This year’s Best Actress race is stacked with laureled veterans and exciting newcomers, and it promises to be a real contest. Many of those leading-lady contenders will be appearing at this week’s Toronto Film Festival, and Vulture is on the ground in Canada to help you sort through their Oscar odds. Which of these talented women will make the final five?
The Actress: Annette Bening, 59
The Awards History: Bening has been nominated for four Oscars and is widely considered to be one of the most acclaimed performers who has not yet won. She’s had better luck at the Golden Globes, nabbing two of those (for The Kids Are All Right and Being Julia) off of seven nominations.
The Role: Do you know who Gloria Grahame is? When the 1970s-set Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool begins, 20-something Peter (Jamie Bell) has no idea what to make of the woman who’s moved in down the hall: All he can gather is that Gloria is a delicious eccentric, given to impromptu disco dances and not at all abashed to flirt with him despite being three decades older. Soon, Peter gets the full story: Gloria is an Oscar-winning Hollywood actress who starred in The Bad and the Beautiful and shared the screen with icon like Humphrey Bogart and Kirk Douglas, though the peak of her fame is in the past. She has come to his Liverpool neighborhood to do theater, a big fish in his small pond, and Peter is charmed by her. Before long, they fall into a relationship, though it’s anyone’s guess whether disapproving loved ones or other, sadder forces may eventually rend Gloria and Peter asunder.
Bening is a hoot as Gloria, and she’s having a lot of contagious fun with this role. Kittenish in her manner — Bening employs a voice several octaves higher than the throaty rumble she used in 20th Century Women — but wise when she needs to be, she beguiles the audience as well as Peter. (Credit must be shared with Bell, who’s as appealing in this movie as he has been in years.) Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is buoyant Sunday-matinee material for most of its run, though sadness creeps in at its edges, and the film is bracketed by flash-forward scenes where Gloria and Peter reunite as the former is in ill health at the end of her life. That gives Bening some tear-jerking notes to play, but by and large, it’s just good to see her having fun.
In Her Favor: I’m still upset that Bening was not nominated for her career-best work last year in 20th Century Women, and if the Academy wants to make it up to her (and to America, for that matter), a make-good nod for Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool would be one way to go about it. The contours of this role check off a ton of Oscar-friendly boxes: Bening is playing a real person, she’s doing a voice that is not her own, she’s willing to go nude, and she gets to perform angry outbursts and deathbed scenes. I was struck by how emotionally the Toronto audience reacted to Bening in the film’s final third, and since she’s playing a twilight-years Hollywood figure, you have to think that older Academy voters will relate all the more to her.
Also, over the end credits, they play footage of the real Gloria Grahame winning her Oscar. (It ain’t a subtle send-off.)
Working Against Her: The film is relatively slight in a year where a lot of hefty contenders will be in the year-end awards derby. I think it was a mistake to take it to the Telluride Film Festival first instead of the more populist Toronto Film Festival, where the reception has been better. Bening and Bell would be an appealing package deal if the latter is category-frauded into Best Supporting Actor, but will Bening really throw herself into campaigning after last year’s 20th Century Women initiative was so rudely rebuffed by Oscar?