Critic's Notebook: Why Scarlett Johansson Should Win a Best Actress Oscar

The consensus is that this was a bad year, but a look beyond Oscar buzz reveals reasons for (cautious) optimism, starting with the 'Under the Skin' star

This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Although women make up 52 percent of the moviegoing public in the U.S. and Canada, it's a commonly accepted truth that astonishingly few actresses find fulfillment on the big screen.

Despite the box-office gains of female-driven movies, as well as the decadeslong debate about the representation of women in film, this year's best actress Oscar race suggests the sorry state of things. While the crop of statuette-seeking actors counts several combinations of frontrunners, threats and dark horses, the ladies who look like they are leading the pack are Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Reese Witherspoon (Wild) and probably Hilary Swank (The Homesman) and Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl).

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These women are talented, and few will complain if Moore, long overdue for Academy recognition, takes the prize for her moving study of a woman with early-onset Alzheimer's. But the fact that hardly any other names have been cited by prognosticators points to the paucity of meaty female roles in movies made by studios and major U.S. independents.

That said, Oscar buzz doesn't tell the whole story; the Academy tends to favor certain types of actresses and roles year after year. Happily, 2014 offered several rich and distinctive female performances -- mainly in foreign, small indie and genre films -- that fell somewhat outside that box. The New York Film Critics Circle on Dec. 1 implicitly recognized that fact by ignoring the "favorites" and naming Marion Cotillard best actress for her turns as a woman fighting to keep her job in the Belgium-set Two Days, One Night and as a Polish immigrant forced into prostitution in 1920s New York in the little-seen The Immigrant.

Unsurprisingly, some of the best lead performances by women were in non-U.S. films, all of which got limited stateside distribution: the ferociously contained Agata Trzebuchowska as a Polish nun who learns she's Jewish and Agata Kulesza as her alcoholic aunt in Ida; Essie Davis as a deranged mom in Aussie horror flick The Babadook; Mia Wasikowska's dogged wanderer in another Australian film, Tracks; Angeli Bayani's noble nanny in the Singaporean Ilo Ilo; and luminous breakout Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the British period piece Belle.

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One of the most brilliant female turns of 2014 was by Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress out for male flesh in the existential sci-fi Under the Skin (a film likely too strange to lure Academy voters). It's telling that a performer of Johansson's earning power had to venture into deepest Scotland and darkest art house territory to showcase the extent of her gifts. The film's impact stemmed not just from how the actress and director Jonathan Glazer toyed with her movie-star glamour -- flaunting her sexual magnetism in its earthiest, most touchingly unvarnished form -- it also came from how Johansson used stillness to convey her character's intelligence and thirst for survival.

Johansson was almost as good in Luc Besson's summer hit Lucy as a woman who gains superhuman strength after accidentally ingesting drugs; the movie was flawed, but an emotionally climactic scene in which Lucy phones her mother was a knockout. It's another genre film and thus unlikely to be on the Academy's radar for an acting prize. Ditto Guardians of the Galaxy, in which Zoe Saldana, under green greasepaint, added great nuance between bouts of butt-kicking, putting a distinct feminine mark on classically macho fare.

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Meanwhile, in indieland, which often has more conducive soil for woman-led storytelling, there was no shortage of strong female work. Jenny Slate, playing a young stand-up comic dealing with an unwanted pregnancy in Obvious Child, was a standout, as was Tilda Swinton as a languorous, droll vampire in Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive. And why isn't The Weinstein Co. pushing harder for Keira Knightley's delightful (and tuneful) turn as a romantically confused singer-songwriter in John Carney's folk musical Begin Again?

The main reason for optimism about women in movies this year came from behind the camera. There were impressive directorial efforts from Kelly Reichardt (Night Moves), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Amma Asante (Belle) and Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child), work that won critical plaudits and audience support (even if the Academy is unlikely to pay attention). And Laura Poitras' Edward Snowden doc Citizenfour was so rapturously received, it's considered a frontrunner for the documentary Oscar and a potential -- though long shot -- best picture contender.

Read more Why Julianne Moore Could Win the Best Actress Oscar for 'Still Alice'

Most excitingly, there's a strong possibility that the Academy will nominate at least one woman for best director (only four ever have been nominated): Angelina Jolie for Unbroken and/or Ava DuVernay for Selma.

The latter would be the first African-American woman singled out in that category. The story of the Martin Luther King Jr.-led drive for black voter rights in the South, Selma finds DuVernay grappling in a muscular, unsentimental way with ambitious historical storytelling. Moreover, the director stages powerful scenes of police violence against blacks, an issue that has immense resonance right now -- and which would, in a fair world, make DuVernay's achievement impossible for viewers and Oscar to ignore.

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