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This Oscar Season, Women Lead Films Like ‘Colette,’ ‘Mary Queen of Scots’

From the soft-spoken methodical meter KiKi Layne’s Tish Rivers uses to narrate the history of social and criminal injustices that have ruined the lives of black men and their families in writer-director Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” to Carey Mulligan’s Jeanette Brinson, a curt and frustrated midcentury housewife who flaunts her extramarital affair in director Paul Dano’s “Wildlife” — a story he and partner Zoe Kazan adapted from the Richard Ford book — this year’s lead actress roles do not rely on stereotypes or character tropes.

“I don’t want to play such a narrow view of femininity that we have so often: that supportive wife, that supportive mother, supportive girlfriend kind of archetype,” says Keira Knightley, who stars in “Colette,” Wash Westmoreland’s biopic about the French novelist from the turn of the previous century that he co-wrote with his late husband, Richard Glatzer, and playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz.

Since her breakout role in 2002’s “Bend It Like Beckham,” Knightley has made a habit of playing strong-willed women — and has received two Academy Award nominations for such endeavors. She says that while “there are many of us who are
those things [supportive], in my work, I’m much more interested in playing a more fully realized woman in all her complex glory. I’m always drawn toward strength and also people who crack, but find a way through.”

Most of the awards contenders were either in the middle of, or had finished production, when the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements disrupted Hollywood and the rest of the world.

This almost alignment is both “a good thing and a bad thing,” says Felicity Jones, who was so dedicated to accurately depicting Ruth Bader Ginsburg in director Mimi Leder and writer Daniel Stiepleman’s “On the Basis of Sex” that she had her teeth capped so that her jawline would more closely resemble the Supreme Court justice.

“Making the film in the midst of the #MeToo movement made the cast and crew realize not only how relevant this story is,” Jones says, but also that, “there are more fights to go,” as evident by Brett Kavanaugh’s highly publicized Supreme Court confirmation hearings this fall.

Despite our current political climate, the film’s message is a positive one, Jones says. With Ginsburg, the “odds were against her all the time and she kept pushing through. She’s a great inspiration in that nothing could stop her.”

Continuing a trend we’ve seen in recent seasons — such as last year’s hotly contested supporting actress Oscar category — the films of 2018 have been particularly kind to the complexities of motherhood. There’s Maura Tierney’s depiction of artist Karen Barbour in “Beautiful Boy,” grappling with her stepson’s addiction. Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo’s Belle risk death or imprisonment to keep their families safe in director Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” not to mention the pain heaped upon Viola Davis’ Veronica during the movie’s flashbacks.

But there are also the films that target pregnancy, both from the rather modern-day methods some find necessary to conceive and the frank talk about what life can be like with a newborn.

As a mother of two young children, Charlize Theron says she understood the exhaustion and emotional toll her Marlo was going through before and after the birth of a baby in director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody’s “Tully.” She adds that she also has two close friends who “went through severe postpartum depression and they were really on my mind when I was making this movie.”

Still, she says, this movie “felt more a human story versus a female story.” Audiences of all genders have responded, which Theron says is a testament that “we can tell these stories, these important stories, and we don’t have to isolate the sexes in order to do it.”

On the opposite end of the pregnancy storyline is “Private Life,” writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ raw and emotional tale of the soul-crushing and all-consuming measures that some people go through in order to bear children.

“We kept talking about the baby carrot that’s dangled in front of people,” says Kathryn Hahn, the film’s lead. “There’s all these amazing strides that we have in assisted reproduction [and] there’s a million ways to start a family now … but it is so expensive … [that] it’s gambling.”

Even the film’s title plays upon the idea that “it’s the most intimate act in the world, making a child, and yet this process couldn’t be anything less intimate,” she says. “It’s everything that is private, and it’s talking about the most personal parts of someone’s life.”

Of course, struggles with conception have been going on for centuries — even queens haven’t been immune.“The fact that she had 17 children and lost them all: that was the main thing that I could never forget,” Olivia Colman says of Queen Anne, the British monarch she depicts in director Yorgos Lanthimos and writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s “The Favourite.”

Anne “did this job even though she was plagued by her health all her life,” which helped Colman find humanity in a character who could have otherwise been the dark comedy’s farcical punching bag.

“She was in a position of power that she didn’t want,” Colman says. “She never really knew if anyone genuinely liked her or [just] liked her for what she could do for them. You can’t help but carry that with you. I always felt like you wanted to give her a cuddle.”

Similar sentiments can also be said of Mary, Queen of Scots. The royal, whom Saoirse Ronan depicts in director Josie Rourke and writer Beau Willimon’s titular biopic, is oft-mocked and misunderstood, in part because she was on the losing side of history.

“I think it’s always important to see very human, relatable characters on screen and for audiences to be able to watch someone who has been given a great deal of power and responsibility also have doubts about her ability and herself and who makes mistakes,” Ronan says.

“That’s what I really like about Mary’s story being told: you watch this woman succeed. But you also watch her fail, which is not only relatable, it also makes for the best stories.”

These roles also come with a major ask of audiences: Root for these women, just as you would for their anti-hero brethren, even when they do something questionable. Melissa McCarthy plays a writer forging letters in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” but audiences still root for her. And Maggie Gyllenhaal, who stars in writer-director Sara Colangelo’s “The Kindergarten Teacher,” understands it’s her job to persuade us to make that sacrifice. Gyllenhaal’s soft-spoken and nurturing Lisa takes extreme interest in a star pupil whose talent she believes is being squandered. Still, Gyllenhaal says, she doesn’t think Lisa’s “fundamentally crazy.”

“I think she’s driven crazy by the culture that she lives in,” Gyllenhaal says. The movie only works if we understand and relate to this woman. “You can certainly see the version of the movie where she’s the dark, gray shadow. I didn’t want her to be like that. I wanted this to feel like it could be any of us.”

Ultimately, all of these movies seek to show that these characters aren’t just women: they’re humans; humans who get the job done. Marina de Tavira’s Sofia says as much to her employee, Yalitza Aparicio’s Cleo, during a particularly noteworthy exchange in writer-director Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma.”

“We’re not perfect and we have flaws and when we’re going through a very difficult moment in our life … [there’s] pain and frustration,” de Tavira tells Variety.

That’s something worth remembering.

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