Oscars: Why Daniela Vega's "Transformative Performance" in 'A Fantastic Woman' Deserves a Nom (Guest Column)

A Fantastic Woman Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The Chilean actress, who happens to be a transgender woman, "plays Marina with a grace, strength and resilience that is empowering and beautiful to behold."

Nick Adams is GLAAD's director of transgender media & representation.

It's not a spoiler to share that at the beginning of A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica), Marina, a transgender woman, experiences a tragedy that any one of us could face — the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one.

Every person watching this film can imagine how they would react if their spouse or significant other died quickly and without warning. But in the aftermath of her lover Orlando's death, Marina suffers aggressions both large and small from people who assume that their loving relationship must have been something else: transactional, violent, predatory. How else to explain why a man would love a transgender woman?

Marina is played by Daniela Vega, a Chilean actress who also happens to be a transgender woman. The story is told from her point-of-view and she appears in almost every scene. Ms. Vega plays Marina with a grace, strength and resilience that is empowering and beautiful to behold. The authenticity of her performance allows audiences to connect with Marina in a way that cannot be achieved when (as so often happens in film and TV) a man is hired to put on a dress and pretend to be a trans woman. Which makes the subsequent mistreatment she receives from doctors, the police, and her lover's family very real to the audience. It's heartbreaking.

Films about transgender people often portray tragic events, but typically the tragedy portrayed is specific to the experience of being transgender. Boys Don't Cry is about a young transgender man who is murdered because he is trans. The Danish Girl portrays a trans woman who is subjected to medical "treatments" intended to "cure" her, and who dies due to complications from transition-related surgeries. The Dallas Buyers Club features a trans woman who is rejected by her family, addicted to drugs, and dies of AIDS. In these films, and many others like them, viewers see a transgender character who suffers because they are transgender — something a non-trans person can feel sympathy for perhaps, but which they themselves cannot experience. But anyone with a heart can look at what happens to Marina and think, "No one should have to experience these things while they are grieving and in shock."

For months now, Vega's name has been included on Oscar prognosticators' lists as a potential best actress nominee. While there are many talented women vying for just five spots when Oscar nominees are announced on Jan. 23, Vega's name deserves to be a part of this exclusive group. If she does make the list, she would be the first out transgender actor nominated in any of the four main acting categories at the Academy Awards.

A Fantastic Woman is currently one of nine films still in contention on the Academy Awards shortlist for best foreign-language film, and we certainly hope it makes the final cut. In addition to winning critical raves for her performance, Ms. Vega worked closely with the film's writer-director, Sebastián Lelio, to ensure that the story accurately reflected the trans experience and that Marina is a multidimensional, fully human character. This isn't a film about Marina's transition (a reductive story many trans people are tired of seeing onscreen), she hasn't been marginalized into the street economy (she is a waitress and a singer), and she doesn't exist solely to be victimized. Tragedy strikes Marina, and that tragedy is compounded by the way she's treated, but ultimately, she resists, endures and shows remarkable strength.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has nominated many actors from foreign-language films in the best actor and actress categories, including Marion Cotillard, Isabelle Huppert, Roberto Benigni and Javier Bardem. It's also not unusual for a first-time actress to receive a best actress nod; it's a group that includes Lupita Nyong'o, Quvenzhane Wallis, Hailee Steinfeld, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Anna Paquin and Jennifer Hudson.

On Jan. 23, we hope to see Daniela Vega's work in A Fantastic Woman recognized by the Academy. Some critics are predicting that the best actress category may have five cisgender, white nominees this year. Ms. Vega should be nominated not simply because she is transgender, or because she's Latina, but because her performance merits recognition for what it accomplishes: allowing audiences to see themselves in the life of a transgender woman in Santiago, Chile. It's a transformative performance that is as deserving as any other this awards season. And it's films like A Fantastic Woman that make going to the movies still feel exciting and cathartic.

Nick Adams' Twitter handle is @NickGAdams.