WASHINGTON - This year's Oscar nominees in the Best Actress and Supporting Actress categories play complex and empowered women. Their critical acclaim and success at the box office point to the power of female characters in the narrative coming out of Hollywood these days.
In the Oscar-nominated drama "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri," Mildred Hayes, played by Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand, is a mother whose daughter was brutally murdered. Frustrated by police inactivity searching for the murderer, Mildred leases three large billboards by the side of the road criticizing the local police department and its chief, Sheriff Bill Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson.
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?The film, one of nine nominees for Best Picture, combines nuanced characters with stinging social commentary. Partly consumed by his terminal cancer Willoughby has fallen into a comfortable slump — getting by at work and avoiding difficult cases, while his naive, racist deputy Jason Dixon, played by Oscar nominee Sam Rockwell, "is too busy torturing black folks than solving actual crimes," Mildred says.
The billboards cause havoc in the small town of Ebbing, where many of the residents find Mildred's confrontational manner a bit too harsh to their sensibilities. But the billboards are there to stay and ultimately mobilize the police into action.
In her Oscar-nominated performance, McDormand portrays Hayes as a no-nonsense, tough as nails, justice-seeking grieving mother.
"Mildred was the main protagonist in the story," McDormand said. "I haven't had many chances to do this as an actor. I had a lot of supporting roles to mostly male protagonists in my career, but after doing it, I don’t really want to go back."
Director Martin McDonagh is no stranger to dark comedies with heavy emotional undertones.
"I wrote it for Frances," he said." It had to be somebody who wasn't going to sentimentalize the character."
The film has received seven Oscar nominations, including two for supporting actors Rockwell and Harrelson as the two police officers reckoning with the undaunted Mildred.
"The Shape of Water"
Guillermo Del Toro's fantasy drama "The Shape of Water," nominated for 13 Oscars, offers a visceral love story and also a nuanced social commentary. Set in early 1960s Baltimore at the height of the Cold War, two cleaning women, played by lead actress Sally Hawkins as mute Elisa Esposito, and supporting actress Octavia Spencer as her friend and co-worker Zelda Fuller, pull night shifts at a secret government laboratory. When an ancient male amphibian is brought in for experiments, Elisa is drawn to him. Gradually, they fall in love.
Del Toro pits three underdog characters — disabled Elisa; Zelda, an African American; and Giles, a gay man and Elisa's roommate — against a white sadistic security agent, who is using the amphibian creature for experiments. The film, a serious contender for Best Picture and Best Director, is a visceral fantasy and a dark romance.
This is not the first time Del Toro shows a conventional-looking monster as the victim of corrupt men. The cinematography shifts from subdued dark colors to vivid aquatic ones that match the majestic merman gleaming in luminous hues of emerald and aquamarine. The romance is mainly expressed through gestures and eye contact and is reminiscent of silent-era films.
Hawkins delivers a superb performance as the delicate but brave Elisa, who stands up to the menacing Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon. Says Spencer about her co-star: "This tiny character in Elisa is without a voice, but she's got a big heart. It radiates on the screen."
Elisa hatches a plan that frees the merman from the clutches of the evil security agent.
Both female characters have received Oscar nominations — Hawkins for Best Actress and Spencer for Supporting Actress. Richard Jenkins, who plays Giles, has also received an Oscar nomination for supporting actor.
"When I wrote "The Shape of Water," Del Toro said, I wanted one character to be made by three actors. Octavia, Richard and Sally are a single character. I wanted to have characters that are marginal, and yet they get together, and they give the finger to the man." (defy the powerful).
"Lady Bird" is another Oscar front-runner, nominated for five Oscars. This is a heart-warming, coming-of-age film about a high school senior resenting her Catholic high school and dreaming of adventure, love and independence.
The film's achievement lies in the tender storytelling by Oscar-nominated director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig, and in its great cast — particularly its mother-daughter ensemble, played by Oscar-nominated actress Saoirce Roman as Lady Bird, and Oscar nominee Laurie Metcalf as her mother.
This loving, antagonistic relationship, spontaneous and honest, will resonate with many mothers and daughters that age.