Manuel Betancourt

Best Lead Actress, or How Mum’s the Word

February 4, 2009 · in Uncategorized

A Blog Next Door’s Oscar coverage 2009: for the lit theory junkie in me and the Oscar watcher in you.

Best Lead Actress 2009: ‘The Freudian Mum’
AMPAS loves them some actresses. Or maybe I love me some actresses which is why I find the Actress categories much more interesting than the Actor ones (I mean, Kate and Meryl and Anne in one category easily trumps any lineup with Sean, Brad and Mickey, no?). Sadly when you think about it, the roles that AMPAS singles out in the actress categories are usually obscenely narrow (nuns! mums! whores! – did I miss any? I kid, I kid!) That said, to take the list of women that make up this list is to be immersed in a world of familial ties, exploring the tenuous relationship between women and children. Freud 101 if you will.
Kym, Christine, Sister Aloysius, Ray & Hannah are a motley crew of women that represent different ways in which society models motherhood and the care for children.
Anne Hathaway – “Kym” in Rachel Getting Married
Why didn’t you take care of the child? Kym decries.
Of course at the heart of Demme’s film there’s an absent mother and a lost child. There’s always an absent mother and/or a lost child when families are so fractured and seemingly happy but actually imbalanced as we have here. Kym is a wounded girl because she carries with her both the burden of her [SPOILERS – but not if you saw The SAGs clips for Best Actress] brother’s death and of her mother’s absence. The former is what gets the dramatic push, but the latter is what stays with you (bless you Debra Winger). Kym is a motherless young woman and it is that loss which resonates throughout her behaviour and which gets oddly displaced in the form of alcoholism and a drug addiction, showcasing a broken familial unit because of the inability of one woman to maintain her ‘Mother’ role. A ‘mother’ is all Kym wants, is all Kym needs/ed.

Angelina Jolie – “Christine MY!SON!BACK! Collins” in Changeling
I just want to take care of MY son! screams Christine.
If there is a prototypical ‘woman’ in this lineup, it is Ms Collins who lives and breathes (and works, and skates, and yells, and breaks plates) for her son. This is the ‘Mother’ par excellence – no wonder the characters around her can’t seem to understand why she wouldn’t just nurture a kid who’s the closest thing to her son (aren’t they exchangeable?). Make what you will of potential arguments about patience, willpower or even conviction in Christine but beneath it all here we have a tale of a woman who’s incomplete without motherhood, without her child even when the possibility of reconstructing the familial structure she had before is beyond her reach. A ‘mother’ is all Christine knows what to be, is all we expect her to be.

Meryl Streep – “Sister Aloysius” in Doubt
I WILL take care of children – whatever it takes, Sister Aloysius says to herself.
While Father Flynn construes her as a ‘hungry dragon,’ Sister Aloysius is the nurturing figure of the schoolyard. Whether it’d be with her fellow (at times blind) nuns, or with a particular black boy in class and church, Sister Aloysius takes it upon herself to be the earthly Mother Mary to those around her. Fixated on a rigid structure of what mothers should and should not do (roughly matching her static and somewhat ‘traditional’ mores and values), Sister Aloysius cannot understand the pragmatism and (alleged) indifference when encountering Donald Miller’s mother. A ‘mother’ is all Sister Aloysius expects from women with children,
Melissa Leo – “Ray” in Frozen River
I make the decisions that need to be made to take care of my kids, Ray needs to tell herself.
Working in the same vein as Christine, Ray is a woman whose socio-economic circumstances thrust her into a world where what she is and how she needs to survive is underscored by her duty to her children and her family. The man leaves, but it is the woman who cannot escape the familial ties to her children and who takes the reigns of her life and job (yeah, let’s call it a ‘job’) in order to be able to provide for her children. Out of all the women in this lineup it is she who most mirrors the type of woman we should admire. Courtney Hunt does my work for me stating that in making this film she wanted to ‘break down audiences’ cultural assumptions through the universal language of a mother’s love’ [src]. A ‘loving mother’ is what Ray exemplifies.
Kate Winslet – “Hannah” in The Reader
Come in, I’ll take care of you, kid, Hannah says.
And then we come to the ex-Nazi prison guard. (I tell ya, had they nominated Winslet for her turn as April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, this mini-essay would write itself: for what is April but the prime example of a woman actively refusing the ‘motherhood’ label society springs on women?) But Hannah – she becomes a sexually active nurturing figure in Michael’s life – not so much a mother as a sexual mentress (yes, I’m making up words today). But hidden within the ambiguities of the film and the moral minefields of the narrative is the hidden assumption of shame in the relationship between a mature woman and a younger boy. This of course derives from both ‘traditional’ relational models between young men and older women (usually recasting a mother-son relationship – hey, even among males and females of the same age!) and yet Hannah never succumbs to treating Michael as anything other than a ‘reader’ and a lover. A ‘mother’ is what we might expect from Hannah but she escapes such ‘paint by the numbers’ relation with Michael.
Next Up: Leading Men and American Masculinity