As Oscar pundits have been shuffling around the contenders for the highly competitive Best Actress category this year, Isabelle Huppert has always been on the bubble. She’s up against both Annette Benning’s and Amy Adams’s strong “She’s due” narratives, the limitless charms of Emma Stone, and Natalie Portman’s titanic portrayal of Jackie O., not to mention luminous newcomer Ruth Negga, and frickin’ Meryl Streep. When has the Academy not taken the chance to nominate Meryl Streep?
Adding to her long-shot chances, just like Charlotte Rampling last year, Marion Cotillard the year before that, and Emmanuelle Riva in 2013, Huppert is not American. And like all but Rampling, she speaks exclusively French in her masterful performance this year, in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, where she plays a sharp-tongued businesswoman who gets brutally raped in her own home. It’s a movie so controversial that not a single American actress (including Nicole Kidman, who’s in the Supporting Actress race for Lion) would agree to star in it, which is why Verhoeven had to make it in France. Huppert plays a woman who goes about her daily life after her sexual assault, and forms an intense, erotic relationship with her rapist. It’s also a dark comedy. (I loved it.) As my colleague Kyle Buchanan has written, it’s hard to imagine the Academy’s notoriously stodgy membership flocking to see that.
And yet, this week, Huppert is positively killing it in movie awards that tend to influence the Academy (or reflect how the film community is thinking). On Monday, she beat out Portman, Benning, and Negga as the surprise winner of the season-opening Gotham Awards. Thursday, the New York Film Critics Circle named her Best Actress, hours after she’d scored a nomination in the Critics Choice Awards. And all of this is following the Independent Spirit nomination she got last week.
These are early days, but I have a strong sense from being in the room at this year’s star-packed Gotham Awards that Huppert’s status as an icon of cinema, an earth-shaking talent who’s never gotten her due this side of the pond, may prove irresistible, vaulting her into a lock for an Oscar nomination if not to the top of the list. When Huppert’s name was announced at the Gothams, the room erupted in a standing ovation unlike any other that night. Gael García Bernal, who was seated at my table, jumped to his feet, shouting, “It’s Isabelle Huppert, how can you not stand for Isabelle Huppert?” Damien Lewis of Homeland, who was also at our table, also stood and cheered; he turned to Bernal and shouted, “Isabelle Huppert” as they exchanged looks that might have said, Can you believe we’re even in the presence of this goddess? (Huppert is 63 and looks incredible.) Neither of them had seen her performance in Elle — they would, they said, and knew it would be amazing — but right now they had to pay respect, which actually seems pretty predictive of what might happen with the Academy, where actors are by far the biggest branch of membership. Maybe not everyone will feel up for checking out that Elle screener, but when they’re looking at the list of names, how many will react just like Gael García Bernal and think, How can I not vote for Isabelle Huppert?
Also working in Huppert’s favor? Her strong willingness to campaign. She’s constantly flying from France whenever her hand-shaking and promotional services have been needed. It’s the same vitality she’s brought to her performances this year; she’s not only in Elle, but also Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come (the NYFCC honor was for both movies), and she spent September in Brooklyn doing a three-and-a-half-hour experimental stage production of Phaedra at BAM.
Plus, every time she’s shown up on the awards circuit, she’s exuded a new softness that’s quickly melting her reputation for iciness. Huppert was straight-up adorable accepting her Gotham award, gasping for air and tearing up in a state of genuine shock, as Lewis, Bernal, and I beamed. “I didn’t expect that to happen, I promise,” she said. “They all told me, ‘It’s such an American award, it’s very New Yorker and you are French, you’ll never get it.’ So, I’m sorry. I feel so American tonight!” She’d just gotten off a plane, she explained, since she’d been on a stage in Europe the night before. She thanked everyone on the movie, and then moved on to her director, whom she thanked “for being so fearless, for being a little bit amoral — which is good right now, don’t you think so? — for being so strong, for having such a devastating irony, and thank you for your independence.” Independence, after all, was the quality being honored at the Gothams, and she would definitely thank the IFP if she could remember who they were. “Oh my god, I’m so moved, I’m so touched, I’m so — I forgot! Michael, you have to … the people who organized this event!” she called out to Michael Barker, the head of Elle’s distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, pleading with her eyes. The name couldn’t be relayed to her fast enough, and anyway, who cared? “I’m so sorry! Thank you! Thank you, everybody!” she concluded, to another round of thunderous applause, perhaps the sign of much more to come.