Thursday, September 1, 2016

Theory Thursday: Alicia Vikander Didn't Deserve an Oscar for "The Danish Girl"

Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Light Between Oceans opens in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Alicia Vikander didn't deserve her Best Supporting Actress win for The Danish Girl.

Every year, The Academy sparks controversy. While this is predominantly in regards to its diverse casting, there are those few who get annoyed by the winners. In most cases, it's about who beat who in what category. I for one have done my best to not get as riled up over the win when I personally feel like a nomination is an honor unto itself. Still, there are those who will never let The Oscars forget that they rewarded Crash the Best Picture trophy over Brokeback Mountain. The list goes on, and there's a whole piece of petty bickering that can be drawn from these accounts. 

If one was to look at the most recent decade, I'll have to admit that the results have been mostly fine. Like most people, I cannot claim to agree 100% with the results. I may find plenty of issue with The King's Speech winning Best Picture over The Social Network, but I have come to terms with it - accepting that an older audience would more like that film. It's not a bad film by any stretch, and director Tom Hooper did do phenomenal work on Les Miserables (at least I think so). However, it was the film that followed that may be the point where I express utter confusion and annoyance with The Oscars. I must ask everyone sitting on this website and reading these words: why oh why did Alicia Vikander win Best Supporting Actress for The Danish Girl

Don't get me wrong. The narrative was there in a way that previously benefited Matthew McConaughey when he won Best Actor for Dallas Buyers Club. Vikander's 2015 was in some respects phenomenal, especially with a line-up that included The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Burnt, and Ex-Machina - the latter of which was far more deserving for its post-modern take on Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" mythology. She pretty much made a name for herself in a way that you don't often get. Maybe Jessica Chastain or Jennifer Lawrence are the only other major names since 2010 that come to mind of working hard to find an Oscar-worthy breakout role. Even then, there's a big difference between Silver Linings Playbook and The Danish Girl.

True, very few performers win for their best roles. However, one can look to Lawrence's win for Silver Linings Playbook and understand why she won. She was a centralized zeitgeist figure known for her bubbly personality coming off of an incredible 2012 that included The Hunger Games. David O. Russell's film pretty much defined her as a star in an era where the franchises are front and center. Vikander's rise pales in comparison, but one becomes immediately baffled when wondering what was there in The Danish Girl. It wasn't a breakout hit in the way that Ex-Machina was. It didn't even succeed enough to warrant a Silver Linings Playbook-type reception. At most, it felt like a film that was nominated because of its transgender subject matter: itself a problematic approach, as even the title within the film's dialogue references Vikander's cisgender performance.

It could be that The Danish Girl falls apart under scrutiny of progressive ideals. Despite being a story of transitioning, one can quickly poke holes in Eddie Redmayne's performance. The gender politics alone are inaccurate to the experience, as constantly referring to the male name (when the character is wishing to identify as female) is only the tip of the iceberg. Add in that Vikander comes across more as an enabler than a legitimate character only makes things worse. By the end, it's your typical LGBT celluloid closet debate where the transgender woman suffers a tragic death, and the cisgender Vikander experiences some spirituality in Redmayne's bravery. There have been essays written with more clarity, but that is the gist of my issues with the film. It is fine if you're going for straight drama and don't care about the specifics of transgender culture, but it definitely fits a bill similar to The Imitation Game where the interesting LGBT personality traits are ignored in favor of a more conventional and less interesting story.

The truth is that I think Vikander does a fine performance, but what is the real narrative of why she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar? There's almost nothing there that sounds plausible. Of course, all of the attention was in the Best Actress field where it was winner Brie Larson (Room) against second timer Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn). To be honest, that was a very interesting category worthy of scrutiny. However, the Best Supporting Actress field was more exciting because of how random the payoff could be. Every nominee had had a decent turnout over the awards season. However, I dare argue that Vikander's performance is the least interesting among them, if just because she plays second fiddle to a mediocre performance by Redmayne. 

For the sake of understanding, here are those four other nominees: Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), Rooney Mara (Carol), Rachel McAdams (Spotlight), Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs). To me, this is what a compelling category looks like. Every character on this list shows a varying aspect as to what makes women in cinema so engrossing. In fact, one could make the case for every nominee on this list. Winslet won the Golden Globe. Spotlight was going to win Best Picture. Mara was a victim of category fraud and Carol suffered a very poor theatrical roll-out. Leigh owned her nastiness with a delightful cynicism that more than justified Quentin Tarantino's choice to compare her to Bette Davis. To some extent, I think that these four performances will be remembered more than Vikander's. 

Of course, Carol was another (more acclaimed) LGBT film released in 2015 despite missing the Best Picture category. In my humble opinion, I do think that it's noble to nominate multiple gay movies, but I still think that The Academy has an issue with seeing gays as anything but victims. Carol is a victim-free movie, and I have my conspiracy that this is why it failed to make much of an impact. While Cate Blanchett's loss to Larson makes sense, Mara's loss to Vikander's makes even less. While I accept that nuanced and quiet aren't always the strongest keys to a win, I still think that her speculative optimism made her performance one of the best of the year. It's just that since she was a woman who lived happily ever after, she lost. Vikander at least lost her co-star and had a sentimental finale.

So, who should have won? Ironically, it is the co-star to her The Light Between Oceans co-star Michael Fassbender's previous film Steve Jobs: Winslet. I still believe that she is the Meryl Streep of her generation, choosing to tackle complicated and often interesting roles. Despite a few flubs along the way, her return last year gave us a phenomenal role that reflected her strengths as an actress. I am sure that Steve Jobs bombing at the box office didn't help its chances, but Winslet more than deserved a second Oscar win for her role. It was charismatic and was able to dictate Aaron Sorkin dialogue with the best of them. I know that Leigh's role may have been showier (though The Hateful Eight's divisiveness makes it hard for me to believe that she had a chance). Still, Winslet gives a powerhouse example of acting that I hope means that she will be back sooner than later. If not, I am willing to accept McAdams if just because of its tie-in to Spotlight's Best Picture win.

As mentioned, these wins and losses don't keep me up at night. However, Vikander's win has always struck me as odd. It's one of those that I sometimes ponder about because it doesn't make sense at all. There are four better performances to choose from. Why her? What am I missing in The Danish Girl that makes it standout as more than a filler nominee? I wish that I knew. While I am mostly satisfied with the list and think that it was a strong year for nominees (regardless of racial politics), I still have to guess what everyone else sees here. I definitely think that Vikander has potential to be great. I even am looking forward to The Light Between Oceans, though mostly because I love Derek Cianfrance. Still, it's the one win from last year that I just don't get. I hope that you do.

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