven out of 10 played real-life characters—from Nicole Kidman’s Virginia Woolf to Marion Cotillard’s Edith Piaf—as if dreaming up strong fictional heroines was beyond Hollywood’s imagination.
But this past year, we’ve seen an abundance of bold female leads. Only one of the five Best Actress nominees is playing a real-life figure:Jolie as a persecuted mother who battles a corrupt police force in The Changeling. The other characters are all fierce inventions. In Rachel Getting Married, Anne Hathaway immolates her ingenue innocence in the role of a rehab refugee who blazes through her sister’s wedding, upstaging the bride. In Frozen River, Melissa Leo is a white-trash single mother who tries to make ends meet by smuggling Asian immigrants across the U.S.-Canada border in the trunk of her car. Streep plays an intolerant nun on the warpath in Doubt. And in The Reader Winslet brings eerie poise to her role as a former Nazi death camp guard with no concept of remorse.
Aside from these nominated performances, several that went unrecognized were of equal or greater calibre—including Michelle Williams’s mesmerizing portrait of a drifter who loses her dog in Wendy and Lucy, Kristin Scott Thomas’s acerbic turn as an ex-convict in I’ve Loved You So Long, and Sally Hawkins’s parade of giddy insouciance in Happy-Go-Lucky. Again, all these characters are women without men, and with no apparent need for them. The same goes for the supporting roles—with the exception of Marisa Tomei’s stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold in The Wrestler. That contest is led by Penélope Cruz as the ferocious hellcat in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Viola Davis as the distraught mom who tears a strip off Streep’s nun in Doubt.
In this year of the hardened heroine, all the Best Actress candidates play solitary women with a subversive streak. The most radiant stars, Jolie and Hathaway, undermine their glamour onscreen, and are underdogs in a race where glamour may be a handicap. Jolie’s Changeling appeals to Oscar’s fetish for true stories of crusading women, but the soap-opera story of her own celebrity is a turnoff. Hathaway’s breakout in Rachel gave her an early Oscar glow, but it was tarnished by her relapse to movie-star formula in Bride Wars. Streep remains a perennial favourite, yet even she may be bored by the prospect of hearing herself accept another Oscar. That leaves Melissa Leo, the dark horse—and Winslet, who looks like the default winner.
Winslet’s coronation seems overdue. What’s bizarre is that she’s nominated for the wrong movie. She campaigned for supporting actress for The Reader and for lead for Revolutionary Road—a torrid ’50s romance directed by her husband, Sam Mendes, and co-starring her Titanic heartthrob, Leonardo DiCaprio. Actually both roles are leads, but the Golden Globes bought the twisted logic and crowned her twice. Oscar voters had other ideas. They snubbed the high-style decadence of Revolutionary Road in favour of The Reader’s oblique Holocaust angst. You know female roles have toughened when a grim ex-guard from a Nazi death camp garners more sympathy than a glam suburban housewife who’s sadly devoted to an adulterous husband.