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Variety wrote a piece, at the halfway point of the Toronto International Film Festival, asking where all of the compelling parts for women have gone. Admittedly, by this point last year, we had seen such awards-worthy performances as Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep in Blue Jasmine, Gravity and August: Osage County, respectively. This year, the choice parts for actresses appear slimmer, but it’s hard to give the column that much credence after having just seen Reese Witherspoon declare her Oscar candidacy – and leap to the front of the still-developing pack – with Jean-Marc Valle’s wonderful Wild.
An adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir, Wild gives Witherspoon her best role since June Carter Cash, playing a woman at a crossroads who embarks on a three-month solo hike up the Pacific Crest Trail – a nature path that runs from Mexico to Canada. After a terrific opening scene capturing Strayed at a low point – though not her lowest, because there are several "bottoms" coming in Wild -- Valle pushes Witherspoon down her most daunting roads to capture the high-wire life the author led. And Oscar winner Witherspoon absorbs every punch, lands a few of her own jabs, and absolutely goes the distance.
"I don’t know when I became such a piece of shit," Strayed reflects during a trying time, emphasizing that Wild is about a damaged woman reclaiming a life that, so far, she has wasted. Witherspoon hasn’t "wasted" her career by any stretch, though it has been years since she has hoisted a meaty role on her dainty frame – the way Cheryl shoulders her massive hiking backpack – and effortlessly controls each and every facet of a compelling character.
Artful editing on the part of Valle and Martin Pensa finds creative ways to move up and down Cheryl’s difficult timeline. But Wild is an emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual tour de force for leading actress Reese Witherspoon, and her spectacular turn should have her at the front of the current Oscar race in her particular field.
While we’re on the topic of frontrunners, Eddie Redmayne likely punches his ticket into the Best Actor race with his miraculous portrayal of brilliant physicist, cosmologist and author Stephen Hawking in James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything.
(Quick side note: I’m not crazy about breaking everything down into the Oscar categories, particularly in September. Believe me, I understand that the Oscar race is a marathon, not a sprint. But when you see two performances like Reese Witherspoon and Eddie Redmayne at a festival that proudly declares itself a launch pad for just such exercises, it’s going to lead to a column like this. Now, on with the show.)
The Theory of Everything is a romantic, artistic and beautiful story about a challenging love shared between Hawking (Redmayne) and his incredibly supportive spouse, Jane (Felicity Jones). An intelligent love story, The Theory of Everything touches the heart by exploring the sacrifices both parties made to cope with Stephen’s debilitating disease. And it’s in that physical transformation that Redmayne elevates his game.
Yes, the Academy LOVES to reward actors who look like Redmayne when they sacrifice their on-screen appearance for the good of a part. But reducing Redmayne’s portrayal to an Oscar-reaching parlor trick is dismissive and unfair. His transformation, physically and internally, into Hawking is flat- out mesmerizing. He is stunning. This is one of the year's greatest performances, and I believe Redmayne currently is the one to beat in the Best Actor category.
Again, it’s September. Toronto will give way to the New York Film Festival, which will give way to AFI. There are plenty more films to screen, and more performances to enjoy. But for the moment, I believe I’ve seen two contenders… and even two frontrunners.