Toronto Film Festival: Is It Reese Witherspoon vs. Julianne Moore for Best Actress?

With two hugely well-received performances in Toronto, Reese Witherspoon and Julianne Moore may have gotten an early jump on the Oscar race.

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On my last day at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, I finally saw what may have been my most anticipated: Jean-Marc Vallée and Reese Witherspoon’s Wild. Based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, the film follows Witherspoon as Strayed, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995, trying to put her life together after a series of tragedies and self-destruction.

Having already premiered to great reviews in Telluride, Wild’s presence in Toronto constantly teetered on the edge of afterthought. After all, if TIFF couldn’t claim credit for launching Wild and Witherspoon towards their expected Oscar campaigns, what was even the point? It’s a pretty silly attitude, of course. The Telluride audience is such a tiny cloistered group (the festival is known for being prohibitively expensive to attend). Their claim of “FIRST!” will be noted, but I learned far more about Wild’s chances for success after attending my late-week public screening in Toronto than Telluride could ever tell me. The mood in the Princess of Wales Theater once the end credits rolled was a swell of goodwill and appreciation, for the film and for Witherspoon in particular, whose name elicited a second hearty round of applause. Deservedly so; Witherspoon’s performance is an unforced work of grappling, searching vulnerability and, eventually, strength. She carries the entire film capably and compellingly. And whether or not TIFF is going to be able to lay claim to launching it, her Best Actress campaign is going to be a very strong one.

What TIFF can take credit for is the groundswell of buzz that emerged mid-week for Julianne Moore as a college professor diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in Still Alice. Like Witherspoon’s, Moore’s is a performance that lives up to the hype, proud and heatbreaking and smartly balanced between what’s internal and external about how Alice is dealing with her disease.

Suddenly, after months of wondering who might contend for Best Actress, we have an Oscar race on our hands.

Now. Far be it from me to jump the gun on Oscar talk. Last year at TIFF, Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan caused a bit of a stir by declaring the race for Best Picture over, upon having seen 12 Years a Slave. The critical community blanched and raged and huffed and puffed at what it saw as awards season creep and even an oversimplification of the film’s merits (whereas I saw an acceptably hyperbolic contextualization of the simple truth that 12 Years was a hugely serious Oscar contender — also remind me what film did win Best Picture last year?).  So I know I’m risking the wrath of the scolds when I say that Best Actress is shaping up to be a Reese vs. Julianne year. The scolds wouldn’t be entirely wrong. It is a long damn road to February 22nd, and we’re all going to want to gouge our eyes out if we have to talk about the same binary for five months.

But the truth is that Witherspoon and Moore both present excellent Oscar cases. For Reese, she’s a former winner (2005 for Walk the Line) whose career took a serious dip with some awful films and puzzling choices. She’s an “America’s sweetheart” type whom America never quite decided that they loved, exactly. She had that whole “I'm an American citizen” incident with the cop. Things kind of boomeranged for her from there, with public opinion swinging around to her side. By the time she was filmed getting down at a wedding, even Gawker had decided they liked her. Add to that the fact that she’s become something of a force behind the scenes, producing not only Wild but Gone Girl, another fall film with big awards aspirations. She could conceivably find herself on the Oscar ballot once in Best Actress and twice in Best Picture. (While we’re making bold predictions: Reese for EW’s Entertainer of the Year.) Honestly, she’s a much better Oscar “story” this year than she was in 2005 when she won.

Julianne Moore’s story isn’t bad either. If you were making a list of the best working actresses who have yet to win an Oscar, Moore’s name would have to be at the top of that list. Performances in Safe and Boogie Nights and The Hours have made her beloved among hardcore cinephiles and actress obsessives. It’s always been a bit tougher to tell how the Hollywood establishment (the Academy crowd) felt about her. They sure don’t hate her, having nominated her four times from 1997-2002. But she lost all four times, including in 2002 when her Far From Heaven performance had nearly swept the critics’ awards. She also came up short of a nomination in 2009 when her supporting performance in A Single Man had been campaigned. Still, “Look how great this particular Julianne Moore performance was” is a different animal than “Look how great this entire body of Julianne Moore performances have been,” and given what a hugely likeable presence she is, who wouldn’t want to vote for her?

Then there are the performances themselves. I’ll be getting into the specifics of the film here — SPOILERS, in other words, so feel free to skip this paragraph if you want to stay unsullied on the plots of Wild or Still Alice. Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed is triumphant at the close of her film, having engendered so much audience goodwill in the process. You could feel it in the theater as the film was coming to a close, how much the audience loved this woman. Moore’s character arc ends up evoking sympathy and admiration, by contrast, as Alice attempts to fade away on something close to her own terms. Of course, Cate Blanchett’s character in Blue Jasmine elicited anywhere from pity to revulsion, so it’s not like these are always determining factors, but all things being equal, by the end of Wild you kind of want to hand Cheryl Strayed a trophy for finishing that trail.

One complicating factor for a possible Witherspoon/Moore race to Best Actress? Amy Adams, who’s lurking at the end of the year with Tim Burton’s Big Eyes. After a Best Actress nomination last year — her fifth after four previous supporting nods — the drumbeat for “when’s she gonna win one?” began to thump a little louder. Sight unseen, this Margaret Keane true story felt like something that might finally march her down the aisle. Now, with Witherspoon and Moore having made such strong impressions, it’s starting to feel like Adams will have to be a knockout to even contend. And given the fact that Burton’s been off his game for easily a decade now (give or take a Sweeney Todd), you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’ll say that knockout status is guaranteed.

Of course it’s early. Of course there are many more actresses worthy of consideration as the year’s best. Anne Dorval in Mommy; Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything; Marion Cotillard and Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank. Who even knows what to expect from Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) or the Into the Woods actresses. But from a purely selfish perspective, an Oscar race between Julianne Moore (one of my favorite actresses) and Reese Witherspoon (one of my favorite movie stars) sounds pretty fantastic.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.