With the January 13 deadline for the Oscar nominations looming, the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have a golden chance to honor Shannon, Gerwig, and Jones, who were overlooked by the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association when they were picking the Golden Globe nominees.
Their portrayals of cancer patients are as wrenching as any of the five performances on this coming Sunday’s Globes ballot for Supporting Actress. It’s impossible to tell whether the HFPA members individually thought five other actresses did better work – presumably the case – or were worried at the thought of cancer being a hot topic at the starry televised gala. What if Shannon, Gerwig, and Jones had all been nominated? That would have been a tough topic for host Jimmy Fallon to wrestle with, wouldn’t it?
It may or may not be coincidental that none of these performances were acknowledged by the HFPA. A Monster Calls is British, thus irrelevant to the HFPA’s pro-Hollywood agenda, and Other People is an indie that flew too far below the publicity radar to catch the Globe-voters’ attention.
In contrast, 20th Century Women is a high-profile indie with a Hollywood veneer; its star, Annette Bening, was nominated for the Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy. (Her Dorothea eventually develops cancer herself, but in the story’s unseen future – she isn’t seen suffering from it.) Perhaps the indie queen Gerwig simply hasn’t caught on with the HFPA yet.
Another factor in the Globe nominations was Hollywood’s need to redress its recent poor record on equal rights and affirmative action. Fortunately, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Denzel Washington’s Fences, and Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures have come along at the right time.
The HFPA seized an urgent initiative by nominating, on merit, three black actresses in the supporting category – Viola Davis (Fences), Naomie Harris (Moonlight), and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) – as well as Ruth Negga (Loving) in the Best Actress in a Drama category. At the time of writing, the five Globe Supporting Actress nominees – Davis, Harris, and Spencer, along with Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) and Nicole Kidman (Lion) – are the likely Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominees, too.
Gerwig may yet creep into the Oscar frame, possibly at Kidman’s expense since Williams is a shoo-in. Gerwig’s 20th Century Women performance has earned her 19 nominations from film critic groups; she won the Nevada critics’ award and shared the Detroit critics’ prize with Davis. However, only five of the 28 experts on the authoritative Gold Derby website predict she will make the cut. Shannon has received three award nominations and Jones two, so neither is likely to get an Oscar nod.
Shannon did the most daring acting of her career in Other People. Gerwig and Felicity Jones imbue 20th Century Women and A Monster Calls with different degrees of vulnerability.
Watching their characters undergo different kinds of physical and emotional ordeals is grueling but salutary. Shannon, outstanding as the brittly, upbeat mother of the cancer-stricken teenager Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke) in 2015’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, is largely unsentimental as Joanne, a Sacramento wife and mother whom chemo is failing. She tries to buoy up her and her family’s spirits by making jokes about cremation, but the strain is etched on her face. Her slow demise racks the grown son (Jesse Plemons) who has returned form New York to be with her.
A Monster Calls is an overwrought fantasy film about a 13-year-old boy who summons a bellicose bark-skinned ogre (voiced by Liam Neeson) to displace his fears about his young single mother’s terminal condition. But Jones is revelatory in it: though “Mum” puts on a brave face initially – endearingly distracting her son by showing him King Kong on an old 16mm projector – she seems to shrink emotionally and physically with each successive appearance, as if she were trying to hide herself away. Jones is astonishing here.
Gerwig’s Abbie is a photographer with a dark red Bowie ‘do, who schools the teenage son of her landlady and friend (Annette Bening) in the ways of punk rock in 1979 Santa Barbara, and also has an awkward fling with a fellow lodger (Billy Crudup). Though Gerwig leavens the character with her trademark goofiness, Abbie’s plight is no less affecting than Joanne’s or Mum’s despite the fact that her cancer hasn’t metastasized. In the first half of the film, Gerwig quietly conveys the dreadful uncertainty of not knowing whether, on her next visit to her doctor, she will be given a death sentence.
It remains a fact that female characters suffering from cancer exert little appeal at awards time. Ali MacGraw (Love Story, 1970), Debra Winger (Terms of Endearment, 1984), and Meryl Streep (One True Thing, 1998) were nominated in the Best Actress category but didn’t win. More recently, Shailene Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars, 2014) and Me and Earl‘s Cooke won minor awards. Two brief but fine 2014 performances, Jessica Barden’s in Lullaby and Kiara Glasco’s in Maps to the Stars, were ignored.
Given the power of Shannon, Gerwig, and Jones’s characters, it’s saddening that Hollywood is overlooking their performances. Cancer awareness is what’s at stake here. When actors put themselves through the mill evoking what millions of people suffer daily, the film industry has a responsibility to look beyond its coffers and reward their prodigious efforts, or at least draw attention to them proactively.