In a recent Long Shot column, I wrote about the shabby treatment typically given by awards pundits and voters alike to the Best Actress category, a race routinely described as “weak” due to the scarcity of major female-propelled prestige titles — despite the abundance of outstanding work on the independent, genre and foreign fringes. One of the names I highlighted as unlikely to receive the attention they deserve was Linda Cardellini, whose measured, quietly aching performance as a returning war vet in Liza Johnson’s microbudget debut feature “Return” went largely unseen on its release back in February.
I’m not the only one who believes the film and the actress, still arguably best-known for her TV work in “Freaks and Geeks” and “ER,” deserve a second look. Over the weekend, the LA Times reported that Cardellini herself is launching a self-financed awards campaign for herself and for the film, mailing screeners to all 2200 members of the Screen Actors’ Guild nominating committee, as well as to the actors’, directors’ and ‘producers’ branches of the Academy. More power to her, I say.
Writing about the film back in March, I described Cardellini’s performance as follows: “Given the unfamiliarity of such substantial leads in her filmography, you’d hardly blame the actress for grandly flexing her range, but she’s opted for a flintier, more morally inquisitive approach to Kelli’s surfeit of inadequately Band-Aided psychological crevices, which manifest themselves both in idle depression and more severe alcoholism.” It’s certainly the kind of work that could touch fellow actors if they only got to see it.
Speaking to the LAT’s Nicole Sperling, Cardellini is realistic in her goals. She knows she’s a long shot for an Oscar or SAG nod, but that’s not her chief objective: she’s primarily concerned simply with getting her peers to see a worthy film that hasn’t yet reached the audience it merits. With “Return,” which also features strong supporting work from Michael Shannon and John Slattery, having grossed only $16,000 in theaters, plus VOD revenue, small distributor Focus World obviously hasn’t the cash the push for awards, so Cardellini’s taking the initiative. As she puts it:
“This is not necessarily about an award. That’s a hard baton to grasp. In the past few years there have been movies that have been very small that I never would have seen — ‘Pariah,’ ‘A Better Life,’ ‘A Separation’ — had it not been for DVD screeners that people got for free and then talked about because they were worth talking about. It felt like that was where our movie could be seen and appreciated.
“An Oscar is so far away, that if it happened, it would be kind of unbelievable. As long as I didn’t think of this [as an attempt to win an Oscar] I felt OK about that. For me, for Liza, for the other actors and the crew to be seen for the work that they did, that’s a great thing. At worst, more people have seen the movie, and that, to me, is wonderful.”
The longer-term reward of this smart strategy, of course, would be further, bigger casting opportunities down the road for a deft, charismatic actress whom many in Hollywood might still think of as a TV presence. Before “Return” came along, the peaks of her film career had been the “Scooby-Doo” movies and, more notably, a small but deeply affecting role in “Brokeback Mountain.”
“Return” proves that Cardellini can carry a feature, and in a harder-edged role than her lovable characters in “Freaks and Geeks” and “ER”; it can hardly hurt to show the directors and producers in the Academy what she can do. (Writer-director Johnson, meanwhile, is already climbing the Hollywood ladder: she’s currently shooting her next film, an adaptation of the Alice Munro short story “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” with Kristen Wiig and Guy Pearce.)
With this kind of campaign, then, Cardellini wins even if she doesn’t end up racing. But what if enough of the SAG voters check out their screeners, and are impressed by what they see? As Demian Bichir’s bolt-from-the-blue Best Actor nomination for “A Better Life” proved last year, mass screener mailing can prove an effective strategy for outside contenders with nothing to lose. And “Return,” modest as it is, sticks with you: it’s a little over 18 months since I saw it in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at Cannes, yet the sharp, sad details of Cardellini’s performance are crisp in my memory. I’ll be rooting for her.