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Why Sally Field and Ann Dowd Both Deserve Oscars

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The two women who have so far been voted Best Supporting Actress this awards season warranted their accolades because they excelled as low-level scolds — difficult, irritating, and unsympathetic. Sally Field was honored by the New York Film Critics Circle for her portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln, the brittle First Lady, in “Lincoln.” The National Board of Review voted for Ann Dowd, whose Sandra, a blinkered fast-food restaurant manager in suburban Ohio, colludes in the violation of a young female employee in the indie film “Compliance.”

Each is a powerful character study, though that doesn’t mean either is going to win the Oscar or will be guaranteed a nomination. The hot money is on Anne Hathaway, who plays the wretched singing prostitute in “Les Misérables.” According to the list compiled by Indiewire’s Peter Knegt this week, Hathaway will be nominated along with Field, Helen Hunt (actually the female lead in “The Sessions”), Amy Adams (“The Master”), and Jennifer Ehle (“Zero Dark Thirty”).

Knegt places Dowd as low as thirteenth on the list of possible nominees. What militates against her being nominated for mainstream awards, of course, is the relative obscurity of Craig Zobel’s harrowing “Compliance” compared with “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Mis” (which also has possible nominees in Samantha Barks and Helena Bonham Carter), “Skyfall” (Judi Dench), and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (Maggie Smith).

A vain, prissy, by-the-book boss, who carries her authority uneasily, Dowd’s Sandra takes a call at work from a malevolent prankster posing as a cop who accuses 25-ish counter worker Becky (Dreama Walker) of theft and insists she be held in a back room until he can get there (which he never does). He instructs Sandra to conduct a strip search of the girl, which Sandra duly supervises, and then arranges for Sandra’s lunkish boyfriend Van (Bill Camp) to guard her, culminating, inevitably, in sexual abuse.

Based on a real incident, the film is an allegory about society’s susceptibility to permitting evil, but it wouldn’t work so well if Dowd weren’t so convincingly gullible and negligent as Sandra. Although Sasha Stone at has interestingly raised the question that Sandra has a hidden motive, it’s my belief her compliance is partly founded on her unconscious wish to take revenge on Becky for being half her age and much prettier. When, early on, Becky remarks to a female colleague that a guy who fancies her has asked her to message him a picture, Sandra, who’s listening in, jealously observes that she and Van go in for sexting — the admission is excruciating not because Sandra is plain, but because she’s stupid and vain. In her great naturalistic performance, Dowd masters the character’s sourness.

Sally Field plays Mary Lincoln (“Molly” to Abe) as a supposedly passive little wife who’s publicly in thrall to her husband, but who in private chides, bullies, and emotionally manipulates him. The Lincolns have lost two of their four sons and Mary still wallows in grief for Willie, three years dead when the film takes place in 1865. Eschewing likeability, Field adopts a mask of doe-eyed suffering as she reminds Lincoln of her unstaunched misery when eldest son Robbie (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) insists on endangering himself by joining the Union Army. She has never recognized that her husband, too, has suffered greatly without indulging in self-pity.

Her wilting ways finally elicit Lincoln’s rage and there seems to be a rapprochement, but sitting in a theatre box Mary warns him that Robert must stay safe or she will make his life a misery. This is the same woman who at Lincoln’s White House re-inauguration shindy silences the scathing radical Republican and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) when she boasts to him of Lincoln’s unsurpassable popularity — the biter bit. This being a Steven Spielberg film, she is allowed to show her soft side when she greets Robbie on his return from Harvard and in her conciliatory last scene with Lincoln, but the impression Field leaves is of a monster in sheep’s clothing.

Dowd and Field are so good, then, that they could cancel each other out, meaning the Oscar would go to…Anne Hathaway.

Images from left: Larry Busacca/Getty Images; Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI

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