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The Red-Hot Year of Jessica Chastain

December 2, 2011

Chances are the only people who’d heard of Jessica Chastain before this year were Law & Order completists: She costarred as ADA Sigrun Borg on the short-lived spinoff Trial by Jury in 2005-2006. What a difference five years make! In 2011, the Juilliard-trained stunner appeared in no fewer than six films, and her work in three of them—The Tree of Life, The Help and Take Shelter—earned her best supporting actress honors from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Just consider the breadth of the roles she’s played: Her trio of award-winning parts could all be generally described as “beleaguered wives,” but that’s where the similarity ends. In Terrence Malick’s polarizingly opaque Tree, she’s an ethereal 1950’s Texas housewife terrorized by her husband (Brad Pitt) and idolized by her son. In the weepy sleeper hit The Help, she’s an eccentric outcast who befriends an African-American maid (Octavia Spencer) in the civil-rights era South. And in the arthouse shocker Take Shelter, she’s a modern-day small-town mom grappling with the possibility that her survivalist spouse (Michael Shannon) may be dangerously delusional.

Take Shelter tied The Artist for the most Independent Spirit Awards nominations with five, including one for Chastain as best supporting actress. While I admired its acting more than the stagnant script and visuals by director Jeff Nichols, it’s less likely to earn an Oscar nomination for Chastain than the more widely seen Tree of Life or The Help. Of course, it’s also entirely possible she could cancel herself out in the best supporting actress category if she splits her own vote.

Strangely, Chastain’s strongest work of 2011 seems to have been forgotten: her kick-ass portrait of a conscience-stricken ’60s Israeli spy in The Debt. (Now, that’s range!) Perhaps since the film was delayed from its originally scheduled 2010 release, critics assumed incorrectly that it was bad and overlooked it. One can only hope its DVD release next week will encourage viewers—not to mention Academy voters—to give it a second chance. (Another little-seen 2011 flick, Texas Killing Fields, costarring Chastain as a CSI tracking a serial killer, hits home video next month.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see Chastain in yet another movie, as the wife of director Ralph Fiennes’ titular general in his update of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Geez, what will she do for an encore? Possibly play Princess Diana in the recently announced Caught in Flight. Sure, Chastain’s American, but it seems fitting for an actress who went from commoner to cinematic royalty in less than a year.

Did Jessica Chastain catch your eye in 2011? Post a comment!

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