Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Runner-Ups: Mary Elizabeth Winstead in "Smashed" (2012)

Scene from Smashed
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: Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Film: Smashed (2012)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Actress category (2012):
-Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) *WINNER
-Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty)
-Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)
-Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
-Naomi Watts (The Impossible)

With this week's release of The Circle, I have become a bit nostalgic for director James Ponsoldt. I am very excited to see him get a major project that is in wide release and has an impressive cast. I am glad to see him evolve over time and feel that he has a knack for telling compelling stories with great performances. Among the early signs of promise was his breakthrough Smashed, which starred Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul as a couple who both suffered from alcohol addiction. In theory, it's a simple movie with not a whole lot of complicated plot points. It's about the struggle to become sober, and the crippling road blocks that come with it. There's psychology behind every decision, and some of them are the sad reality that dating an alcoholic enables the desire to remain sick.

While the film shows Ponsoldt's gift for casting, there's also something to be said about Winstead's performance. Alongside last year's excellent 10 Cloverfield Lane or Faults, she has proven herself to be one of the most promising indie actresses of the modern era. Her performances can feel casual while hiding a deeper intensity. She can deal with horror as well as deep psychological struggles. Her range continues to make her one of the modern greats, showing that she could do weird comedies (BrainDead) and dramas (Fargo) on the small screen. It's gotten so prominent that it would be tough to argue that she doesn't deserve an Oscar at some point in her career, especially at the rate that she delivers interesting work.

It would be difficult to select one of her films, but Smashed definitely feels like one of the noticeable works that exceed her average record. It's unassuming in the way that it shows addiction, choosing to show the struggle in its unfortunate detail. Even then, there's a longing in Winstead's eyes as she has embarrassing mishaps at work and quivers with desire to escape the endless cycle. She is sick of waking up without a clue of what happened the night before. She has a longing in her performance that feels real. Most of the film feels honest, and it's an attribute to Ponsoldt's ability to just let the camera roll as the story unfolds. By the end, his distance allows the characters to evolve in less conventional ways.

This isn't a wish for her to be nominated for playing a "type." Yes, she is playing an alcoholic. It's just not a pretty Hollywood version. It's one where the details can be uncomfortable and sympathetic. You feel like Winstead has actually struggled with these addictions personally, and it adds to her performance. She becomes engaged in behavior specific to being dazed. It's unapologetic, and it evolves to show how exciting and tragic the idea of drinking can be. It helps that the natural progression allows everything to play out with a sense of urgency. It's one of those performances that transcend the cliche "flawed indie character" dynamic by never allowing something to feel convenient. Winstead's intensity may be nuanced, but it brings a humanity to the character.

It's especially strange how overlooked Smashed has become with Ponsoldt's subsequent films. The Spectacular Now is an equally charming film that shows Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller at their bests. Ponsoldt's camera shows an excellent control on capturing emotions as they flow naturally. Even as he moved away from directly exploring alcohol addiction, his film The End of the Tour was his closest to receiving Oscar acclaim for Jason Segel. Again, he gives a great performance that is layered with vulnerability. However, long time fans will notice that it's only the latest in a long line of great performances that show Ponsoldt's potential to be one of the great actor's directors of his generation. For now, his track record is pretty impressive and has been for the past five years.

It becomes difficult to suggest how Winstead stood out against the five actresses that were nominated. It isn't the first time that 2012 has shown up on this list. It is arguably my favorite year of cinema from recent years. It has produced so many masterful films. Smashed is arguably too small to have ever competed with the bigger films of the time. Even then, there's no denying that this was a strong calling card for what Winstead could do. In fact, she's still doing great work, and it's harder to wonder why she's not a bigger deal. If I had a theory, she would eventually get a nomination under Ponsoldt's watchful eye. They work so well together and I feel bring out the best in each other's direction and performance. If The Circle gets him the bigger gigs, this may be able to be more of a reality than initially assumed. 

No comments:

Post a Comment