Best Actress 2005
Winner: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line
Nominees: Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents
Felicity Huffman, Transamerica
Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice
Charlie Theron, North Country

The Field: ★ ★ ★ ★
One of history's weakest: Dench and Theron ignited few imaginations, Knightley feels premature despite a well-judged performance, and Witherspoon adds an Oscar to her baffling array of critics' prizes for a charismatic but thin turn in a smallish part. My question: why couldn't the never-Oscared and glowingly reviewed Joan Allen (see below) get any foothold in a field this weak?

Ranking Oscar's Ballot
My Pick:
Felicity Huffman, Transamerica ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
In this Desperate Housewives era of Felicity Huffman's late-blooming fame, it bothers me that I haven't seen her act with the clean, simple, but memorable precision of her game-show PA in Magnolia or her mysterious operative in David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner. Transamerica opens wide the door to Huffman's weak spot as an actress, her tendency to be affected and technical at the expense of seeming honest or soulful. At the same time, though, she has two major assets on her side. For one thing, Bree Daniels, her character in Transamerica, actually needs to be played as a performance-in-progress, as she assumes her own vision of femininity and farcically deceives her son along the way. For another, Huffman is, after all, a gifted and sometimes kookily inspired actress, and she has a knack for absurdism that doesn't come at the expense of her characters' intelligence. I also appreciated her warmth and directness in the closing scenes, even if the hospital scene was a bit much. Huffman's Bree had me rooting for the character and the actress, for their good humor, their bravery, and their gift of rising to important occasions.

From There:
Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I didn't want to see Pride & Prejudice, and I didn't want to see Keira Knightley in it. The opening credit sequence, the first of the film's many long tracking shots, finds Knightley's Lizzie Bennet strolling through her bucolic town in a stiff, strutty, sharp-shouldered way that seemed all wrong for the character and for the world of the piece. It's literally, however, her only misstep in a performance that is otherwise very charismatic and full of feeling, while also catching the lightning of Lizzie's precocious smarts, her decency, and her propensity toward brittleness and snap judgments. I believed that she would walk all the way to the Bingleys' to fetch her ailing sister, and I understood the act as both conscientious and uncouth in a way I usually don't. (In other versions, that scene only seems to highlight how much more pragmatic and purer of motive Lizzie is than everyone else.) I have no idea why Wright filmed that low-angle shot of Knightley's scimitar jaw being wind-swept on the edge of a cliff. Her inner life isn't as plush as Jennifer Ehle's, but it's prickly and lucid and credible, and she insinuates herself utterly into the ensemble and the style of direction. Hardly a genius, she's still an enormous asset, and she makes good acting look easy, when I'm sure she was scared to death the whole time.

Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Witherspoon's performance had the exact opposite effect on me as Knightley's did: I was totally bewitched by her offhanded entrance, as we espy her June Carter in the wings of the Opry before Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny Cash even sees her. Through the whole sequence, including her first vocal performance, Witherspoon's body, her voice, her unstrained face, her way of wearing her clothes, and her warmth as she first meets Johnny are the definition of down-home grace. She also has a beautiful scene with Cash in a bar, where her voice is almost shot, but her heart is wide open. She's not a seductress or a gamine but a fellow traveler, kind but not saintly, and to the Opry born. But then, she's Witherspoon again: self-regarding and diligent even in scenes as simple as June resting her weary head on her hand as she sits in her stalled car, nervous about returning home. She wears her costumes, even her daywear, like they're costumes, wears her wigs like they're wigs, holds her props like they're props. Anyway, the script finally consigns the character to standard biopic duties, as a bright spot on Johnny's lonely, embattled road to salvation, and she handles lots of conventional scenes with perfectly conventional aplomb, but there's little here to plumb. June Carter Cash isn't written or acted as a full-bodied woman, and after a promising start, she becomes an audition piece for an older, spryer, more Southern, but equally self-satisfied Reese Witherspoon that I'm still not convinced I want.

Charlize Theron, North Country ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Because the Academy collectively forgot in 2005 that they love Joan Allen, and they somehow only noticed Amy Adams in Junebug, and they were more entranced by Catherine Keener's tactful reserve in Capote than her jubilant accessibility in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, they stuck themselves with nominating some obligatory performances by smart actors passing tests that everyone knew they could pass. Theron's one example; while she's better and more ambitious than her movie, insisting on her right to play an ambivalent character rather than what director Niki Caro often wants (a rhetorical figure), she isn't afforded the narrative or emotional range of a truly great part, and the contagious ethos of her hardworking character has yielded a performance of professionalism and integrity, but not necessarily greatness. I'm happy to applaud Charlize for her work in this film, but I didn't think we needed to do it in the Kodak Theatre.

Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents ★ ★ ★ ★
Meanwhile, Judi Dench, scores her fifth nomination in nine years (with a sixth to follow in 2006), and, along with her standard-issue churl in Chocolat, it's bound to be the nomination that everyone forgets when they're trying to recall the list of what she got nominated for. Mrs. Henderson (did she have a first name?) is bossy and regal in the way that pleases cinema crowds even though we wouldn't possibly put up with a person like this, or want to, in our real lives. Dench plays along with the silly script rather than finding something interesting in it, and her fifth-act graduation as a pro-war public speaker is as specious in performance as it is in concept. Simple frippery; had the movie opened in June, she wouldn't have had a chance.

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

My Favorites from 2005:
(Favorites in Major Categories)
(Favorites in All Categories)

My Pick: Joan Allen, The Upside of Anger
Nominees: Jennifer Connelly, Dark Water
Nominees: Embeth Davidtz, Junebug
Nominees: Vera Farmiga, Down to the Bone
Nominees: Natalie Press, My Summer of Love

Visit the 2005 Nick's Flick Picks Honorees for commentary on these five performances.

Honorable Mentions: Sasha Andres, She's One of Us; Catherine Keener, The 40-Year-Old Virgin; Dina Korzun, Forty Shades of Blue; Emmanuelle Devos, Kings and Queen; Felicity Huffman, Transamerica; Connie Nielsen, Brothers; Juliette Binoche, Caché; Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice; Sibel Kekilli, Head On (Gegen die Wand)

Further Research: Ronit Elkabetz, Or (My Treasure); Katerina Golubeva, The Intruder; Dana Ivgy, Or (My Treasure); Naomi Watts, Ellie Parker

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