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Denver Film Festival's Wonder Women: Cast Your Vote for This Cast of Characters

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 3/11/2015 Michael Bialas

The career arcs of Meryl Streep and Mary Louise Wilson have taken decidedly different trajectories. But their paths as actors intersect this week at the 38th Denver Film Festival, which opens Wednesday (Nov. 4) and continues through Nov. 15.
DFF logo copy © Provided by The Huffington Post DFF logo copy While the festival will offer more than 250 movies from around the world, including features, documentaries, shorts, panels and many other events, Streep and Wilson proudly represent their profession in two films that go their disparate ways to carry a similarly powerful message.
And if this might finally be considered the cinematic Year of Women, they both deserve to have their day. But guess who has the bigger part?
Thanks to performers like Streep, Wilson and fellow actors who were called "actresses" to differentiate them from men, women in filmmaking are getting the attention in 2015 that's long overdue. If only earning equal pay was part of the package.
At least festivals like Denver's are stating their case again by showcasing some of the best female actors in the business over 12 days in November.
It all begins with Anomalisa, which takes the prime Opening Night slot at the swanky Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Though you only hear her voice as the titular character in Charlie Kaufman's wonderfully wacky stop-action, puppet-animated film, hugely underrated actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (one of my top five faves since 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High) has her sweetest role in years.
She has yet to be nominated for an Oscar despite a slew of brilliant portrayals -- whether it was as a murderous whack job (Single White Female), hardened prostitute (Last Exit to Brooklyn) or drug-addicted rock-star wannabe (Georgia). Maybe that drought will end now, depending on what Quentin Tarantino has in mind for her in The Hateful Eight, though the trailer hints that Leigh will return to her girl-gone-wild ways.
Woman Like Me, A © Provided by The Huffington Post Woman Like Me, A Other shining stars will be further illuminated in feature films (listed in chronological order) such as Wednesday night's Suffragette (Carey Mulligan, with Streep in a supporting role), Brooklyn (Saoirse Ronan, Nov. 5), Camino (longtime Tarantino stuntwoman and Hateful Eight cast member Zoe Bell, Nov. 12-13), the heartrending A Woman Like Me (Lili Taylor, left, Nov. 12-13), Carol (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, Red Carpet Matinee on Nov. 14) and The Lady in the Van (Maggie Smith, Nov. 15), along with the documentary She's the Best Thing in It (Wilson, Nov. 13, 14, 15).
A number of these films were viewed ahead of time, so reader beware: Consider this your semi-spoiler alert.
CAROL © Provided by The Huffington Post CAROL In the title role of "Carol," Cate Blanchett (right) plays an elegant
and wealthy sophisticate stuck in the '50s.

In a season when it's never too early to start looking for Academy Award candidates, Carol undoubtedly will catch your eye. Artfully directed by Todd Haynes, it's a tasteful presentation of two women who fall in love, a relationship considered taboo by square 1950s Midwest standards. Blanchett plays Carol, the elegant and wealthy sophisticate with everything (including a husband and child), while Mara is Therese, the quiet department store clerk who has nothing but ambition and her youth.
Denver Film Festival Director Britta Erickson already has praised the film's "stunning Oscar-worthy performances," and those responsible for promoting such things would agree.
Deciding which female actor should be regarded in the lead and supporting roles has created much debate among critics. But Variety reported after the Toronto Film Festival that the Weinstein Company would campaign for Blanchett in the superstar category over Mara, whose performance earned her best actress honors at Cannes in May and a Silver Medallion presentation at Telluride in September.
Todd Haynes, Rooney Mara © Provided by The Huffington Post Todd Haynes, Rooney Mara The look of the film was equally as impressive as the acting. Haynes, who also was in Telluride and participated in Q&A's following the tribute and screenings, didn't meet Mara (right with Haynes) until rehearsals in Cincinnati in February but "Todd does so much research and opened so much of that up to me so even by the time we got there, we knew what film we were gonna be in," said Mara, who seemed embarrassed when a questioner in the crowd compared her to a young Audrey Hepburn. "We knew the color palette, what it should sound like and feel like. It was really helpful."
Craving what you don't have is a theme in Phyllis Nagy's delicate adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1952 romance novel, and Haynes said he used a different strategy than he did on Far From Heaven, his 2002 film also set in the '50s that was nominated for four Academy Awards, including his for best original screenplay.
"We really had a whole different kind of series of references that inspired the look and style of the film," said Haynes, who worked with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Edward Lachman for the fourth time. "For me, I took it on as a challenge to really pay close attention to the love story as a genre, and kind of examine or find curiosity in a way the most resounding love stories work, which to me have a lot to do with point of view and subjectivity, and the novel as itself is completely and totally locked inside the subjectivity of Therese.
"Phyllis' first adaptation of the script opened that up and created access to Carol but I still felt that there was something powerful about being located with the more vulnerable partner, lover, full of the anxieties and the uncertainties of their emotions and how the question that determines their fate is how does that person (think), 'Do they feel the way I do?' "
Streep has just a smidgen of screen time in Suffragette, director Sarah Gavron's depiction of the struggle working women endured to earn the right to vote in 1900s England. Suffragette © Provided by The Huffington Post Suffragette Yet the record holder for most Academy Award acting nominations (19) has used this film, starring Carey Mulligan (left), as a sounding board for gender equality in the industry since this year's festival circuit began.
She and Gavron were two of the esteemed members of a panel I witnessed at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend that also included Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams of Spotlight and director Laszlo Nemes and actor Geza Rohrig of Son of Saul, the harrowing Holocaust drama that also plays in Denver (Nov. 9).
The subject of the noon discussion in a packed Elks Park that Saturday was "To what extent can fiction films grapple with historical abuses?"
Michael Keaton, Sarah Gavron laugh, Meryl Streep © Provided by The Huffington Post Michael Keaton, Sarah Gavron laugh, Meryl Streep From left: Michael Keaton, director Sarah Gavron and Meryl Streep
enjoy a moment at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival.

"We wanted to show it as it was," said Gavron, a British filmmaker and BAFTA Award nominee for 2007's Brick Lane. "And it was an untold story, that was the extraordinary thing."
She and screenwriter Abi Morgan decided, "Let's tell the story as it is, but also let's tell a human story, so people can engage with it, so that people can follow a character," Gavron added about Suffragette, initially a demeaning term used in the Daily Mail in 1906 to describe activists supporting women's suffrage. "And we focused on Maud (Watts), (a fictionalized composite) played by Carey, the ordinary woman, and tried to just chart her journey toward activism so you can understand looking back what would make a woman do that. What would make her commit civil disobedience, what would make her endure prison sentences and force feeding."
Meryl Streep hands © Provided by The Huffington Post Meryl Streep hands Streep (right), who has played her share of strong, independent characters, either fictional (Sophie's Choice, The Devil Wears Prada) or real (Margaret Thatcher, Julia Child) called Suffragette's Emmeline Pankhurst, an actual leader in the UK women's movement and the mother of four children who needed a job after her husband died, "extraordinary," with a rich past that made it easy to want to research.
"Suffragette is interesting because the British attempt to get the votes for women was violent, and it was strategically violent," Streep said. "And it was about destroying property, of hurting people.
"Basically, women in England, in 1913, which was not that long ago, it was 100 years ago, but my grandmother was alive. Women ... the marriage age was 12, legal. Many, many women didn't think that was a good idea, but they had no vote. A lot of men thought it was a good idea, so that was the marriage age. Women wanted the vote so that they could change their lives, and now we have it and we waste it. We don't realize that we can still change our lives."
That drew hearty applause in the park, and everyone was completely won over until near the end of the session, when questions from the crowd were taken.
A female member of millennial generation wanted to know from her older counterparts if the representation of women in film is progressing or digressing?
The panel looked to Streep, who joked, "Why do I have to do everything?" before offering a semi-serious answer:
"My problem with your question is I feel the collective collapse in the hearts of so many of the men in the audience when you ask that question. I feel the exhaustion from that subject which they feel they've heard enough about. 'Honestly, really, we're gonna do this again?' "
Laughs and a few mild groans could be heard before Keaton defended his brethren.
"I have to say something," said the former comedian who was robbed of a best actor Oscar this year for his commanding performance in Birdman. "That's kind of bullshit. And I'll tell you why."
He went on a rant that was part playful, part profound, taking a few minutes to sum up his beliefs.
"My generation, when I was in college, I was well, well, well aware, and I did not come from this background, trust me, trust me when I tell you," he said. "I was very aware of racism because I read a lot and I felt it, not personally, but I saw it. ... I've been an environmentalist since I was 19 years old. I have three sisters who were as tough as my brothers and as bright, and I'm as close to them as I am my brothers. On my campus, which was kind of just a middle-of-the-road campus, Kent State, until 1970, I was aware of a women's movement, the environmental movement, a minority movement. ...

"So I don't think there is that exasperation, honestly. I'm looking at some of these guys. These guys, I think, are probably cool with it. First of all, I'm at a certain age where I'm used to it. I love my sisters. And all you gotta do is love your mom and love your sisters and love your girlfriends and love your wives, and you're halfway home."

Streep agreed, but was pleased to put her message out there for public consumption, even if Keaton, who was seen yawning earlier in the discussion, had the panel's last word: "Frankly, I thought things were getting a little dull."
There's nothing boring about the battle to raise awareness about sexism in showbiz, though, as one of today's leading ladies, Jennifer Lawrence, recently pumped up the volume by addressing the pay gap problem. Streep even went so far as to attack Rotten Tomatoes for the severe shortage of women among the contributors the film review website showcases.
A few years ago, Mary Louise Wilson could have used a little help from Streep, whose real first and middle birth names are also Mary Louise. As Wilson's film and TV roles diminished (bit parts in Nebraska, Nurse Jackie and Louie in the past five years), the 2007 Tony Award winner at age 75 (Grey Gardens) ended up taking a first-time teaching job in the drama department at Tulane University in New Orleans, the city where she grew up.
She's The Best Thing In It © Provided by The Huffington Post She's The Best Thing In It That experience is only part of the very moving documentary She's the Best Thing in It (left), among 11 films along with Suffragette and the part-narrative, part-doc A Woman Like Me included in the festival's Women+Film series.
Confined to mostly supporting roles over a 40-year career on stage and screen, Wilson also earned a Tony nomination as Cabaret's Fraulein Schneider in 1998, the same year Jennifer Jason Leigh portrayed Sally Bowles in Sam Mendes' Broadway revival at the Kit Kat Club.
That Wilson's acting efforts have often gone unrecognized serves as a source of consternation during the film lovingly directed by Ron Nyswaner. Also commenting on similar battles are fellow character actors interviewed for the film such as Tyne Daly, Estelle Parsons and Melissa Leo, though they all are Oscar or Emmy winners. Even Frances McDormand, who has won an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony, remarks, "I have been supporting male protagonists in movies, television and plays for 30 years. ... You kind of end up being a character actor by default sometimes."
During a scene in the film, Wilson even gives a shout-out (with accompanying clips) to the "goddess of character actresses," telling her students what they already should know.
Asking her class if they like Streep, most of the students raise their hands, and Wilson exclaims, "She's the best actress living, no question about it. She's the greatest actress living."
Maybe so, but in the Year of Women, Wilson should be in the running for Woman of the Year.
Telluride Film Festival photos by Michael Bialas. See more from the event held Sept. 4-7, 2015. Suffragette still: Steffan Hill/Focus Features. All other movie stills courtesy of the Denver Film Festival.

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