the great big academy awards project: BEST LEAD ACTRESS in the 1990s
At last! The day (or night as it were) has finally come! After a mere three months, the second entry in my Great Big Academy Awards Project has arrived. For those just tuning in, I have this crazy notion that I can see every Academy Award-nominated film ever. So I’m going decade by decade chipping away the gigantic list, starting with the Best Lead Actress category. The Aughts are all taken care of, so it’s on to the ’90s!
The Winner: Kathy Bates (Misery)
State of the Category: Starting off the decade in a truly diverse fashion, the ladies of 1990 brought us work from a variety of genres both tired and semi-new. Starting with this year’s winner, Kathy Bates was pure crazy-face in the Stephen King thriller Misery. Her Annie Wilkes is so oozing with realistic psychopathic tendencies it’s hard to deny her magnetism in this role, one hobbling at a time. Then there’s Anjelica Huston, whose desperate con-woman in The Grifters has a few nutjob antics up her sleeve as well. Huston is typically effective, even if the film itself can tend to drag at times. Julia Roberts brings the romantic comedy leading lady to the table in Pretty Woman. And while it would later become a persona she duplicated for many more roles, this first congenial romantic interest is the ultimate hooker with a heart of gold. Don’t dismiss it as chick-flick fodder just yet. Meryl Streep slides in with nomination number nine in the snarky show-biz flick Postcards from the Edge. Her take on Carrie Fisher’s heroine is filled with realist depth that isn’t often seen from the typically larger-than-life Streep. Finally, Joanne Woodward takes her spot as one of the many Merchant Ivory collaborators to make it into this category. As the title character in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, the seemingly ageless Woodward is subtle and captivating in an otherwise creaky trifle of a movie.
Kathy Bates (Misery) – A-
Anjelica Huston (The Grifters) – B
Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman) – B
Meryl Streep (Postcards from the Edge) – B+
Joanne Woodward (Mr. and Mrs. Bridge) – B
My Choice: Kathy Bates
The Winner: Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs)
State of the Category: Another seemingly random cropping of genres and sub-genres, the ’90s kept cementing its sort of out-of-the-ordinary choices with its 1991 crop. Starting with Geena Davis, her lovelorn and bad-lucked Thelma is the sunnier side of the title duo in Thelma & Louise. While Davis’ character can drive you mad with her terrible choices (in men in particular), you can’t help but root for the actress’ gentle approach to the lawless lady. I for one will always root for the oft-forgotten talent Laura Dern, but when the accolades role in for such bizarre and altogether messy films such as Rambling Rose, it’s hard to stay on board. Dern performed amiably enough, but the film was such a sloppy mess for the duration, it was mostly for naught. Jodie Foster makes a great case for the win as gutsy but pint-sized FBI agent Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. Her masculine energy plays to her advantage, as Starling is a tough-as-nails cop with slight tinges of a sensitive past that pop up in her gaze from time to time – nuances not often found in the psychological thriller genre. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the brassy and over-the-top performance by Bette Midler in For the Boys. It’s hard to deny that Midler is great fun in the role, but it definitely feels more like a Globe quality performance for its lack of much depth. Finally, Susan Sarandon is the brains of the operation in Thelma & Louise. She’d go on to become one of the 90s’ most honored actresses, and this is a great starting point – she’s even-keeled and reins in the Southern sass just enough.
Geena Davis (Thelma & Louise) – A-
Laura Dern (Rambling Rose) – C+
Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs) – A
Bette Midler (For the Boys) – B-
Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise) – A-
My Choice: Jodie Foster
The Winner: Emma Thompson (Howards End)
State of the Category: This year’s group was that very unique category in which I hadn’t seen any of the nominated performances prior to embarking on the project. So completely lacking in pre-conceived love (Bates, Foster, e.g.), here goes. Catherine Deneuve plays it uber-French in Indochine. She’s of course beautiful and a great presence, but that pesky sub-plot of romance with her awful male co-star brought her down one too many pegs for me. Mary McDonnell is hard to like as the paralyzed soap opera diva in Passion Fish, but she plays what could easily have showed up as a Lifetime movie as a woman with flaws and superb depth. Plus, her co-star Alfre Woodard was just phoning it in, making McDonnell look like a shining star. Michelle Pfeiffer borders on the silly as the brassy Southern belle obsessed with Jackie O. in Love Field, but she’s a magnetic personality. Her chemistry with Dennis Haysbert is a little tacked on, but Pfeiffer at least shines brightly. Susan Sarandon is good enough in the otherwise gut-wrenching and tear-fest Lorenzo’s Oil. She’s fairly withdrawn throughout, but she has some rather good scenes with her on-screen son that make up for it. Lastly, Emma Thompson is her typical super-Brit self as the supposedly homely old maid sister in Howards End. Though her romantic chemistry with Anthony Hopkins left something to be desired (which was likely intentional), she plays supremely well with co-star Helena Bonham Carter. A truly beautiful motion picture, to be sure.
Catherine Deneuve (Indochine) – B
Mary McDonnell (Passion Fish) – B+
Michelle Pfeiffer (Love Field) – B
Susan Sarandon (Lorenzo’s Oil) – B+
Emma Thompson (Howards End) – A
My Choice: Emma Thompson
The Winner: Holly Hunter (The Piano)
State of the Category: As some of my favorite leading ladies get their one-and-only honors, the ’90s begins to heat up with some more changing tastes. Angela Bassett is a believable Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It?, though the lip-synching is often pretty horrendous. Nonetheless, Bassett is an able performer, and she plays the singer with plenty of grace. Stockard Channing lays on thick waspiness for Six Degrees of Separation. It’s a totally unique story that left me feeling utterly confused as to my feelings about it. Channing, though, was the clear standout to be sure, plucking just the right amounts of comedy and sentimentality from the genre-bending script. Holly Hunter is the reason to watch and be captivated by The Piano. Her Ada says so much with her eyes that her lack of speech hinders nothing by way of effectiveness in the determined and scrappy role. It’s hard to believe a maid with so much confidence, but Emma Thompson is still likable as ever in The Remains of the Day. Though it has nowhere near the heft of Howards End, she’s consistently lovely throughout. Debra Winger is an especially entertaining performer for me. Her role in Shadowlands, a little bit of a snoozer honestly, was the movie’s best quality. As the short-lived lover of C.S. Lewis, she’s a welcome presence in a pretty dreary story.
Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to Do With It?) – B
Stockard Channing (Six Degrees of Separation) – B
Holly Hunter (The Piano) – A-
Emma Thompson (The Remains of the Day) – B
Debra Winger (Shadowlands) – B
My Choice: Holly Hunter
The Winner: Jessica Lange (Blue Sky)
State of the Category: This year was probably the strangest, for me, of the decade. It dabbles in the mediocre at times, but otherwise presents a fair variety of performances. Jodie Foster delivers one of those performances, in Nell, that teeters on the line between spot-on and hammy. I can see now where the comical imitations of her character come from, but I tend toward the former feeling – Nell is a powerful character to watch, even if you find yourself unintentionally chuckling at times. Jessica Lange’s Carly in Blue Sky is another similar teeterer. Lange is pleasing to watch in the role, but her sexpot with a troubled mind falls a little too silly for me in the end. And her chemistry with screen husband Tommy Lee Jones is zilch. Miranda Richardson is sort of a quirky delight as T.S. Eliot’s eccentric wife in Tom & Viv. One of the great things about Richardson is that she never settles for a typical take on a character, and this one is no exception – Viv is a loose cannon in many unenviable predicaments. I was pleasantly surprised by Little Women – particularly by leading lady Winona Ryder. Her celebrity starlet status isn’t evident here, as she stretches some actual acting legs as tomboy Jo. It’s not entirely a revelation, to be sure, but she’s the most watchable part of the simple yet satisfying film. Finally, Susan Sarandon shows up once again the shortlist as the demure but commanding lawyer in The Client. The trouble with the performance, though, is that the film in retrospect plays like an even tamer version of a Law & Order episode, and Sarandon’s performance is not helped as a result.
Jodie Foster (Nell) – B
Jessica Lange (Blue Sky) – B-
Miranda Richardson (Tom & Viv) – A-
Winona Ryder (Little Women) – B+
Susan Sarandon (The Client) – B-
My Choice: Miranda Richardson
The Winner: Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking)
State of the Category: I’m consistently impressed the more and more I see of the films of 1995. And the newest additions to my viewing record thanks to the project are not disappointments. Starting with possibly one of my all-time favorite performances period (am I giving myself away already on this one?), Susan Sarandon is pitch-perfect as Sister Helen Prejean in the harrowing Dead Man Walking. There’s surely a reason that this movie was the one that got her the trophy. She’s, for lack of a less cliched term, spellbinding. An unlikely entrant in the race is Elisabeth Shue’s big-city call girl in Leaving Las Vegas. Fearing that the oft-goody-goody Shue would be uncomfortable in this darker role, I was surprised to find she was freakishly believable and well-worn in the performance. Sharon Stone channels her inner hamminess as the casino hustler Ginger in Casino. Probably one of the sillier entries in Martin Scorsese’s filmography, Stone is the standout in the movie, but she’s still a sobbing, silly mess in one too many scenes. On the opposite end, Meryl Streep is calm and serene as Francesca in the Iowa-set The Bridges of Madison County. On top of the impeccable accent, her lonely housewife is both devastating and beautiful. A fine performance from what could’ve been a shlocky Nicholas Sparks-esque outing. And then there’s Emma Thompson, turning in another period-piece take, this time in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. But thanks to her own beautifully written screenplay and Ang Lee’s incredible direction, Elinor Dashwood is a vision on the screen and one of Thompson’s best roles.
Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) – A
Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas) – B+
Sharon Stone (Casino) – B-
Meryl Streep (The Bridges of Madison County) – A
Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility) – A-
My Choice: Susan Sarandon
The Winner: Frances McDormand (Fargo)
State of the Category: 1996 graced us with what could’ve been a series of sort of polarizing performances – both for their extremity and provocation. Beginning things, Brenda Blethyn is brilliant as the scatter-brained baby mama to a long-lost daughter in Secrets & Lies. Finding out after-the-fact that under Mike Leigh’s fantastic direction she improvised most of her lines and performance only heightens the depth of her abilities. Of course I adore Marvin’s Room, and Diane Keaton is clearly the movie’s heart. Some may call it a trifling family dramedy, but I’m inclined to give Keaton credit for making her sunny cancer victim a little less saintly than most. Frances McDormand is hysterical and a force as Marge Gunderson in Fargo. The accent and the persona is of course rather thick, but it’s heard to deny her the props she got for playing her aw shucks police officer with hidden emotional depth and wisdom. Who could play a central female romantic lead with such beauty and grace as Kristin Scott Thomas? Though Juliette Binoche tends to steal The English Patient, Scott Thomas is above average as Ms. Clifton in the epic drama – even if she’s often outshone by Binoche and Ralph Fiennes. Finally, plucky Emily Watson plays the sort of cuckoo wife of a paraplegic in Breaking the Waves. It’s increasingly difficult for me to jump on board with the “rah rah Lars Von Trier” bandwagon, and this movie is really no exception. Though Watson is good enough, the movie left me with little by way of worthwhileness, as its characters are so wispy and weird that it left a bad taste.
Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies) – A
Diane Keaton (Marvin’s Room) – A-
Frances McDormand (Fargo) – A
Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient) – B+
Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves) – B
My Choice: Brenda Blethyn
The Winner: Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets)
State of the Category: In a year dominated by everything Titanic, Best Actress was one category that the epic blockbuster couldn’t manage to secure. Let’s take a look at how it all played out. Starting things off is the deft Helena Bonham Carter in probably her best performance in Wings of the Dove. While she’s fallen into a “weird pale chick” rut of late, this movie is a nice reminder that she can be utterly captivating in period dramas. She’s a deceptive and controlling beauty in what could’ve been a bland Henry James interpretation. Julie Christie’s still got it, as evidenced by her aging actress in Afterglow. Though the film suffered from truly obnoxious portrayals from the remainder of its four-person central cast, Christie is a beam of light in the sudsy affair-ridden drama. But she deserves better. Judi Dench channels her super-Brit tendencies to play Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown. Though I much prefer her vindictive psycho in Notes on a Scandal to any of her historical roles, she’s typically fine. All in all, though, she’s definitely been better and more refreshing than in this over-long piece. For anyone who regularly reads my blog, you know that I’m always the first to herald my love of As Good As It Gets. If I had to pick its weakest point, though, it would be this category’s winner Helen Hunt. It’s an important cog to the central story, of course, but her long-suffering single mom is unimpressively one-note at times. Finally, Kate Winslet does her best to bring some actorly performing to the big, effects-driven Titanic as snobby Rose Dewitt-Bukater. It’s not her most seasoned performance (see Eternal Sunshine or Little Children for that), but Rose is a great central character, and its the most respectable performance in the movie.
Helena Bonham Carter (Wings of the Dove) – A-
Julie Christie (Afterglow) – B
Judi Dench (Mrs. Brown) – B-
Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets) – B-
Kate Winslet (Titanic) – B+
My Choice: Helena Bonham Carter
The Winner: Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love)
State of the Category: In the year of film adaptations involving Queen Elizabeth I, it’s pleasing to know that beyond those two period pieces were some adept performances from other capable women. As my personal favorite Elizabeth incarnation of 1998, Cate Blanchett is boyish and awfully good in Elizabeth. Thanks to a lack of glossing over of historical British royalty, Blanchett’s take on the much-loved lady is amiable but even sinister at times. In what I assumed would be a throwaway curmudgeon/child buddy flick, Fernanda Montenegro is a ray of light as Dora in Central Station. What sets her performance apart from less successful attempts at this role is her unwillingness to give up the character’s true nature – Dora grows, but she’s certainly stubborn about it. Gwyneth Paltrow is terrifically likable in Shakespeare in Love. It’s chockfull of silliness, which takes a little bit of its impressiveness away for me, but Paltrow is adorable nonetheless. Don’t call it Lifetime movie, because One True Thing is much more. Aside from its ability to render its viewers blubbering messes, it grants us the opportunity to see Meryl Streep play a disease-ridden super mom with so much poise and subtle tenderness that stereotypes are shattered. I’m simply a sucker for a talented performer igniting a tired role with such fire. And Emily Watson redeems herself in my eyes with Hilary and Jackie, as the real-life cellist Jacqueline du Pre. Her character’s descent into helplessness is truly a heartbreaker, and Watson keeps sentiment far away from it. Jackie isn’t a victim, and it’s because Watson says so.
Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth) – A-
Fernanda Montenegro (Central Station) – A
Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love) – B+
Meryl Streep (One True Thing) – B+
Emily Watson (Hilary and Jackie) – B+
My Choice: Fernanda Montenegro
The Winner: Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry)
State of the Category: Closing out the decade and following a stellar lineup like 1998’s is no easy task, and 1999 comes close but no cigar at its attempt. Annette Bening finally lands a much-deserved Lead Actress spot in the dark comedy American Beauty. She’s an intimidating pistol as the unhappy working wife looking for major change in her life, and to top it off, Bening has never looked better. In another buddy movie, this time a mother-daughter team, Janet McTeer is mesmerizing as the happy-go-lucky centerpiece of Tumbleweeds. The movie could’ve faltered toward mediocre in less capable hands, but McTeer is a ball of fire in a fine comedic performance. Julianne Moore is all grim and devastated in the overly blah The End of the Affair. The film suffers from a lack of any real gumption (or anything coming close to resembling it), so Moore is forced to trudge through the best she can. Stylistically speaking, Moore is breathtaking. Her performance, though, can’t genuinely rise above the troubled script. In probably her least deserving nomination of the bunch, Meryl Streep nonetheless is redeeming as a tentative music teacher in Music of the Heart. Everything else in the movie is fairly standard caricatures of the “inspiration flick,” but at least Streep’s Roberta is a little less picturesque. Finally, Hilary Swank shows us why she deserved the coveted golden guy in Boys Don’t Cry. Though I hate to throw around the term “brave,” her Brandon Teena/Teena Brandon is eerily spot-on. The gender-bending take on the troubled real-life story is so endearing that its ultimate series of events is completely heartbreaking, thanks mostly to Swank’s performance.
Annette Bening (American Beauty) – A-
Janet McTeer (Tumbleweeds) – A
Julianne Moore (The End of the Affair) – C+
Meryl Streep (Music of the Heart) – B
Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry) – A
My Choice: Hilary Swank
**Get those thoughts and qualms out in the comments and stay tuned for what’s coming up next: Best Lead Actress of the 1980s!