The phrase, circulated in the awards conversation on a steady basis this fall, might technically be true. Count ’em up, and maybe there are fewer great female performances this year than in past years.
But as we shift into another gear with the SAG Awards nominations Wednesday and the Golden Globes nods the following morning, I feel the dismissiveness of “a weak year for actresses” demeans the superb work by women in film this year — while also ostensibly placing the blame for any overall shortfall on the performers, rather than a film biz that could provide more female roles of substance.
As far as nominees go, there's no reason that the final groups of actresses selected by the SAGs, Golden Globes and Oscars themselves should be less than outstanding, each performer fierce in her own way.
Try this dynamic dozen: Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Emayatzy Corinealdi in “Middle of Nowhere,” Marion Cotillard in “Rust and Bone,” Elle Fanning in “Ginger and Rosa,” Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook,” Keira Knightley in “Anna Karenina,” Helen Mirren in “Hitchcock,” Emmanuelle Riva in “Amour,” Maggie Smith in “Quartet,” Quvenzhane Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Naomi Watts in “The Impossible” and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in “Smashed.”
Everyone will have a quibble with one or two names on that list, as is the case with virtually any list, but don’t try to tell me that it’s easy pickings or that there isn’t an overflow of awards-caliber work. And that's with me arbitrarily leaving out names like Judi Dench of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” Anne Hathaway of “The Dark Knight Rises," Leslie Mann in “This Is 40,” Michelle Williams of "Take This Waltz" and more.
A comparable collection of lead actors would be Ben Affleck ("Argo"), Jack Black (“Bernie”), Bradley Cooper (“Silver Linings”), Alan Cumming (“Any Day Now”), Matt Damon (“Promised Land”), Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln”), Jamie Foxx (“Django Unchained”), Martin Freeman (“The Hobbit”), Richard Gere (“Arbitrage”), John Hawkes (“The Sessions”), Anthony Hopkins (“Hitchcock”), Hugh Jackman (“Les Miserables”), Logan Lerman (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”), Bill Murray (“Hyde Park on Hudson”), Liam Neeson (“The Grey”), Joaquin Phoenix (“The Master”), Jean-Louis Trintignant (“Amour”) and Denzel Washington (“Flight”).
Certainly, the men win on grandeur. No female roles this year match Honest Abe or are as kinetic as Django Freeman. Well, I take that back — Hushpuppy in “Beasts” might give Django a kick in the pants. But the lead actress contenders haven't been saving planes from crashing or reinventing presidents.
Their strength, I believe, largely comes in quieter ways. But "quiet" is not "weak."
I look at the two groups, and I see a close call between which has been more impressive. If you parse it enough, I don’t doubt you might find the men come out ahead. Then again, I'm not so sure. At any rate, I think the difference between the two groups has been overstated, and those dissing this year's actress list strike me as missing a pretty big boat.