Oscars Combat: Jennifer Lawrence vs. Lupita Nyong’o

Patsey makes death sound so sweet when she’s begging Solomon Northup to kill her. It’s the essential tragedy of the most tragic character in “12 Years a Slave”: Killing her, she says, through tears and a smile, would be “an act of kindness.” Solomon can’t run because he doesn’t want to die; here’s someone whose life is that much worse than his.

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“American Hustle” is nominated for an Oscar in every acting category. Deservedly. And the best performance was Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn, “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.” She has the fewest screen-time minutes of the top four actors, which helps because she can focus her power on fewer scenes and make them count that much more. nyongolove.getty

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Patsey picks over 500 pounds of cotton per day. The other men in the field can barely crack 200. For this she is singled out as extraordinary by Epps, the plantation’s insane owner. Epps is sadistic. He strokes Patsey’s neck and calls her Queen of the Field. At night he rapes her. His wife is jealous. She maims Patsey with a heavy glass bottle thrown point-blank to the face, and with a skin-tearing scratch through Patsey’s cheek.

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Lawrence outshines the other “American Hustle” actors because their characters all have to reckon with her. She’s socially on offense, always doing something. She befuddles Christian Bale’s character, her husband, to where he’s stuck staring with a pained and helpless expression. The couple has amazing fights in the movie, and she always wins, even though she’s the one who starts the house on fire, or almost gets him killed by mobsters.

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After the first scene of cotton weighing, when Patsey’s shown to be so much more industrious than the others, we get a short scene of her sitting outside, humming and braiding corn husks into dolls.

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The dolls are dark and light, together just fine. Patsey has such a sweet, gentle soul. She’s a beautiful person. This movie’s universe has absolutely no sympathy.

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If there’s a single character in “American Hustle” with the best claim to hate Rosalyn it’s Amy Adams’s Sydney. Sydney has more skin in the con than anyone else, because she took the check from the FBI agent’s hand. She’s caught red-handed. And Rosalyn is messing with everyone to not be bored. They’re also romantic rivals for the same man. Yet when they’re finally facing off in that bathroom, yelling, even Sydney gets ensnared by Lawrence’s sexiness. Lawrence plants a sudden sticky kiss on her lips, and then cackles maniacally.

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Lupita Nyong’o is brilliant because she’s perfect as this character experiencing specific horrors at the hands of a monster. Patsey. Patsey, man. Jesus. She has to beg to be clean, please, just once, can’t she use soap because she’s earned it? She has to be stripped and whipped for trying, one time, to be a normal person. She has to beg for her own death, and be told no. How would someone in that situation act? Exactly like this. It’s beyond heartbreaking.

Lawrence brings her unique personal energy to Rosalyn. Sheer awesomeness is why Rosalyn is so memorable. IMDB.com says “American Hustle” director David O. Russell told Bale “Christian, I hate plots. I am all about characters, that’s it.” Much of the dialogue is improvised. That cranks the pressure on the actors. They have to inhabit their parts to where what they do comes naturally. Lawrence’s character scares everyone on multiple levels. And she’s funny.

That’s why I’d vote for Lawrence. Impossible choice though.

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