Women Stormed the Silver Screen in 2008

With Five Solid Performances, Oscar Race for Best Leading Actress Category Sure to Be Close


Published: February 12, 2009

If you ask any writer, he or she will tell you that you can’t have a good story without great characters. However, as film audience members, we know that a character is only as good as the actor or actress playing him or her. If the 2009 Academy Awards nominees reveal anything about this last year in film, it is that it has been a great year for women on the page and on the screen.

Meryl Streep is a strong Oscar contenders. (Mark Rightmire/Orange County Register/KRT)

One of the first actresses to receive the “Oscar buzz” for her performance was “Rachel Getting Married” star Anne Hathaway. Directed by Johnathan Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs”) and written by Jenny Lumet, daughter of acclaimed director Sidney Lumet (“12 Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon”), “Rachel Getting Married” is not about Rachel, but rather Kym, who is released from rehab for a day to attend her sister’s wedding. While on the surface Kym is dealing with her substance abuse problem, the real struggle lies in her learning to accept her family, which ultimately means accepting herself. Hathaway’s approach is brilliant; she can be as vulnerable as she is funny.

Sometimes in film, as with literature, female characters are incredibly strong and tenacious, but they rarely speak to one another (as in Shakespeare’s plays). Other times, they follow the modern “chick flick” model, and we get weak female characters who, though they always appear to be speaking to one another, rarely say anything at all. In the two films “Doubt”
and “Frozen River,” women are not only strong, but the female characters in each film must find a way to communicate with one another for a common purpose.

“Doubt” features Best Supporting Actress nominee Amy Adams and Best Actress nominee Meryl Streep. In the film, these two nuns are foils to one another: Sister James (Amy Adams) is young, soft-spoken and open-minded, while Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) is the exact opposite. The two nuns begin an investigation of a report about crime against a student which may or may not have been committed by the school’s priest, Father Flynn. The film, interestingly enough, makes a number of subtle statments about the differences between nuns and priests, as well as the politics of gender within the Roman Catholic Church.

“Frozen River” is a film that is perhaps less talked about but is nonetheless high on Oscar radar. “Frozen River’s” writer and director, Monica Hunt, is the only female to be nominated for Best Screenplay. It stars Best Actress nominee Melissa Leo (Ray Eddy) and Misty Upham (Lila Littlewolf). It is a stunning portrayl of two women as they attempt to cross the border from New York into Canada. The two single mothers have to work together to cross the frozen St. Lawrence River.

“The Reader” was directed by Stephen Daldry, who is better known for directing “The Hours.” Daldry has a knack for telling women’s stories. This particular story features Hanna Schmitz, played by Best Actress nominee Kate Winslet, who, in addition to having a torrid affair with 15-year-old Michael, is also on trial for Nazi war crimes. Though the story is told from Michael’s point-of-view, it is Hanna who experiences the repercussions of living in a post-WWII Germany.

“Changeling” is another film that features a woman against the law, however, this time in 1920s Los Angeles. Directed by Clint Eastwood, “Changeling” stars Best Actress nominee Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins. It is a true story of how Christine, upon returning home, finds that her son, Walter, is missing. A year later, the Los Angeles Police Department claims to have found Christine’s son, but Christine is convinced that the boy is not her own. Desperate to discover the truth, Christine decides to battle the police department. Watching Jolie’s performance, it is painful to know that she may never find her son; yet it is even more painful when you realize it is a true story.