Let’s be honest–no one was surprised that Anne Hathaway won best supporting actress in the Oscars this weekend. No one. They even made jokes about it before the show because it was so entirely inevitable.
The question now, of course, is why? Why was it so obvious? After all, there was some pretty stiff competition, and while Anne Hathaway is a wonderful actress (I’ve personally followed her career since her “Princess Diary” days), it’s not as though she wins an award every time she’s in a movie.
My answer, as I’m sure you aren’t surprised to hear, is that it’s all in the story. Hathaway played Fantine in Les Miserables, a role that can be lost easily and steal the show if well done. Clearly, Hathaway stole the show with her portrayal.
For those who haven’t seen Les Mis (which you should), a quick explanation is that it’s a very long musical about part of a French revolution that wasn’t very successful, and more specifically, follows a large cast of characters as their lives intertwine. Fantine, the character Hathaway played, is really more a plot device than an actual character. She serves as a sign to Jean Valjean that in his focus on his own troubles (avoiding the persistent Police head, Javert) he has neglected to notice when a woman (Fantine) who works in his factory is being unfairly treated. Because of his inattention to the state of his factory, Fantine goes through a terribly sad list of events until she goes from a single mother trying to make enough to keep herself and her daughter alive to a prostitute on the verge of death. It is here that Jean Valjean finds her again, and here that he has fatherhood of Cosette, Fantine’s daughter, thrust upon him. Fantine dies and Jean Valjean begins the next chapter of his life as a father raising Cosette.
In the scope of things, Fantine is there to remind Jean Valjean of his duty to other human beings and as a way for him to selflessly end up raising a daughter by himself. I have seen Les Mis performed where Fantine’s death was the end of it and I didn’t think of her again, but Hathaway did something much more important–she made me care about Fantine. Hathaway took a very small chunk of the movie and made it the highlight. One of the most powerful moments of the movie was her singing “I dreamed a dream,” perhaps because it portrayed so well what the song is really about.
Many people sing this song every day for auditions, performances, or to show off their vocal talents in general. Generally when I’ve seen it done outside of the movie Les Miserables I have seen it done in an optimistic fashion. People smile at the end, and they make it seem like they’re about to be saved. When Hathaway sang it I realized what the song is really saying–what’s in the lyrics already, but was brought out by her voice and her acting.
“But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”
So in other words, Fantine realizes that everything she hoped and dreamed for in her life never came true. She realizes that things really do suck too much to go on, and that even if she’s physically still alive, her dream and spirit have already died. Inspiring? I don’t think so.
This is a woman who has lost everything in her life and has no one else to turn to. She is at her end both mentally and physically and has fallen as far as she can go. That is the Fantine that Hathaway showed us, and that is why it was an award-worthy performance.
So where does this lead the story as a whole? Well, to be honest I was very disappointed when Fantine died in the movie, because it was never the same without her. The rest of the cast did a great job, but the usually inspiring group numbers lost some of their momentum because of the removed intermission and the poor filming choices. Also, the characters introduced for the second part of the show, namely Marius and Cosette, are never going to be as powerful as Fantine’s story because after watching Fantine’s tragic descent, it’s very hard to care about two rich kids who decide they’ve discovered love at first sight.
Hathaway absolutely owned Fantine’s story, and she was rewarded for it. Really, her short screen time owned the epic that is Les Mis, and that’s something to be truly proud of. To be entirely honest, I have never been overly fond of Les Mis, so it is truly impressive that Hathaway captured my interest so well. Congratulations to Anne Hathaway for making me care about a story within Les Mis that I had previously overlooked. I will never think so lightly of Fantine again.