In Alfonso Cuaron‘s Gravity (Warner Bros., 10.4), Sandra Bullock plays an astronaut, Dr. Ryan Stone, struggling with a do-or-die situation that’s initially beyond her technical abilities. When high-speed debris destroys a space shuttle she’s manning with two others (including George Clooney‘s Matt Kowalski, a space-flight veteran), Stone not only has to survive with limited air but somehow return to earth — a tough order. In this sense Bullock is playing (I know how this sounds but it’s true) a variation on Doris Day‘s role in Julie (a terrified stewardess has to man the controls of a plane that has lost its pilot and co-pilot) and Karen Black‘s in Airport ’75 (a terrified stewardess has to fly a crew-less 747 before Charlton Heston can board and land it). Gravity is miles above and beyond these two mediocre films, technically as well as dramatically, so I’m not trying to diminish Cuaron’s film by making this comparison. Gravity is a brilliant experience. But Bullock is essentially playing, like Black and Day did earlier, a novice who has to grim up and find inner steel when the going gets tough. And the fact of the matter is that Black, Day and Bullock’s performances are roughly similar with much of the emphasis on “oh my God, I don’t know if I can handle this…what am I going to do?”
Bullock nonetheless delivers a fairly strong performance within this perimeter. If her reps and Warner Bros. publicists want to try and sell it as Oscar-worthy, fine. That’s what the Bullock cover story in the new Vogue is all about. But Awards Daily‘s Sasha Stone, who has posted a piece in which she creams over Bullock’s Gravity emoting and particularly the breadth of her part, ought to know better. At the least she ought to distinguish between the performance on its own terms and what it signifies in a sexual-politics sense.
“Bullock and Bullock alone stands out as the one woman carrying the entire film in which she’s starring,” Stone writes. “It’s all on her shoulders, emotionally and in every other way.” Emotionally? We’re in that spacecraft with Bullock and trying to figure out how to survive and possibly even return to earth, and we’re supposed to be concerned about what Bullock’s character is feeling? I didn’t give a damn about this, I can tell you. It seemed to me that way too much attention was given to how Dr. Stone is emotionally coping and not enough about how her brain is processing the technical options and possibilities. Stow the emotional stuff, dammit, and focus on how to avoid death.
In any event Stone is very impressed with Cuaron and Warner Bros. having given Bullock this kind of responsibility. “For a big budget genre film to go this way is unheard of,” she writes. “When Hollywood makes a major shift in this direction, with an actress who has already brought another film this year to $100 million, who is over 40 and succeeding, impossibly, at a time when most actresses are written off? For the Oscars to ignore that would be shocking to me. Not to mention that Bullock has Clooney in her corner. Furthermore, Bullock will star in a major Best Picture contender. Have I taught you Oscarwatchers nothing?”
In short, Stone’s enthusiasm is almost entirely about the socio-political ramifications of Bullock’s Gravity role and almost nothing about what the performance really amounts to. All she cares about is that Dr. Stone’s actions in Gravity say something positive about the capabilities of women or women characters in scary and/or adversarial situations, and that Bullock is carrying a very expensive ball all alone. (I don’t buy this — I think that the film’s amazing sense of orbital 3D realism is carrying the ball.)
The piece is basically an argument against Stone getting elbowed out of Best Actress contention. Stone figures that the five nominees will be Bullock, Blue Jasmine‘s Cate Blanchett, Philomena‘s Judi Dench, August: Osage County‘s Meryl Streep and Saving Mr. Banks‘ Emma Thompson. She also allows that “there are powerhouse performances that have been seen” — Julie Delpy in Before Midnight, Brie Larson in Short Term 12 and Adele Exarchopoulos for Blue is the Warmest Color.
This is basically more brand-name kowtowing. I see the legitimate contenders right now as Blanchett, Exarchopoulos and probably Thompson, and possibly Dench, Delpy and Larson. Bullock could squeek in but she isn’t doing anything stupendous in Gravity — the star is Mr. Cuaron. And Streep award fatigue is going to prompt a lot of people to take a hard look at her August performance before nominating her.