When Emma Thompson received the script for "Saving Mr. Banks," she admits to being surprised. "The story was about a middle-aged woman. And she wasn't a wife, she wasn't a mother. It was irresistible."
Though "Mr. Banks" is in the title, the film is really the story of P.L. Travers, the flinty author of the beloved "Mary Poppins" books, who spent 20 years resisting the idea of turning her iconic character into a movie. The film chronicles the two weeks when Walt Disney brought her to Los Angeles to try to persuade her, but also flashes back to her troubled childhood. Not only is Thompson front and center, but supporting her is no less than one of the biggest stars in the world -- Tom Hanks as Disney.
George Clooney was willing to take on a smaller part in "Gravity," which places Sandra Bullock front and center for the majority of its 90-minute run time. In fact, the most buzzed-about lead actress candidates share something in common: The movie is truly about their character, and if they have a male counterpart, he's in a supporting role. This includes Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine," Judi Dench in "Philomena," Julia Louis-Dreyfus in "Enough Said" and Meryl Streep in "August: Osage County."
Count among them Kate Winslet, whose turn as Adele, a single mother who falls for an escaped convict (Josh Brolin) in Jason Reitman's "Labor Day," might earn her a seventh Oscar nomination. But Winslet doesn't see it as only Adele's story. "I always thought the script was very much about both of them," she notes. "But I've been so blessed that I almost feel like I can't comment on the state of women's roles in movies because I've just had such a great time playing such lovely parts and I've been so fortunate."
Every year it seems there's a complaint about the lack of strong roles for women, yet this year's lead actress race might be the most competitive in years. And when you look at the independent film scene, there are even more films featuring a woman as the main character, from Brie Larson's social worker in "Short Term 12" to Greta Gerwig's dreamer in "Frances Ha."
Blanchett's performance as a pampered housewife who loses everything in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" has even drawn comparisons to one of the greatest female roles of all time, Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire"-- a role Blanchett has played onstage to great acclaim. "Not that we ever discussed it, but having played Blanche DuBois, you do think about those things," Blanchett admits. "I always thought about Blanche as somebody who the problem was as much with the world as it was with her. It's the irreconcilable differences between the internal life of Blanche DuBois and the anti-poetic world in which she finds herself. She has had a very brutal set of experiences that has meant that fantasy is a place that is more palatable to inhabit. But that way lies madness."
Also lying ahead for Blanchett: a sixth Oscar nomination?