Unless you like montage reels, the Oscars aren't good for much. But occupying a sort of DMZ between art and commerce, they do serve as a decent tool for gauging the part of American mainstream filmmaking that isn't completely retarded. Case in point: the best-actress category at last weeks ceremony. The award went to a French woman (Marion Cotillard) in a French movie (La Vie en Rose) that few Americans saw. Her co-nominees were an Australian (Cate Blanchett), an Indian-born Englishwoman (Julie Christie) and only two Americans (Laura Linney and Ellen Page), one of whom just turned 21.
Truly, 2007 was a crap time to be an American actress with half a brain, and this year isn't looking any better. Last Friday saw the release of two very different dramas driven by homegrown female talent: The Other Boleyn Girl and Bonneville. That would be good news if the former wasn't cotton candy and the latter wasn't gruel (with a side of extra gruel).
Boleyn is the story of Anne Boleyn and her family as told through the medium of bodice ripping. In it, Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, both often praised for being smarter than the average bear, cat-fight over King Henry VIII (Eric Bana, who apparently refused to don a fat suit for history's sake). If you've seen the preview, you know whats coming: bitchy remarks are issued, breathy make-out sessions take place and cleavage is, well, cleaved. It's a silly movie, though not nearly as silly as the publicity tour executed by its two leads, who have spent every TV and print interview playing a game of "No, you're sexier." (Portman, in particular, can not seem to get 10 words out of her mouth without four of them being about her co-stars rack). It may be a sign of the apocalypse, but it's also smart marketing. Johansson and Portman, after all, are loved by men everywhere. That love is multiplied tenfold when a 0.001-percent chance that they may start playing tonsil hockey at any moment is introduced.
Jessica Lange does not make out with Kathy Bates or Joan Allen in Bonneville, a shame, because the movie could use some excitement (even the tawdry kind). The three actresses play old Mormon ladies on a road trip from Idaho to California to dispose of a dead husband's ashes. Together, they are the best assemblage of female talent on-screen in recent memory which doesn't matter much when all you do is have them stare wistfully at things, say stuff like "Oh, doesn't that just take you back?" and then start laughing in unison for no apparent reason.
Hollywood is failing to cultivate young American actresses and is neglecting its older ones. That wasn't the case back when Ellen Burstyn won an Oscar for 1974's Alice Doesnt Live Here Anymore, beating out Diahann Carroll, Faye Dunaway, Valerie Perrine and Gena Rowlands. Instead, women who look like Scarlett Johansson are handed roles that require them to do little more than look like Scarlett Johansson, while any woman over 45 is left in such a pickle that she jumps at any part with more than 15 lines. Nevermind if it sucks. A shame, because all of us, men and women, could use a lot less suckage at the movies.