Best Actress 2003
Winner: Charlize Theron, Monster
Nominees: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider
Diane Keaton, Something's Gotta Give
Samantha Morton, In America
Naomi Watts, 21 Grams

The Field: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
An Oscar prognosticator's joyride, this category took forever to resolve itself from a field of more than a dozen viable competitors, in vehicles as unlikely as a Nancy Meyers comedy, a Quentin Tarantino grindhouse pastiche, and several pictures headlined by teens. From all that exciting rivalry emerged a very unusual and surprising field, but alas, not a sterling one. Some overdone, some underdone, some deja vu from Diane Keaton—but, thank goodness, one landmark performance that survived divisive reviews to cop the prize. (In many other years, I think Theron would have lost.)

Ranking Oscar's Ballot
My Pick:
Charlize Theron, Monster ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
From my Favorite Films Countdown entry on Monster (reviewed here in full): "Aileen Wuornos is a catastrophe with a phone number and an address, though even these change from day to day. Her will is equally consuming in its benign and its lethal actions. Theron, in her robust embodiment, barely preserves her balance while striding through her unimaginable life—just watch how Aileen rides a bicycle or runs from a car-wreck. Here, as in Nick Broomfield's haunting documentaries, looking into Aileen's eyes and trying to find the person behind them is like looking into a faucet in hopes of seeing the water. That Monster can tell a reasonable facsimile of her story, revealing her dilemmas while keeping her so frighteningly opaque, and that we still can see the value and the relevance of her profoundly shameful case: what could be a taller order?" Theron more than fills the order; she re-writes it, makes it grander. Skulking behind a cigarette, lobbying for a job she'll never get in a million years, stampeding out of the office when she acknowledges this impossibility, hitch-hiking, furiously cleaning the oven, blow-drying her hair into straw, paying for carnival tickets, teaching a girl to roller-skate, loving this girl, grasping that she has betrayed her, killing, seeing, feeling how she is seen: Theron captures it all, in outsized strokes of mad theatricality that are, at the same time, acutely and tragically revealing of a rare and frightful person.

From There:
Samantha Morton, In America ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Morton's nod for In America was surprising in every way that a major Oscar nomination can be surprising. She wasn't on the lists of any of the major precursor awards; In America wasn't a major contender in other categories, or an appreciable hit; she didn't easily classify as leading or supporting; she'd been passed over for other, richer, or more visible roles, as recently as Morvern Callar and Minority Report in 2002; the character is so muted and backgrounded for most of the movie that Oscar voters typically wouldn't have noticed her; the young actresses playing her daughters cut into her buzz; she's unexpectedly cast against her outer-spacy type, but she never flaunts that fact; she's literally in the background and just as literally out of focus in many of her shots, maybe even most of them; a bevy of other contenders, most of them bigger stars than Morton, swirled around the race and enjoyed big pushes from their studios; and she had even proved with her T-shirt and lank locks at the 1999 ceremony that she didn't know how to dress like a real Oscar nominee. Who comes back from odds like that? I'd warrant it's the most surprising Best Actress nomination since Susan Sarandon's for Atlantic City for 1981, and just like Sarandon's, it's a happy reward for a performance that amply improves lots of scenes that are focused elsewhere. She interacts gorgeously with Paddy Considine, approximating an honest-to-God marriage that isn't ecstatic or ruinous, and she does it best with stray looks, reaction shots, and crucial, quiet contributions to sequences like the carnival-booth gambit. In fact, Morton's work verges on the gimmicky, or at least on the overfamiliar, when she gets a big freakout in a hospital bed. Elsewhere, though, she's an emblem of perfectly gauged modesty.

Diane Keaton, Something's Gotta Give ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Testing Keaton's performance by her plucky but unilluminating role as Erica Barry, playwright, divorcée, and charming champion of turtlenecks, the actress triumphs as she usually does whenever her vehicles aren't saturated with the need to rehash her comic mannerisms. She is fully engaging and eminently desirable, and without dropping the ball on her fetching line deliveries, she stages a concurrent, congenial comedy of thoughtful delight on her face, enjoying the mutual seductions by Jack Nicholson and a winning Keanu Reeves. She wonders, visibly, where all this attention has sudenly come from, and how she'll funnel the experience back into one of her plays, and whether (or when) the other shoe will drop. She also nails a memorable heartbreak scene on a sidewalk, but we also suffer some heartbreak, during an evilly long scene where writer-director Nancy Meyers forces Keaton through a week of crying at her typewriter; in a well-intended but wrongly executed first roll in the hay between Keaton and Nicholson; in a nude scene that's half embarrassed of itself. Entire scenes pass without disrupting the pace or the appeal of what she's offering, but also without placing a single demand on her talents. Erica Barry doesn't approach Keaton's best work (which has largely been in dramas like Reds and Shoot the Moon, even though everyone remembers her as a comedienne). She more than acquits herself,, even acquits the movie, but the nomination rewarded Keaton's consistent, ever-renewable, under-utilized abilities more than it did this particular turn, I think.

Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
From the opening lines of her voice-over narration, Keisha Castle-Hughes makes clear that her character is self-possessed to the point of solemnity, inwardly forlorn about her life even as she chases a remarkable goal and even as she maintains her loving allegiance to family members who disappoint her, sometimes even disparage her. The actress encapsulates this preternatural melancholy quite well, and she has a doozy of a crying scene while trying to recite a prize-winning speech she has written about the distinguished lineage of her rueful family. The line between Paikeia and Keisha seems a little thin here, but it's an arresting spectacle, buoying the movie above writer-director Niki Caro's frequent sins of over-emphasis and crude binarizations. Still, Castle-Hughes sustains a mood more than she builds a character, and a second run-through of Whale Rider betrays how often her director is coaxing her through a limited range of admittedly affecting expressions. Castle-Hughes serves the movie well (indeed, she does it many favors), but holding her to the standard of Oscar-level acting seems like yet another unfair load to foist upon this plaintively burdened character.

Naomi Watts, 21 Grams ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Film devotés will always know Naomi Watts' name because of Mulholland Drive, a film that profited from and probably served to reinforce her metatheatrical style of acting. At nearly every moment of the Lynch movie, and not just in her celebrated "audition" scene, Watts seemed to derealize her performance and play up its artifice even as she plumbed further and further layers of caustic emotion. Unfortunately, nearly every role Watts has played since her breakthrough in Mulholland Drive has thrown a cloud on that initial success; regardless of the role, she almost always acts such that we observe her acting, though she appears to believe she has immersed herself realistically in the character. She isn't the first actor to win a nomination for one of her least convincing performances, and it's not her fault that the relentless color schemes and lighting concepts of 21 Grams seem to sentence her to such dour miserabilism—indeed, to evoke this misery before she even gets a first crack at her scenes. But still, Watts wallows, in a particularly strained way, bellowing and popping the veins out in her face, and slaking the power in scenes that might have worked better or said more if she dialed back her own hysteria. When she's quiet, as when Sean Penn's character makes strange small talk with her about her swimming posture, she can anchor a scene in an interesting mood. But much more frequently, she's stressful to watch, and disappointingly undisciplined.

Who gets your vote in this field, and on my dream ballot below? VOTE HERE!

My Favorites from 2003:
(Favorites in Major Categories)
(Favorites in All Categories)

My Pick: Charlize Theron, Monster
Nominees: Sarah Bolger, In America
Nominees: Jamie Lee Curtis, Freaky Friday
Nominees: Valérie Lemercier, Friday Night
Nominees: Connie Nielsen, demonlover

Visit the 2003 Nick's Flick Picks Honorees for commentary on these five performances.

Honorable Mentions: Tilda Swinton, Teknolust; Scarlett Johansson, Girl with a Pearl Earring; Catherine O'Hara, A Mighty Wind; Toni Collette, Japanese Story; Agnes Bruckner, Blue Car; Gwyneth Paltrow, Sylvia; Cate Blanchett, The Missing; Samantha Morton, In America; Meg Ryan, In the Cut; Evan Rachel Wood, Thirteen

Further Research: Nathalie Baye, The Flower of Evil; Romola Garai, I Capture the Castle; Juliane Köhler, Nowhere in Africa; Chiara Mastroianni, Carnage; Sarah Polley, My Life without Me; Sonja Richter, Open Hearts; Paprika Steen, Open Hearts; Tilda Swinton, The Statement

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