Oscars: How Anna Paquin, Margot Robbie and More Actresses Said So Much With So Little Dialogue

Race_FINAL_Silence Speak Louder Than Words_Comp - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Sony Pictures, Netflix and Warner Bros.

These female performers made the most of their screen time — despite having very few lines — when it came to their roles in films like 'The Irishman' and 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.'

In The Irishman, the silence is deafening. Martin Scorsese's mob epic clocks in at three and a half hours. During that time, men bellow and rage at one another. Shoot, stab and butcher one another. And spatter one another's gore across their surroundings. But the most electric moments in the film don't include threats or slaughter. Instead, they feature a silent young woman glaring at her father with abject shame.

"Why? Why? Why haven't you called Jo?" Peggy Sheeran (Anna Paquin) implores her hitman father when she learns their close family friend Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) has gone missing. (Jo is Hoffa's wife.) They're the first and last lines she speaks in the script. Yet, with those seven words, her fury and disgust reverberate louder than any man's death cry throughout the film, with Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) realizing he's forever curdled his relationship with his daughter.

Scorsese has rightfully come under fire for sculpting a miniseries-length film that barely features any dialogue or meaningful character development for women. This is not an outlier: According to a San Diego University study, only 35 percent of 2018's top-grossing films showcased 10 or more female characters in speaking roles. Eighty-two percent of the same movies had 10 or more male characters in speaking roles. Still, Paquin's performance is one of the most gutting aspects of The Irishman, as she plays heartbroken, introspective Peggy with hushed verve as her father's violence molds her entire life. (These are, after all, unspeakable things.) Peggy is the molten moral core of the entire narrative.

This isn't the first time, nor will it be the last, that a male filmmaker consciously chooses to make a symbol of innocence out of his female lead instead of devising a flesh-and-blood character. Yet, despite the undercooked nature of this archetype (colloquially dubbed "The Cute Mute," according to TVTropes.com), several actresses this year shined in minimalist roles.

In Quentin Tarantino's buddy action-comedy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Margot Robbie plays a fictionalized version of Sharon Tate, the actress who was murdered by members of the Manson Family in 1969. Tate's fate looms throughout the film, though we mostly follow her TV star neighbor and his man Friday (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, respectively) as they bungle their way through Hollywood politics. While DiCaprio and Pitt spit dialogue at each other in the style of classic Tarantino chattiness, we're also treated to more languid B-story scenes depicting sweet, pregnant Tate performing ordinary household chores or venturing out by herself to the movie theater to see her latest film. As the men's neuroses eat them alive, she practically glides across the film in a silent, dewy haze.

Robbie is extraordinary in the role, illuminating Tate — popularly remembered in the industry as a nurturing soul — beyond just a notorious tragedy. Her humble sunshine elevates an undeveloped character, and despite her lack of dialogue, Tate ends up being a more memorable part for Robbie than her turn in a glib disappointment like Bombshell. In fact, I personally believe that abbreviated or understated parts like these truly define what it means to be a "supporting" player, as opposed to roles like Pacino's in The Irishman or Pitt's in Once Upon a Time, which are essentially leads pushed to the side for awards season.

Other quiet standout performances of the year include Zazie Beetz as an unassuming neighbor in Joker, K Callan as the ancient Thrombey family matriarch in Knives Out and Francesca Hayward as an ingenue kitten in Cats. (Who is surprised these are all female roles?) Nonetheless, these actresses speak with their eyes in roles that demand blankness, respectively transforming themselves into an idealized love interest, an owl-like comic relief figure or a pure-hearted empty vessel drinking in the spectacle around her. They're striking characters, if not particularly loquacious ones.

Historically, Oscar voters have cherished nonspeaking female roles, possibly viewing them as a vestigial legacy of the lionized silent film era. Some cinephiles view it as easier to "tell" than "show" a character, which may be why we see high rates of Academy Award nominations for actors who express their dramatic power through their facial reactions and body language than through ever-flowing speech. Holly Hunter (The Piano), Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown), Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God), Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), Patty Duke (The Miracle Worker), Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) and Jane Wyman (Johnny Belinda) all scored Oscar nods or wins for mostly nonverbal performances. Thus, Paquin and Robbie could potentially surprise us Jan. 13 when the 2020 Oscar nominations are announced. Perhaps looks do kill.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.