© Nicola Dove/Sony Pictures Classics
Is Maggie Smith playing Auntie Mame to Alex Jennings' Patrick in "The Lady in the Van"?
Movie critics has been frantically busy with the pointless task of predicting the outcome of the Oscars, while also covering themselves:
Who will win... Who should win...
Yes, Day of the Oscar is finally here. Sight unseen, the show is already a bore.
Even more tiresome has been the talk of diversity among the nominated movies, or rather lack thereof. It's been non-stop. So much so that no one has bothered to step back and notice that four actresses of, well, advanced age shined in the kind of plum roles that are all too rare these days. Yes, Hollywood was a tad less ageist this year in terms of roles for women. (But not in terms of children: Apologies to "Room's" Jacob Tremblay, hands-down the year's best actor. Sorry about that, Leo.)
The number four may not seem like a lot, but it's four more than modern cinema usually delivers. And it's something of a surprise that apparently Meryl Streep was not a contender for any one of these roles. Not one.
For the past few years, Streep has been the go-to actress for all the great "older woman" roles, even though she has talented contemporaries - Sigourney Weaver, Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, to name but four - who could have easily been cast in roles that went (almost without missing a beat) to Streep. I remember sitting through two stage productions - the musical "Momma Mia!" and the drama "August: Osage County" - and leaning over and making the same comment both times to my wife: "If this is ever made into a movie, the lead will go to Meryl."
The only actress in her league (and age range) who gives Streep a run for her money in terms of role-grabbing is the ubiquitous Helen Mirren.
I'm still surprised "Trumbo's" Hedda Hopper character wasn't snapped up by Meryl. I should probably stop here and confess that I think Streep is terrific (and that she was marvelous in both "Momma Mia!" and "August: Osage County"). Ditto Helen Mirren. But there are other actresses.
Such as Lily Tomlin, Blythe Danner, Charlotte Rampling and Maggie Smith, the four actresses referenced earlier, each of whom had a starring role in a film of some significance in the movie year 2015. By the way, at 67, Streep is the baby of the six actresses mentioned here, age-wise Both Mirren and Rampling are 70; Danner is 73; Tomlin is 77 and Smith is, yes, a venerable, amazing 82.
Lily & Blythe & Charlotte & Maggie. All four were touted for Oscar nominations. Only one made the grade - Charlotte. And only one of them, in my opinion, was actually deserving of a nomination - Maggie.
Tomlin's acclaim came for Paul Weitz's "Grandma," a variation of sorts on Hal Ashby's "Harold and Maude" (1971), with Tomlin playing grandmother and mentor to Julie Garner's granddaughter, offering her no-nonsense and sometimes dubious advice. Tomlin is Tomlin here, ever charming and ever companionable, even when she's being cantankerous - especially when she's being cantankerous. But as much as I enjoyed her work in "Grandma," does it define the idea of an award-worthy performance? We all embraced Lily Tomlin in "Grandma" because, well, we all love Lily Tomlin. And, frankly, Oscars are routinely handed out for that reason.
The same argument can be made about Danner's showcase role in Brett Haley's "I'll See You in My Dreams." Another actress who has lived in the shadow of Streep, the engaging Danner - she of the hearty voice and distinctive stride - has rarely had the lead in a film during her 40-year movie career and has certainly never carried a film. Danner's last great movie role was in Sidney Lumet's ”Lovin Molly” (1974). After that, she largely played love interests and wives, devoting her non-movie hours to television, stage work and raising a family.
So her central role in "I'll See You in My Dreams" was a reason for celebration. And apparently she was celebrated by a lot of critics, who seemed to rediscover her. There was Danner in a role of some substance and worthy of her ability. She was fuuny, she was sad, she was wistful and she even sang. Irresistible. But the film surrounding her had the contours of a TV movie, lacking the kind of heft and credibility that rewards its star with an Oscar nomination. That's what Danner deserves.
It's been heartening to witness the enthusiasm that has greeted Rampling for her performance in Andrew Haigh's "45 Years" because she has rarely been given credit for being a terrific actress. That may be because she is a product of the Carnaby Steet era of British filmmaking when she and other actresses in her orbit (Jacqueline Bissett, Dominique Sanda and Jane Birkin, to name two) were viewed not only as movie stars but also jet-setters.
Rampling turns in a modestly contemplative performance in "45 Years," the kind that rarely gets noticed, and she is out-acted by her co-star, Tom Courtenay.
The film itself has been shrewdly made. A couple, long married, learns that an old girlfriend of the husband's is dead. Actually, she died when he was still dating her. But her body has just been found - more than 45 years later. The situation produces stress, particularly for the wife. Many of the reviews of "45 Years" have speculated that the husband may have murdered the girl (who was pregnant at the time) and that the idea of this disturbs his wife. But none of this is even hinted at in the movie.
The critics have come to this conclusion largely because of Courtenay's odd, complex performance. He seems guilty - at least through the eyes of his wife. And the audience is in league with her - at first. But as the film progresses, our sympathies shift. We become less suspicious of him and begin to see the wife as the one with serious psychological issues.
Rampling is especially memorable, disturbingly so, in the final moments of the film. Again, this is a quiet performance, not really award-worthy but still, I'm thrilled Charlotte Rampling was nominated nevertheless.
Finally, there's Maggie Smith in Nicholas Hytner's "The Lady in the Van," turning in a shamelessly entertaining performance as a homeless woman who asks to park her dilapidated van in the driveway of playwright Alan Bennett (played by Alex Jennings in a clever dual-role) and stays there for 15 years, taking Bennett on a grand, unexpected adventure, alternately exhilarating and frustrating.
I saw this film - and Smith's performance in it - in a contrarian way. From where I sat, her Miss Shepherd is a kind of decrepit Auntie Mame to Bennett's Patrick Dennis, opening doors for him - doors he never even dreamed existed (to quote Mame's final line from the play and movie) - although it is arguable that these are doors through which Bennett had no desire or inclination to pass. He's a most reluctant travel companion.
Smith's homeless lady very much exudes a curious jouissance.
And so, in my personal, solipsistic ceremony, the Oscar goes to Maggie Smith who is at once funny and poignant. And often at the same time.