Will the real Best Actress please stand up?

It’s not polite to diss the Academy.

But I have nothing to lose. I’m not an actress — Hollywood can’t drop me from the A-list. I never much cared about being polite, either.

I know it’s trendy to bash the Oscars. That said, the members of the Academy need to take a closer look at the performances on the screen — not just the box-office appeal of the actors — when they’re deciding who’s worthy of recognition.

Poor Naomi Watts got the shaft. Now, I’m not saying that Sissy Spacek, Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry and the rest of the nominees for “Best Actress” aren’t extremely talented women. I’m not sure whom I would have eliminated from that list — but I certainly wouldn’t have snubbed Watts for delivering one of the year’s most electrifying performances in the edgy David Lynch thriller Mulholland Drive.

The bottom line? Watts performed in a weird flick — and the Hollywood establishment would perhaps rather its “best actresses” not hail from films featuring lesbians, midgets and surreal dream sequences (Lynch himself, though, was bestowed with a Best Director nomination for Mulholland).

Let’s face it: Judi Dench could make toilet-bowl commercials and still be applauded for her brilliant performance. But put her in a David Lynch flick, and I guarantee you, even that grand Dame wouldn’t be nominated.

To date, the Academy remains relatively suspicious of Lynch’s highly creative but offbeat work. However, this year’s Oscar nod is certainly a step in the right direction.

Sure, Lynch is strange. To people who enjoy dark humor and weird characters, though, he is simply a master of his craft. Granted, many of his films are not grounded in easy-to-understand plots. People are not what they seem. Sometimes fantasies — even nightmares — are indistinguishable from reality. Everything’s a bit distorted. Lynch takes you on detours, sometimes confuses you, but, at least in my view, always entertains you.

You’d think Hollywood, with all its quirky characters, would realize there’s more than one way to tell a story. The most imaginative writing happens when filmmakers are willing to take a risk, attack our senses, put us on intimate terms with life’s creepy plot twists. That’s exactly what Lynch does in Mulholland Drive, his most provocative and visually imaginative film since Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet. This film is a savage Hollywood satire. It’s a dark and brooding tale of suspense. It is an erotic love story. And Naomi Watts gives a performance so fresh it’s hard to compare it to anything else in recent memory. She makes a thoroughly convincing transformation as she falls in love with a stranger who has secrets — but then reveals that she, too, might have her own dark secrets.

Not everyone can perform in a David Lynch film and not come off as a supreme weirdo. You’ll remember that Lynch invented such bizarre characters as the Log Lady in Twin Peaks and the perverse Dennis Hopper character who snorts nitrate gas and keeps inflatable mistresses in Blue Velvet.

In Mulholland Drive, Watts begins as the naive small-town girl who enters Hollywood with stars in her eyes. Then, in the story’s second half, she is the angry, rejected lover — driven utterly over the edge by Hollywood’s phony characters and empty promises. Her performance in the first half conjures up nothing short of wide-eyed innoncence; in the latter half, she is nothing less than supremely creepy.

Emotionally deep and disarmingly vulnerable, Watts is barely contained by the screen. Not many characters in Lynch’s films are very likable, but Watts is thoroughly enchanting without losing her edge.

The Academy should have recognized Watts’ stellar performance in a complex, rigorous and strangely appealing role. Lynch shows the seedy side of Hollywood but also celebrates its dreams. Watts acts her butt off, and she is so good, she almost makes Lynch seem respectable. That in itself is worthy of an Oscar!

[Terry Loncaric is a Chicago-based free-lance writer.]

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