A University professor stricken with early-onset Alzheimer’s. An artist whose husband takes credit for her work. A witch with a hidden agenda. And the directors of the Christmas season’s two most eagerly awaited dramas.
For once, Hollywood’s Cassandras may have to mothball their familiar (and true) plaint that women are the second-class citizens of the film business. In front of the camera and behind it, women have recently and gloriously come to the fore. The streak looks to continue through the holidays, right up to Oscar night.
Consider that in 2013 The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, starring Jennifer Lawrence, was the No. 1 hit in North America; it was the first year since 1965, when Julie Andrews brought the hills alive with The Sound of Music, that the domestic box-office champ had a top-billed female lead. At the worldwide box office, the leader was the Disney double-princess musical Frozen, grossing $1.3 billion.
This summer, the Disney fantasy Maleficent rode Angelina Jolie’s magnificence to a $758 million global payday. Another adventure with a female lead, Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy, earned $459 million on a budget reported to have been $40 million; dollar for dollar, this was the summer’s most profitable smash. In early fall, the most alluring attraction was a cool blonde–Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne in Gone Girl–until Lawrence reclaimed her primacy with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1. As for the Christmas movies, a little child may lead them: 11-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis in the remake of Annie.
December is traditionally a warm month for female-angled movies as women anchor earnest films with hopes of filling slots in the Motion Picture Academy’s Best Actress nominations. This month the competition is particularly intense, headed by Julianne Moore as the professor in Still Alice, Amy Adams as painter Margaret Keane in Big Eyes and Meryl Streep as the Witch in Into the Woods.
The year’s list of fine performances can hardly fit into a five-woman short list. Felicity Jones is splendid as Stephen Hawking’s wife in The Theory of Everything. Reese Witherspoon gives full physical and emotional commitment to her role in Wild as a recovering heroin addict who takes an 1,100-mile (1,770 km) solo hike. Marion Cotillard subtly harnesses her star vitality in The Immigrant as a Polish newcomer to America and in Two Days, One Night as a cashiered factory worker who must persuade her colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job; Cotillard earned the New York Film Critics Circle Best Actress award for both films. A long shot but a worthy one is Essie Davis’ spectacular turn as a mother haunted by a children’s-book demon in the acclaimed Australian thriller The Babadook.
More impressive still, because rarer, is the achievement of two female directors. Jolie’s Unbroken is the biography of Olympic athlete and World War II bombardier Louis Zamperini, who survived 47 days on a life raft in the Pacific and then two years of torture in Japanese POW camps. Ava DuVernay’s Selma focuses on Martin Luther King Jr.’s battle for the Voting Rights Act in the wake of the bombing of an Alabama church that killed four girls. Both films, which open on Christmas Day, argue powerfully for the heroism of nonviolent resistance; both are true, gripping stories of epic sweep. If Academy voters take their cue from prerelease rapture, it will be the first time the five nominees for the Best Director Oscar include two women.
Back in the 1960s, no respectable prizes went to the “big eyes” Keane paintings of waifs with space-alien orbs. All the stuff did was sell, by the millions. What no one knew then was that Walter Keane, who built the business and took all the credit, wasn’t the artist; his wife Margaret was. That his big eyes were big lies remained a secret until Margaret went public in 1970.
As Adams plays her in Tim Burton’s Day-Glo-bright movie, Margaret is a pretty divorcée with a Marilyn hairdo but no visible personality; she’s platinum bland and the ideal prey for Walter (Christoph Waltz) and his predatory charm. To keep her quiet and daubing away in her locked atelier, he manipulates her basement-level self-esteem.
One could argue that Walter’s entrepreneurial flair–he turned Margaret’s big eyes into a flourishing operation that peddled not just paintings but also posters and postcards–was the equal of her artistic talent, however that may be defined. But the script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who also wrote Burton’s biopic Ed Wood) keeps pursuing its view of Walter as a psycho Svengali, leaving Adams to inhabit the mousy wife who finally dares to toot the horn he’s been playing.
It’s a tough challenge to create the arc from a damsel who is often tearful, like the gamines she paints, to the woman who takes belated charge of her ego and her legacy, but Adams manages it with her usual acuity. In The Fighter, The Master and American Hustle, she proved her expertise at evoking the ordinary demeanor that conceals an extraordinary will. Here Adams raises the thin material to her level. She is the fragile, then ferocious soul behind Big Eyes.
Women of all strengths and foibles abound in Into the Woods, Rob Marshall’s solid version of the 1987 Broadway fairy tale from James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim. The Witch frightens the Baker’s Wife (a ravishing Emily Blunt) and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and stokes the fury of a lady Giant (Frances de la Tour) who’s laying waste to a forest populated by craven men and impish kids. Amid the magic beans and dread curses, everybody sings Sondheim’s spiky, skeptical, glorious airs.
Marshall, whose 2002 Chicago is the only musical since Oliver! in 1969 to win the Best Picture Oscar, leads his stellar cast through odd transformations, none odder than Streep’s from crone to young stunner. In a career of metamorphoses, this is one of Magic Meryl’s most memorable.
Memory is what has begun to elude Alice Howland, the linguistics professor Moore plays in Still Alice, which directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have adapted from Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel. Alice’s poise and wit–we might say her perfection–have long been taken for granted by all who know her, not least herself. So she is the first to see warning signs: getting lost as she walks to her seminar at Columbia or stumbling into a black hole in an otherwise familiar sentence. At 50, she has started to follow the line of decay traced in Billy Collins’ poem “Forgetfulness”: “as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor/ decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,/ to a little fishing village where there are no phones.”
At first Alice is angry, crying, “I wish I had cancer!”; she could accept it if her body, not her mind, were betraying her. Worst is the indignity: forgetting where the bathroom in her home is and then why she needed to go there. Her husband John (Alec Baldwin) and grown children (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish) want to help but not to the extent of surrendering their lives–or, perhaps, soiling their memories of the Alice they’ve loved, who may not still be Alice.
Moore is always fearless and pitch-perfect–even in extreme roles, like the aging actress fighting for one last great part in David Cronenberg’s corrosive movie satire Maps to the Stars (to be released in the U.S. in February). Here she is quietly magnificent, locating each poignant nuance as Alice tries valiantly if vainly to hold on to her memory, her bearings, her old cunning, herself. In a strong holiday season for women in movies, the most precious present may be this gift from Julianne Moore.
This appears in the December 15, 2014 issue of TIME.