For the third year in a row, the nominating committee of the Film Independent Spirit Awards has deviated from the traditional ballot of five names in the category of Best Female Lead to select six outstanding performances: Karen Allen in Colewell, Hong Chau in Driveways, Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell, Mary Kay Place in Diane, Alfre Woodard in Clemency and Renée Zellweger in Judy. This year’s crop is a half dozen of established film stars who offer memorable work in independent films.
As voting gets underway (and ends on January 29), I spoke to a Spirit Awards voter who wanted to detail each of the nominees and reveal his pick for Best Female Lead.
The Film Independent Spirit Awards will be hosted by Aubrey Plaza and air live on IFC February 8, 2020, 2:00 PM PST.
BEWARE: there are severe spoilers in this discussion involving plot details and film endings. The commentary below is meant as a guideline for Spirit Awards voters who have seen the nominated performances in all six films.
Karen Allen in Colewell
At the height of her film career, Karen Allen appeared in a highly successful string of acclaimed populist films (National Lampoon’s Animal House, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Starman). As she aged, she moved away from Hollywood to work in regional theater and independent film. That labor outside the spotlight has resulted in her second Film Independent Spirit Award nomination. The first was 32 years ago for The Glass Menagerie opposite Joanne Woodward. This year she is nominated for Best Actress for Colewell.
Colewell, a brief (79 minute) character study, examines Nora Pancowski’s life crisis. For 35 years she has served as a postmaster in rural Pennsylvania. In response to a reduced demand for postal services in an increasingly digital world, the federal government has axed the Colewell post office. Nora is bereft. Brought to this shrinking community by a hitchhiking journey that resulted in a long forgotten marriage, this job has become entwined with Nora’s identity. The post office is physically located in Nora’s home. Her closest friend is the driver who brings the mail from the regional center.
The notice of closure shakes Nora to her core. Facing a choice of reassignment to the regional center a bus ride away or early retirement, Nora publicly responds to the dilemma with a quiet dignity. As her deadline for a decision draws near, Allen allows Nora’s stoicism to crumble into tearful desperation. At the meeting with the human resources officer, Nora pleads for a five year reprieve for the Colewell station to remain open. The film serves as a cautionary tale to all who allow their identity to be defined by their employment, so that retirement becomes an ending note, not a transition.
Allen’s face fills the screen with a radiant beauty undiminished by age. Her tresses are now streaked with grey and her trademark chiseled jawline has softened with the years. Yet, her eyes sparkle with the same intelligence and verve. The camera still loves Allen. As a result, we do as well. This carefully modulated performance returns a beloved actress to our attention.
Hong Chau in Driveways
Medical transcriber Kathy (Film Independent Best Actress nominee Hong Chau) has unexpectedly inherited a rural upstate New York home following the death of her estranged older sister. Along with her eight year old son Cody (Lucas Jaye), Kathy arrives to the see the house and prepare it for sale. The task will not be as easy as Kathy first thought since her sister was a hoarder. The two story cottage is teeming havoc. Cody goes to the toilet and winds up peeing on himself, startled when he spies the rotting body of a dead cat in the bathtub. After meeting with a local real estate agent, Kathy establishes a niche for her and Cody on the sleeping porch. The two settle in for a summer of physical labor cleaning out the accumulated trash.
The screenplay by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen was originally written for a white woman. Director Andrew Ahn (Spa Night) cast Chau to enrich the dynamic in the relationship with elderly next door neighbor Del, a Korean War veteran, who develops a friendship with Cody. Chau is quite effective working with child actor Jaye. Kathy calls her son Professor. He is skittish with the world, responding negatively to the rowdy boys of the neighborhood. Chau conveys a maternal protectiveness that calms Cody. The role of Kathy is devoid of any large emotions. Rather, the film requires Chau to provide a stable safety net for Cody as he ventures into the world and begins to find a sense of self under Del’s watchful eye.
When we juxtapose Chau’s work here with her quite recent performance as Ngoc Lan Tran in Downsizing, the impression is staggering. This actress is truly a chameleon. Without any particular physical changes, the difference between characters portrayed by Chau in the two films is breathtaking. Becoming increasingly difficult to believe that the same woman played both roles, we are left with a deep respect for the talent of this gifted actress.
Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell
First and foremost, let’s clarify the title of this film for those who haven’t seen it. The advertising features a wild eyed Elisabeth Moss grimacing with an outstretched tongue alongside the title Her Smell. The title doesn’t refer to a distasteful aroma surrounding a disheveled, unwashed punk rocker. The title, instead, refers to that unique scent a parent inhales from their freshly scrubbed, innocent young child. With that, let’s discuss Moss.
This is The Handmaid Tale’s star’s second Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Actress. Moss plays musician Becky Something, a one trick pony now declining due to her volatile personality and drug addiction. Becky seems determined to alienate everyone in her life. The film is a collection of five short films that capture snapshots of Becky at specific times in her life. Moss is solid throughout, yet that inexplicable drive to alienate those closest to her in the early vignettes carries over to the audience. This character and her behavior could easily be described as repulsive. There is little here to identify with or embrace. That speaks to the strength of Moss’s performance as well as the failure of the film to find a balance.
Late in the movie, Becky is living in the Pacific Northwest. She no longer performs. Tama, an infant at the beginning of the film, is now perhaps kindergarten age and comes to visit. Becky has let go of the need to be cool. Image is no longer a consideration. Mother and daughter are seated at the piano. Becky plays and sings a simple version of the song “Heaven” by Brian Adams. The moment is sweet. Moss contributes a palpable sincerity. We feel Becky’s awareness of the past and a true desire to make amends. A better film would end here, but the movie keeps going.
Her Smell is loosely based on the public persona of Courtney Love. The novelty of playing a female musician without boundaries appeals to some of our best actresses. Meryl Streep (Ricki and the Flash) and Natalie Portman (Vox Lux) both recently explored the genre. Moss gives a stronger performance than those, but she pales in comparison to the larger than life, masterful work of Bette Midler in the 40 year old classic The Rose.
Mary Kay Place in Diane
Diane (Film Independent Spirit Award Best Actress nominee Mary Kay Place) is tired. In the hospital room of her dying cousin, Diane has drifted off to sleep atop a homemade afghan spread upon the chair. Though terminal, Donna sits at the edge of her hospital bed and watches Diane sleep till she wakes.
Diane, retired, lives a simple existence. She fills her mundane days driving casseroles to friends in need who in turn make casseroles for her. The healthy ones drink coffee and update one another on the condition of those who aren’t well. Diane visits her cousin Donna in the hospital to play cards and pass the hours. Diane and her best friend Bobbie eat salads and feed the homeless. Diane has an unspoken belief that her zealous devotion to good works will yield long desired change. She seeks to absolve her guilt for an illicit affair years ago and yearns for a cure for her drug-addicted son.
Place underplays all the melodrama. Yet, her physical movements maintain our concern and awareness of Diane’s exhaustion. She struggles to don her coat. On occasion, the exertion causes her to lose her balance. Place chooses to have Diane react at unexpected prompts. While serving the homeless, the volunteer next to her chastises an elderly man for taking a third helping. Diane snaps and her anger brims over. She reprimands the woman for her uncharitable remarks. Bobbie guides Diane out of the serving line and helps her regain her composure. As Diane calms, Place has Diane breathe deeply in what might be a yawn. Her eyes blink with exhaustion and we are reminded that Diane is tired.
The generic message here is that we need one another. At one point, Diane tells her son, “You are not alone.” Yet the truth is that everything in the film contradicts this. As friends and family around her die, Place silently shows Diane feeling her solitude with greater intensity.
The film concludes with Diane’s death. She is outside. Her eyes widen as she hears voices from a variety of her friends and family speaking to her. As the voices talk over one another and the sound becomes jumbled, Diane sinks to the frost-covered ground. She sighs with contentment. As a neighbor calls 911, Diane looks up past the bare treetops and into the bright clouds drifting overhead. It is Place’s achievement that we are heartened that this fine woman will finally get the rest she so desperately sought.
Alfre Woodard in Clemency
Clemency is an impressive achievement for previous Film Independent Spirit Award winner Alfre Woodard. At the end of the film, the audience is not faced with the ethical dilemma of supporting or opposing the concept of capital punishment. Rather, we are challenged to look closely at the effect the act of the government executing its citizens has on those employed to complete the distasteful task.
One reason I love Clemency is because it explores the actual profession of a prison warden. Too often an occupation just serves as peripheral information to add color to a character. Here the struggle and difficulty of the high pressure job is the centerpiece of the film. The long close ups on Alfre Woodard’s face show us the physical effects of the job stress on this competent woman. While underplaying the intensity of the scenes, her eyes reveal the impact on her well being.
In one of the many memorable moments from the film, the grandmother (Vernee Watson) of a condemned prisoner asks for an honest assessment of the man’s chances of clemency. In a clipped professional tone, Warden Bernadine Williams warns of little hope. In profound grief, the conflicted woman clutches the warden in a tight clinch and weeps. The camera lingers on Woodard in a tight shot. In this wrenching moment, we see the complexity of compassion, professionalism, and discomfort wash across her face.
This aspect of criminal justice is not a profession many of us would seek or endure. We are privileged to see a remarkably gifted but criminally underutilized actress land a great role and present the portrait of a fully realized human being in a masterful performance that rings with a refined intellect and deep emotional truths.
Renée Zellweger in Judy
Early in the film, Judy Garland arrives late at night at an elegant hotel. With her two elementary school age children in tow, she crosses the cavernous lobby to the front desk. There the hotel employee refers her as Miss Garland. In a medium close up, the exhausted film legend announces, “Oh please, I’m Judy.” With that, actress Renée Zellweger defiantly declares that she is Judy Garland, and we are never given reason for the next two hours to question it.
The film explores the end of the celebrated actress’s life. Facing mounting debt and an absence of cash, Garland accepts an extended nightclub engagement in London. Initially an outstanding success, Garland’s substance abuse-fueled performances deteriorate and ultimately test the patience of audiences and club owners alike. In a famous incident, Garland is on stage, markedly unable to perform. The patrons at the show pelt the drug addled entertainer with dinner buns. Zellweger, in her third Film Independent Spirit Best Actress nomination, generates compassion while still compelling us to witness Garland’s unprofessionalism and spiraling addiction.
A high point of Zellweger’s work here takes place in the apartment of two homosexual fans who hold balcony seats for each show. At the end of the night, Garland is invigorated without an outlet. She meets the pair waiting at the stage door and spontaneously invites them to join her for supper. Since no restaurants are open, the three wind up in the couple’s apartment. Dinner is bungled, and one of the men falls asleep at the late hour with the exhaustion of overstimulation. Judy and the second man sit quietly at the piano. He plays beautifully while Garland quietly sings. He stops and weeps. Garland embraces him. We next see a shot of the star walking back to her hotel alone beneath a streetlight. The loneliness is heartbreaking.
My vote goes to Alfre Woodard for Clemency.