Wednesday, May 15, 2013

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

Director Jane Campion deserved recognition for 1993's "The Piano" — and she was nominated for an Oscar.

She wasn't the first woman to be nominated for best director (that distinction belonged to Lina Wertmüller some 17 years earlier), and she wasn't the first female director to win the Oscar (that was Kathryn Bigelow some 16 years later).

She did, however, win an Oscar for best original screenplay.

I'm inclined to think that no female director has ever taken on a project that was so risky as bringing "The Piano" to the screen.

It was risky for many reasons, largely because of its portrayal of a strong female with no voice (an intriguing element of a story set at a time when women who were not mute had no voice in anything) whose hand in marriage was promised by her father to a farmer from New Zealand (Sam Neill). With little more than her young daughter and her piano, Hunter's character embarked on the arduous journey from her native Scotland to New Zealand.

Hunter's and Neill's marriage was a loveless one, but Hunter's character found love outside her marriage with a neighbor (Harvey Keitel). Neill's discovery of his wife's infidelity prompted him to take the drastic step of hacking off one of her fingers with an axe, thus depriving her of the ability to play her piano (or so he thought).

For that matter, I'm also inclined to think that few actresses have faced a greater challenge than Holly Hunter faced in playing the mute Ada. I always thought it was a special kind of acting challenge, and the Academy rewarded it with the Oscar.

I can only presume that it must have been a considerable challenge for Hunter to say the things her character needed to say — but without articulating them. I'd been impressed with Hunter's talent before I saw "The Piano." I was filled with even more appreciation after I saw it.

Hunter's 11–year–old co–star, Anna Paquin, won the Oscar for best supporting actress. And her performance, as Hunter's spiteful daughter, certainly rang true.

Paquin remains the second–youngest winner of Best Supporting Actress. Tatum O'Neal, who won the Oscar 20 years earlier for her performance in "Paper Moon," is still the youngest–ever recipient.

It was a haunting story, particularly if one compared the setting of the late 20th century (when the film was made and released) to the setting of the story in the mid–19th century.

I didn't see it when it was in the theaters. Instead, I saw it at home on TV a couple of years after it was released. As a result, I have no firsthand knowledge of how women in movie audiences reacted when they first saw Hunter's Oscar–winning performance. If they held her 19th–century character to 20th–century standards, that wasn't fair.

But if Hunter's performance made them think about and appreciate the strides women had made in the intervening century and a half, that would be more than fair.