Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Runner-Ups: Greta Gerwig in "20th Century Women"

Greta Gerwig
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every other Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Greta Gerwig
Film: 20th Century Women (2016)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Supporting Actress category (2016):
-Viola Davis (Fences) *WINNER
- Naomie Harris (Moonlight)
- Nicole Kidman (Lion)
- Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)
- Michelle Williams (Manchester By the Sea)

As the recent history goes on, it becomes obvious that Greta Gerwig is destined to get some sort of Oscar nomination. The question has slowly become when. While she started off labeled as the queen of mumblecore thanks to working with Joe Swanberg, she has evolved into one of the most defined actresses of the decade. Not only does she perform, but she is also skilled at writing her own screenplays: a fact most notably done in the Noah Baumbach collaborations Frances Ha and Mistress America:: both films that were worthy of some sort of screenplay love during their respective years. Given that she starred in two of the Oscar-nominated films that came up a bit short otherwise (Jackie and 20th Century Women), she is at a point where it's hard not to recognize her. The only hope that when/if she does get a nomination that it isn't one of those underwhelming wins for a lesser work.

While the case can easily be made for why she deserved a nomination for Frances Ha, I decided to focus on her more recent work to provide the sense that she is relevant. As much as I love Jackie, it is easy to see her supporting role as being too insignificant for a nomination. However, 20th Century Women may be one of the greatest overlooks of the year. Even perennial Best Actress favorite Annette Benning failed to make a nomination. While one could play the argument of politics, there's a good chance that production company A24 were pulling the smart move of betting all Oscar campaigning on Moonlight. It paid off, especially since the film racked up a Best Picture win. It's a forgivable act, but makes one wonder why there wasn't room for two films to show up big - besides arguments that the class of 2016 needed to be more racially diverse than usual to avoid an Oscars So White backlash for the third straight year.

With that said, there were few female characters as perplexing as Gerwig's Abbie. She was a transplant "cool aunt" to protagonist Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) as he came of age in the late 1970's. She dyed her hair in honor of David Bowie. She formed weird habits because she was an artist. She danced with reckless abandon because she wanted to feel free. Abbie was a compelling character and had dimensions that made her one of the funniest performances of the year. She did exactly what a supporting player was supposed to do, which is liven up a scene. Even if Gerwig has arguably made better movies, there's few that reflect her strengths as an ensemble player quite as well as here. In a film full of rich characters - a fact noticed by The Academy giving a Best Original Screenplay nomination to Mike Mills - she stood out as one of the best.

More than her being a free spirit, she was a caring and cautious individual who occasionally had bad moments. She got into fights with exes who mysteriously appeared in her life. She also had cervical cancer, which helps to explore another side to the female experience. It may be a minor note, but it adds emotional depth to how Abbie is perceived by the rest of the characters. She is allowed to be herself, and that includes awkward dinner talk. To some, she may be a bit too much of a free spirit. The character might come across as too twee. However, she helps to elevate the film by providing wisdom to Jamie that is invaluable and endearing in context. Likewise, it wouldn't have been terrible if Elle Fanning received a nomination for playing Jamie's friend Julie - who has a more significant role in the third act.

20th Century Women is a bit too niche to have been a runaway success at The Academy Awards. That much makes sense. However, it's tough to imagine how Gerwig didn't stand much of a chance. As good as Nicole Kidman was in Lion or Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures, they don't compare to the depth and complexity of a character quite like Gerwig. She is a young upstart to has been doing great work for quite a few years now. With these high profile gigs, one can imagine that she's going to stumble into a nomination one of these days. For now, she remains one of the great unnominated talents of the modern era. Will she ever get nominated? One can only wonder. Still, if the years to come have any similarities to her work in 2016, then maybe she'll get there in time.

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