Early in “La La Land,” Emma Stone’s Mia goes on an audition. She’s a struggling actor, and her latest humiliation involves her bursting into tears on the phone. She does it like a pro — and at the peak of her powers, an assistant barges through the door behind her, asking her auditioners about lunch. Mia freezes up, then realizes no one cares. Then she pulls herself together and stomps off back to her soul-deadening barista job — which, sadistically, is on a movie lot.
In some circles, “La La Land” has been written off, even eviscerated, as a mere good time — a shallow nostalgia drench that lacks the elegance of the classics to which it pays homage. It’s true, it doesn’t. You could also say that’s intentional: That the dreamers played by Stone and Ryan Gosling are fans who wish they could move and croon like Fred and Ginger. You could also point out to Emma Stone. Mia may occasionally burst into twirls and jazz hands, but when she’s not, she’s defeated. Where her co-star mostly broods, she coils up. Mia doesn’t cry or scream or even talk about her feelings. She holds her pain inside her, close to the vest. It’s a great, subtle, heartbreaking performance.
But Stone doesn’t deserve an Oscar. After all, she’s not Isabelle Huppert.
Both are competing for the Best Actress Oscar, and the story prognosticators are peddling goes like this: The French god has been winning every trophy in the known universe for her thrilling turn in “Elle.” As our president would say, that stops now. At Sunday night’s Academy Awards, Stone will end Huppert’s death march through awards season. It will be Huppert’s Waterloo. Stone will send her back to France, where she’ll await the call to play Seth Rogen’s mom, or whatever nonsensical thing Hollywood will do with her next.
But this shouldn’t happen. Huppert should triumph once more. She should go home, drop her Oscar on top of a pile of awards numerous enough to fill a money bin, then swim through them like Scrooge McDuck. Moving as Stone’s “La La Land” turn is, it’s got nothing on Huppert’s Michele Leblanc. If the two met, Michele would simply shoot her a quick once-over, then walk away, giving her one-second of side-eye as she strides. Three seconds later she wouldn’t remember the encounter.