Oscar scouting report, best actress: Davis, Streep, Mara, Williams, Close

Meryl Streep in Iron Lady. ()
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For Oscar season, Capital will evaluate the nominees in each category. This week: Best Actress.

Viola Davis as "Aibileen" in The Help

As Aibileen, the strong yet pained maid in The Help, Viola Davis is front and center. It's about time. She's been doing phenomenal supporting work on Broadway and in film for years, and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Doubt (2008).

Despite the issues I had with The Help, Davis' performance has undeniable power. When alone with her young charge, Aibileen is open and playful and free. She shows us that she has actually loved all of those white kids she raised. Aibileen is the kind of woman who can't help but love children. When in the presence of adult white women, Aibileen strives to become invisible, hovering on the sidelines of bridge parties.

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There is great anger in Aibileen, coming from her unfair situation in life, as well as the tragic loss of her own son. But that anger has nowhere to go. It cannot be expressed. Davis, a beautiful woman, is plain and stodgy here, clumping along the sidewalks in her boxy maid's uniform, a stalwart and courageous figure.

Octavia Spencer, as Minny, the rebellious maid, has a more crowd-pleasing part. Minny speaks her mind, she sasses back, she doesn't hide her feelings. Viola Davis has a tougher job. She must show the pain underneath the facade. Her anger is on a long, slow burn. Davis speaks in a slow, careful voice, for fear of inadvertently revealing her true feelings. I have never heard her use that voice before.

She never overplays the part, and her performance is, quietly, the roiling emotional center of the film.

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady

Iron Lady is not a great movie, but it is among Meryl Streep's best performances, second only to her great comedic performance as Madeline Ashton in Death Becomes Her. Meryl Streep has not won an Oscar since 1983, although she has been nominated 12 times since then. Enough already. It's getting embarrassing. Give the lady the gold. She's earned it.

Rooney Mara as "Lisbeth Salander" in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

It's not an easy thing to portray a well-known character from literature. It is even more difficult when there has already been an acclaimed film adaptation of the novel in recent memory. But Rooney Mara stalks onto the screen as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, quivering with barely repressed rage, decked out in mohawk and tattoos, and becomes a star in her own right.  

The rage is interesting, even more so because of Lisbeth's antisocial personality. But what makes the performance special is the fragility Mara manages to reveal beneath the intimidating exterior. She is barely given any language to explain why she is the way she is, and that helps give the performance its power and mystery. Everyone she encounters has to look at her twice. Everyone wonders what she is thinking.

The best performances never reveal all. They hold something back, to draw the audience in. Rooney Mara's portrayal of Lisbeth Salander was one of the most talked-about performances of the year. The film suffers when she exits the action. She is such an unforgettable presence that she lingers across the screen like an afterimage, even in the scenes when she does not appear. That's a star.

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn

Marilyn Monroe is one of the most imitated women in the world: the sensual shimmy, the breathy voice, the sleepy eyes. But what is often missed in imitations is Monroe's twinkle of humor and mischief (a huge part of her appeal, perhaps the most important part). The humor let us know that Monroe was in on the joke. It made her silly, and it made her a good comedienne. Billy Wilder, who directed Monroe in one of her most beloved performances in Some Like It Hot said that although her behavior was often infuriating to him (not showing up on time, not showing up at all), she "always knew where the joke was" in the script. That comic sensibility cannot be taught. You either have it, or you don't.

Michelle Williams, nominated in 2011 in the same category for her shattering performance in Blue Valentine, does an uncanny imitation of Monroe that digs deeper than the familiar surface trappings. I admit I was skeptical. I'm a Monroe fan. I would never think of Michelle Williams and Marilyn Monroe in the same breath. They seem like totally different types. But Williams has a genius for going deep, and from the opening musical sequence in My Week with Marilyn, it is clear that Williams understands Monroe's magic as a performer to such a level that she was able to embody it. That's no easy feat.

There's one scene where she gives a press conference for the voracious London reporters, all agog that Marilyn has arrived in England to film The Prince and the Showgirl with Lawrence Olivier (played by Kenneth Branagh, nominated as Best Supporting Actor). Marilyn is in her element in that chaotic environment, with questions being screamed at her, and if we were predisposed to think of Monroe as some poor victim, our expectations would be dashed by watching Williams manage that press conference. Every question thrown at her gets a witty response, every seemingly sexist remark is turned around into a triumph by Monroe.

This was how Monroe operated. This was why she was so well-loved.  

While My Week with Marilyn certainly delves into Monroe's formidable demons, what I am left with is the image of Michelle Williams as Monroe batting off the joshing questions of reporters, with good humor and a hint of mischief. She was a survivor.

Glenn Close as "Albert Nobbs" in Albert Nobbs

Janet McTeer easily walks off with Albert Nobbs (and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for it). Every time she enters the action, things get exciting, things get real. Glenn Close plays Albert, a woman who lives her life as a man, while working as a servant and waiter in an upscale Dublin hotel.

Close was the engine behind getting the film produced (she had done the play), and while her interest in getting it made is understandable, the nomination for Best Actress is completely baffling. Close's Albert Nobbs is mainly a frozen statue of repression whose only moment of abandon seems to come when she puts on a dress and runs across a beach. Nobbs remains, at all times, the least interesting character onscreen.

The screenplay (by Glenn Close and Irish novelist John Banville) did not deal adequately with the transition from stage to screen, and saddles Albert Nobbs with talking out loud to herself in her room, so we can know the character's inner thoughts. "If I save up enough money, I can open up my own shop," she says out loud to herself.

This may work onstage, but it is tremendously awkward on screen if the context is not set up properly for it. Close is frozen, timid and fearful. There is nothing felt about the performance. She stays on the surface. Was she nominated just for dressing up as a man? Is that all it takes?