400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
The "Best Actress" Oscar category is usually pretty dull, for two reasons. The main reason is that movies are often generated with men in mind, but the other reason is that, when women actually do get great roles, they're usually too challenging or obscure for Academy voters to bother with. Voters prefer to stick with the usual, heavily dramatic, preferably suffering women characters. And this year is no different. Thus Angelina Jolie gets nominated for losing a child, rather than Michelle Williams for losing a dog. It doesn't matter that almost anyone you ask probably likes Wendy & Lucy (13 screens) better than Changeling; it's the degree of suffering we're talking about here. (Not to mention that Jolie's performance is based on a true story -- actual, real-life suffering -- while Williams' is not.)
That said, there's one thing the Academy likes better than suffering, and that's giving "make up" awards to actors, filmmakers and artists that they've overlooked, which explains why so many great talents have won for their worst work. (Prime example? Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. I need say no more.) It's almost as if this year's Best Actress category has been specifically arranged, handicapped for the benefit of Kate Winslet, so that the six-time nominee can finally take home her first statue, for one of her least relevant films (though not her worst; that would be Iris). Not only is she in there for a Nazi/Holocaust movie -- a genre that she herself made fun of in an episode of "Extras" -- but the Academy made sure that her competition was so far behind her that there's practically no other choice.