Femmes front and center

Award season dominated by stellar leading ladies

When “Cairo Time” star Patricia Clarkson looks at the well of potential female nominees for lead actress, she sees plenty of competition, but feels great about it.

“It’s always the male category that’s so deeply competitive, with so many great actors left behind,” says Clarkson. “So it’s really a beautiful thing to see a lot of films carried by women this year. Both categories should be deeply competitive. That’s how it should be.”

The list of contending women joining Clarkson is impressive: Annette Bening and Julianne Moore (“The Kids Are All Right”), Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”), Lesley Manville (“Another Year”), Nicole Kidman (“Rabbit Hole”), Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”), Michelle Williams (“Blue Valentine”), Anne Hathaway (“Love and Other Drugs”), Noomi Rapace (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), Sally Hawkins (“Made in Dagenham”), Tilda Swinton (“I Am Love”), Hilary Swank (“Conviction”) and Naomi Watts (“Fair Game”).

OK, breathe, because there’s more to consider. Now add Halle Berry (“Frankie and Alice”), Gwyneth Paltrow (“Country Strong”), Diane Lane (“Secretariat”), Reese Witherspoon (“How Do You Know”) and Helen Mirren (“The Tempest”).

It’s hard not to ignore that the majority of the pool are performances from indies, and some of these were the arthouse hits of 2010: “Winter’s Bone,” “The Kids Are All Right,” and “I Am Love” to name a few.

“The female audience has always been a big part of the independent film world, no question,” says Magnolia Pictures president Eamon Bowles. “This was a year when there were great female performances in really strong films.”

Vogue film critic John Powers sees a possibility that 2010’s bounty could open some eyes.

“This might be the moment when it becomes clear that Hollywood grasps something that was obvious all along, which is, if you put women into rationally budgeted movies, that there’s an audience for these movies, and you can make money from them,” Powers says. “Women were always the stars of midrange movies, which are the kind the studios stopped making, but that audience didn’t disappear.”

The actresses themselves, too, may be realizing that big Hollywood prestige films are too few and far between.

“Women didn’t have the security Tom Cruise did, who could step aside and make ‘Magnolia’ because he could still get his $20 million payday over and over,” Powers says. “It might have been harder for them to step into an indie film role because they thought it could drive their price down. Now it’s clear for the good actresses that this is the way to go.”

Then there’s what happens when female directors get their shot behind the camera.

Debra Granik put newcomer Jennifer Lawrence front and center for the gritty Ozarks tale “Winter’s Bone.” Lisa Cholodenko gave Bening and Moore two of the juiciest parts of their lives. Julie Taymor changed the sex of Shakespeare’s Prospero and cast the iconic Helen Mirren.

Swinton used the clout she earned from winning an Oscar in 2008 to get the long-gestating “I Am Love” off the ground as producer-star. And Canadian writer-director Ruba Nadda gave acclaimed character actress Clarkson, who has co-starred in dozens of films, her first lead role in a movie.

“In studio films, you can be the pretty girl or pretty lady, and even female movie stars usually share the film with a male lead,” Clarkson says. “With Ruba’s film, I was not sharing this. It really is my film. She put this movie in my hands, and that’s great. Us actors like things to be rested on our shoulders!”

Many of the roles feel like twists on the typically relationship-defined parts women are usually offered.

Watts’s Valerie Plame may be a wife and mother, but most importantly, she’s an outed spy. Lawrence’s “Winter’s Bone” character is a daughter who’s the de facto head of household, and for much of the film a family detective of sorts. Swinton isn’t merely a wife and mother in the midst of an affair, she’s also a Russian emigre figuring out her place in Italian society.

Other turns, meanwhile, represent an opportunity to shake up an audience’s expectations of what women are supposed to play onscreen, be it Portman’s mentally disintegrating ballerina, Manville’s socially grating charity case of a friend in Mike Leigh’s latest, or Rapace’s tattooed, sullen computer hacker Lisbeth Salander.

“The godsend of independent films,” says Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, the studio behind “Another Year” and “Made in Dagenham,” “is that they offer actresses who can’t fit into an easy category their great roles. All these actresses are unique, very idiosyncratic, but they’re great. And great actresses tend to find the roles that equal their talent.”

More from Variety‘s Award Season Talent Preview
Femmes front and center | When Oscar happens | Double edge for pics with Oscar bounty | Red carpet prep

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