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Dear Toni Collette, I'm Sorry

At the end of another awards season, there lies a certain degree of dissatisfaction amongst the masses. It’s a typical feeling – it happens every year. Certain people don’t get nominated that should have, certain people won that shouldn’t have. It seems we are playing a perpetual game of cat and mouse, upset that our favorites weren't nominated, whether justified or not. However, despite all the crimes committed by the Academy, one thing remains consistent: their continuous banishment of the Horror genre. 

Over the past couple of years, directors like Robert Eggers and Ari Aster have pushed Horror far beyond its comfort zone to lessen the degree of separation that exists between horror and the rest of prestige cinema. The genre is at its peak of engagement, with many high-profile actors snubbing franchise roles to take part in the indie revival of a lost art and, sooner or later, the Academy is going to have to accept that. 

Until then, we can only mourn. Year after year, we watch some of the most outstanding performances go unnoticed by the Academy. I've seen endless debates over Gerwig, Robbie, Gladstone, and Stone – whether they got snubbed, or didn’t deserve to win. Watching this discourse unfold online, I can't help but recall the heartbreak of watching Toni Collette get snubbed for her jaw-dropping performance in Ari Aster’s Hereditary

It's hard to describe the actor Toni Collette. She has the unique ability to be both incredibly natural and subtle while portraying characters that are completely unhinged and psychotic. She’s the perfect “Next-Door Neighbor with a Horrific Secret.”

Analyzing her performance in Hereditary is daunting. It was the film that took everything I knew about cinema and shattered it. Colette's performance rewired the way I approach any art form, and once you witness that one performance that pushes you over the edge, it is impossible to return to the person you were before. 

Film was never an interest of mine growing up, and it felt extremely exclusive and non representative of who I was at the time. Ironically watching Toni perform in Hereditary made me feel more a part of the art than I ever had before. She changed my view on any artistic interaction from that point forward as the boundary between audience and actor began to blur. 

Watching her performance unravel created an unprecedented environment for me, watching one singular woman capture the essence of every member of her audience due to her ability to cater to such a complex character. It was a performance that brought about the purpose of acting, visual storytelling, and ultimately communication beyond a visual image, her performance takes every ugly moment of the human experience and creates an environment so beyond uncomfortable for the audience. 

Colette's performance is multi-layered. To confine her to a specific role or dignify a particular purpose of her character is impossible. Her portrayal is multi-layered encompassing each and every member of the audience into her performance. She is ultimately beyond description, she is the grieving mother, the obsessive artist, the paranoid insomniac, Annie Graham. 

The film revolves around the Graham family, who begin their journey with the death of their secretive grandmother and, just sequences later, the death of their youngest daughter, Charlie. After this extremely brutal and graphic occurrence, the story spirals into a series of equally disturbing events. The film follows a grieving mother attempting to reconstruct her family while simultaneously grappling with her world caving in around her due to her grandmother's secrets. After two hours of nonstop chaos, an extremely dark family secret is uncovered, displaying the malice that existed in the family from the start, and thus the curse was passed on. 

The unsettling climate that is felt by the viewer is due to none other than Colette herself. The film exists in an already threatening environment, yet it is the mother, trying to mold everything back together, who ironically causes the ultimate downfall of an innocent family. Colette displays an unprecedented emotional range in Horror. 

Colette brings a degree of emotional instability to the film that has the viewer on edge throughout the entire movie. At times, her decisions are scarier than the jumpscares themselves. The character is depicted through complete hysteria and irrationality, showing the disturbing side of any rational human dealing with grief. 

We are greatly disturbed any time Colette is present – whether it be in the tense dinner scene, the scene where they are mourning Charlie, or the divine seance scene, watching her unravel in front of us is beyond discomforting. 

Though her unhinged manner is essential to the story, the character is nothing without the physicality of Colette's performance. Colette brings a degree of specificity to her mannerisms and expression that, at times, morph her into a monster. Every single interaction is quickly exasperated into pure chaos, thanks to her character’s natural disposition. 

Colette brings every impulse and emotion to life; every feeling is worn so transparently on her face that it's hard even to witness her. It's hard at times to remember she is a mother trying to rebuild her family as she becomes more unhinged and physically distraught, it is hard not to view her as a wholly sinister creature. All of this is due to Colette's ability to go beyond a human level, portraying an unimaginable yet typical experience of grief. There is an immense degree of authenticity to Toni's performance. While going beyond her grief and uncovering the impending doom of her family from supernatural forces, she makes her character feel lived in, it's as if she's no longer acting. 

Watching her go from a protective mother to nothing more than a cursed vessel attacking her own family is an unprecedented sinfulness. Even as her body lays lifeless in the ending sequence, we see a mother plagued by her own decisions. It is a performance so beyond comprehension that even when the actor is separated from the narrative, we can't but still feel empathy. 

It's challenging to idealize what Horror would be without Ari Aster, but it's impossible to realize where we'd be in this genre if we hadn't witnessed Toni Colette as Annie Graham. As the 2019 award cycle was underway, we saw once again very safe nominees and a triumphant and equally deserving Academy Award win by Olivia Colman for her work in The Favorite. It's impossible to compare these two performances, yet all I know from this point forward is that Toni deserved a seat at that table. 

It's long overdue that women in Horror gain the accolades and universal praise they deserve for their pioneering work in this genre. As we look forward to new scream queens emerging, such as Florence Pugh, Lupita Nyong'o, Mia Goth, and Anya Taylor Joy, it seems we are closing in on an impending victory. Horror has become more exciting than ever with such powerful narratives taking over a long stigmatized genre, and it is only a matter of time before we witness history. However, until that point and even beyond that triumph, I will be parading for the woman who changed my perception of everything at 15 years old, Toni Colette. 

Anders Ljung is an interdisciplinary artist based in North Carolina, currently navigating his academic journey as a Junior at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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