The Big O: Post-Toronto, the Oscar Picture Clears – and It Isn’t a Pretty One for Actresses

nullWe were so spoiled.

Last year, there was a rich variety of performances to celebrate in the lead-actress Oscar category. The choices were so abundant, in fact, that admirable efforts like Emma Thompson’s lady author-as-human hurricane in Saving Mr. Banks were forced out of contention.

But that was then. This is now. And the forecast is predicting a bit of a dry spell in awards-worthy showcases for female talent this year.

That is my takeaway after sampling many of the movies seen as likely Oscar players at the Toronto International Film Festival, which ended its 11-day run over the weekend.

Titles such as Foxcatcher, The Theory of Everything, Mr. Turner, and The Imitation Game solidified their chances in the best-picture arena. All these fact-based accounts offer expansive opportunities for their lead actors to spread their wings: Steve Carell in a change-of-pace role as disturbed billionaire John du Pont; Eddie Redmayne as disabled astrophysicist Stephen Hawking; Timothy Spall as master painter J.M.W. Turner; and Benedict Cumberbatch as closeted war hero Alan Turing.

But save for Wild, in which Reese Witherspoon plays a woman at rock bottom who embarks on a 1,100-mile trek on foot to keep from self-destructing, there were no other Academy-friendly biopics to be found in Toronto that centered around a woman. True, Felicity Jones is likely to be among the final five for her fine work as Hawking’s supportive wife Jane, whose memoir formed the basis of The Theory of Everything. But it is Redmayne’s skilled handling of a physically demanding part and magical smile that linger in the mind long after the credits roll.  

Last year, TIFF helped assure lead-actress nominations for Judi Dench in Philomena, Sandra Bullock in Gravity, and Meryl Streep in August: Osage County.

This year, besides Jones and Witherspoon, there is building support for Julianne Moore as a 50-year-old linguistics professor who learns she is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice. Sony Pictures Classics swooped in and bought the North American distribution rights to the art-house tearjerker, which drew positive critical reaction in Toronto.

Which is a good thing, since Maps to the Stars — David Cronenberg’s scathing Hollywood satire that earned Moore a best-actress honor at Cannes and was considered to be her ticket to the Oscar red carpet next February – has been pushed to early next year (and will be released by Focus International — not a company with an Oscar track record). With Moore still a possibility as a contender, the best-actress race is exponentially more interesting given her overdue status.  

Considering the likely competition so far, which includes Patricia Arquette in the summer breakout “Boyhood” — although she might be placed (wrongfully, in my opinion) in the supporting category — Moore stands the best chance right now of upsetting Witherspoon. Not that it will be an easy task to trump the Legally Blonde actress in the midst of a long-gestating comeback that includes two other fall releases, The Good Lie — an uplifting crowd-pleaser — and the still-unseen Inherent Vice.

Working in Moore’s favor, however, is her lack of a win after four previous Oscar nominations. Witherspoon, who won best actress as country legend June Carter Cash in 2005’s Walk the Line, already has a naked gold swordsman to keep her warm.

But what is most missing right now concerning female performances is the type of resounding buzz that greeted Bullock’s near-solo showcase in Gravity or Dench’s perfectly rendered reminder in Philomena of why she is such an incomparable treasure on the big screen. And as good as Arquette is as an evolving-through-the-years matriarch in Boyhood, she is no match for Cate Blanchett’s multi-faceted meltdown in Blue Jasmine — another summer release — which pegged The Aviator actress as the one to beat last year.

Others who could make the cut in the lead category include Jessica Chastain in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, The Most Violent Year, or Miss Julie (if it opens this fall); Rosamund Pike in the highly anticipated thriller Gone Girl; Hilary Swank in Western mode in the well-received Cannes entry The Homesman; Amy Adams as real-life painter Margaret Keane in Big Eyes; and either Emily Blunt or Streep in the fairy tale-inspired Sondheim musical Into the Woods.

The next Big O column will take a closer look at the supporting-actress category, which seems equally lacking in ground-breaking performances at the moment. But until then, consider the upsetting fact that it has taken Witherspoon, 38, nearly a decade to secure a part that would not just allow her another chance at an Oscar, but one that would, at the very least, capitalize on her considerable talents. And that she did so by buying the rights herself for the memoir Wild and became one of the film adaptation’s producers.

And don’t forget: Witherspoon could also be nominated for best picture as the producer of Gone Girl, based on a hugely popular novel by Gillian Flynn, who also did the script. It will be directed by Academy favorite David Fincher.

Much like her character in Wild corrected her course in life, Witherspoon should be applauded for re-adjusting her own path in Hollywood. Not that she had much of a choice. With a dearth of comparable prospects, actresses on the brink of 40 can’t shrug off duds like Water for Elephants and This Means War quite as easily as their male counterparts.

Meanwhile, Joaquin Phoenix — who is Witherspoon’s contemporary at age 39 and who was nominated but failed to win an Oscar as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line — did three fairly well-received films with director James Gray, including this year’s The Immigrant. He managed to pull off a rather ridiculous yearlong stunt where he assumed a slovenly appearance and pretended to quit acting to become a rapper for the 2010 mock documentary I’m Still Here, with no ill effects to his career. He was nominated for another best-actor Oscar for 2012’s The Master and earned glowing reviews for last year’s Her. And he is co-starring with Witherspoon again in Inherent Vice and remains in demand.

Sadly, it isn’t all that surprising that there exists a gulf of opportunity between the sexes in Hollywood, even when they basically exist on the same plane like Witherspoon and Phoenix. That the Oscar ballot would sometimes reflect that ongoing disparity is not all that surprising, either.