Best Actress Oscar: Body of work or single performance?

There's always much debate and discussion this time of year. It has nothing to do with taxes or college basketball, but rather, the Oscars.

Always hotly contested, the competition for the Best Actress statue has reached a boiling point the last couple years. Last year, it was Team Sandra versus Team Streep. This year, it's Natalie Portman versus Annette Bening. 

I spent this weekend in L.A. with a group of young women, from 22 to 33 years old, and we discussed past Best Actress Oscar winners. The funny thing is, our favorite actresses tend to be about twenty or thirty years our senior.

One of the points that was brought up was: should an Oscar be based on one performance or should it take into consideration the body of work. Typing that out, it seems silly, because Oscars are based on one performance. An Oscar nomination is for one movie, it's not a lifetime achievement award. Sometimes it's hard to remember that, though, when you take into consideration things like: Charlize Theron: one Oscar, Laura Linney: zero Oscars. Halle Berry: one Oscar, Patricia Clarkson: zero Oscars. Meryl Streep: a zillion nominations, only two Oscars. 

So even though the nomination is based on one performance, it's hard to feel celebratory when some of the greatest actresses of their generation are getting passed over for younger actresses who have, let's face it, pretty flimsy bodies of work.

As my sister said, she finds it hard to love young actresses. Why is that? Hollywood certainly loves them. They're constantly getting cast in the next big thing. 

Maybe it's like the Lady Gaga versus Madonna argument. You cannot claim Lady Gaga is the new Madonna until she's been around for thirty years and reinvented herself umpteen times. Only then I will concede that yes, she is. 

Can you claim that someone is a great actress because she gave an amazing performance in The Blind Side? Have we forgotten she was in The Lake House? Speed 2? Hope Floats? Sorry, Sandy.
On the other hand, the argument for actresses like Sandra Bullock and Reese Witherspoon and Charlize Theron would be if only those actresses who have a deep body of work were nominated and won an Oscar every year, it would be a pretty small pool. And Meryl Streep, as much as I love her, doesn't really need fifteen Oscars.
So on Sunday, I'll just try to forget about Annette Bening's performances in American Beauty and Being Julia. Although, in my mind, the swan queen will never outrank singing Joni Mitchell at the dinner table.

I won't be a chauffeur forever.

I've always rolled my eyes when an awards ceremony gets to the miniseries/TV movie portion. I'm not sure I could tell you the last quality miniseries or TV movie I watched, much less genuinely enjoyed. (And yes, I'm including HBO in that. John Adams? I love Laura Linney, but boring.)

So as always, the British are proving they're better at the genre than us Americans.

Recently, PBS Masterpiece aired Downton Abbey, a seven part series that aired on Britain's ITV network last October. The series--which may not be so mini anymore, since it got renewed for another seven episodes--is created by Julian Fellowes, who wrote Gosford Park and Young Victoria.

Downton, much like Gosford Park, explores the lives of servants and aristocrats at a country estate during the Edwardian era. 

Many probably think the Edwardian years are not far removed from the Victorian era, but quite the contrary, the show has several strong female characters, both upstairs and down.

Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), the eldest daughter of the family that lives on the estate, does not always follow the path the aristocracy would want her to take. She turns down several potential suitors, seemingly unconcerned with fitting into society's prescriptions. It's not quite clear what Mary is searching for, someone to love her, although even once she has that, she seems to turn away from it. A complicated, but not always likeable character, it'll be interesting to see where the next season will take her.

The youngest daughter, Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown-Findlay), is a favorite of mine. The Crawley family treats their servants with respect, but Sybil seems to have an even closer bond with one of the maids, Gwen Dawson.

Gwen aspires to become a secretary and when Sybil hears of this, she helps her achieve her goal as much as she can. Gwen is already taking a correspondence course and saves up her wages to buy a typewriter. Sybil drives a horse and buggy in order to accompany Gwen to an interview in town. She also reassures her when Gwen seems to lose hope in her job search.

Sybil is also quite political, a supporter of women's rights, and she attends several meetings with her family's chauffeur, Tom Branson, who wants to be a politician. Sybil expresses an interest in canvassing, but her father forbids her to attend any more of the meetings. Of course, she does, and puts herself and Branson at risk.

Her budding relationship with Branson is very sweet and I look forward to the decisions Sybil will have to make regarding that versus what her family expects of her.

Another miniseries that aired across the pond this year is actually a reboot of an old classic, Upstairs, Downstairs. The new version was just three parts and aired after Christmas on BBC One.

It takes place in 1936, when a diplomat and his wife, Lady Agnes, move into the same townhouse occupied by previous generations of the Upstairs, Downstairs family.

Even with Dame Eileen Atkins and Keeley Hawes in the cast, the shorter series could not provide as much depth into the characters as Downton. The cinematography and 1930s costumes are quite gorgeous, though, and it's worth the three hours. Between it and The King's Speech, I'm quite enthralled with the 1930s right now.