The Rome Film Festival isn’t traditionally a headline-grabbing event — in terms of prestige and pulling power, it’s still emerging from the shadow of Venice, the former ward of Rome festival director Marco Mueller. And sure enough, not even a Best Film win from the James Gray-led jury will get many people talking about Alberto Fasulo’s “TIR,” an Italian hybrid documentary about a truck driver’s lonely life on the road. (Even that choice seems to echo the Venice fest, after the surprising Golden Lion win for Italian highway documentary “Sacro GRA” in September.)
Still, with their acting awards, Gray’s jury — intentionally or otherwise — secured a bit of media attention for the festival with two very starry choices. Matthew McConaughey took Best Actor for “Dallas Buyers Club,” while Scarlett Johansson was their Best Actress pick for “Her.”
McConaughey’s award, of course, is a nice, prestigious little notch on a campaign that’s already in full swing — it probably won’t be the last prize he takes en route to an assured Oscar nomination. (He may even win.) It was a good day for “Dallas Buyers Club,” which also won the festival’s Audience Award — underlining just how well Jean-Marc Vallée’s film plays with audiences everywhere.
Only a couple of years ago, McConaughey taking an award at a highbrow European film festival would have raised eyebrows everywhere; it’s indicative of how successfully he’s turned his career around that this news hardly seems all that surprising.
But more noteworthy is Johansson’s win, which, combined with McConaughey’s, neatly makes for a tandem Comeback Kids narrative The actress, still only 29, is also enjoying a strong resurgence in form after a few years in the wilderness: between “Don Jon,” “Her” and the 2014 release “Under the Skin,” skeptics have been handed a compelling reminder of her versatility and daring.
Of course, what’s most intriguing about Johansson’s Best Actress win for Spike Jonze’s oddball digital romance is that it’s for a voice-only performance. Her work as the warm, charismatic but unavoidably inhuman voice of Joaquin Phoenix’s operating system has earned her rave reviews, but facelessness is a barrier that, for many an awards body, is still insurmountable. That certainly goes for the Academy: no actor has ever been nominated for a film in which they don’t appear in the flesh, and in her campaign to be the first, Johansson has to be regarded as a long shot.
Still, she has in an increasing amount of buzz in her favor, buoyed by widespread acclaim for the film itself. This win in Rome — however small in the grand scheme of things — is a crucially validating one, one that proves to anyone paying attention that voice performances can compete alongside visible ones.
This is an issue that has surfaced before with motion-capture performances and animated ones: Andy Serkis received a few stray mentions here and there for his work in the “Lord of the Rings” films and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” while Eddie Murphy received a rather progressive Best Supporting Actor nod from BAFTA for “Shrek,” though Oscar, of course, has staunchly resisted such non-traditional noms. Still, even those performances appear in some kind of physical form, even if it’s not the actor’s; when it comes to awards recognition for disembodied voice work, however, it’s harder to think of a precedent.
Johansson will be vying for attention in the Best Supporting Actress category, and her work in “Her” isn’t even her only 2013 performance that merits consideration there. Her firecracker comic turn as a snappy Jersey girl in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon” has already earned her a Gotham Award nomination; Indie Spirit and Golden Globe comedy nods are also feasible.
Ordinarily, you’d think this more conventional performance would be the safer suggestion to Academy members, even if the film’s a lesser item — but it’s her work in “Her” that is getting the real awards push. It’ll be interesting to see just how far this campaign goes: my hunch is that the Academy isn’t ready for this just yet, and that Johansson (who has never been nominated before) isn’t the actor for whom they’d be willing to go there. BAFTA, however, might be a better bet: aside from that ceiling-busting nod for Murphy in 2001, don’t forget that they gave Johansson their Best Actress award (for “Lost in Translation”) in 2003.
Whatever happens, between this win for “Her,” that Gotham nod for “Don Jon” and last week’s British Independent Film Award nod for “Under the Skin” — another film in which her character isn’t quite human — nobody’s having a more unorthodox awards season this year.
In other Rome awards news, Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace” took the Taodue Golden Camera for Best First or Second Film. Check out all the winners here.