So I have decided to start another project here which obviously from the title of this post already gives you a clue on what it’s about. Inspired from a poll on a forum, I’ve decided to watch all the 90s Best Actress Oscar champs arranged from the earliest up to the last of the decade in order to revisit, rekindle, and look how these performances stood the test of time. The focus will be on the performances so little to no mentions of Anjelica Huston in The Grifters, Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, and Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown
and how they were all robbed here. Okay I take it back. Will mention them as well but in small doses. Okay let’s begin!
And we begin the decade with that surprise win of Kathy Bates for breathing life to the big fan turned obsessed creep Annie Wilkes in the adaptation of the Stephen King novel “Misery.” While the writing of Annie Wilkes can be a bit one note, Bates brings a certain humanity to the character thus encompassing emotions that show her character’s vulnerability. How Kathy Bates managed to show defeat and hurt of Annie when she spilled the wine on their dinner to bringing in the crazy when the officer visited her house and that composed demeanor she had after she tied Paul Sheldon is a testament of her range given the limitations of the role. And one has to appreciate the humor that Bates has brought to the role that makes the achievement more appreciated such as her rant against the coupon bond issue as for starters. Of course at this stage, no one knew that Bates would play another Stephen King character via Dolores Clairborne five years later, and while that one had the better performance, it does not take away the complexity that Kathy brought to the role of Annie Wilkes. It is difficult to laugh and be scared with the same character at the same time, and she does it so well that it’s hard to take this win from her. It’s also quite a special win considering how much the Academy rarely touches anything from the thriller/horror genre (unless one counts that win by Jessica Tandy just a year before) and that then unknown Bates, whose popularity only exists on the four walls of Broadway, managed to beat then it girl Julia Roberts, Hollywood royalty Anjelica Huston, Oscar favorite Meryl Streep, and legendary actress Joanne Woodward. Bittersweet indeed.
Just a year after I commented on how this category rarely touches performances from horror or thriller films, AMPAS then decides to reward them back to back. In 1991, The Silence of the Lambs defied all odds by being released exactly one whole year prior to its Oscar sweep the following year. Of course that includes the win for its lead actress Jodie Foster, who herself was already a recipient of this same exact trophy three years before for The Accused. However, this remains to be an iconic role and performance from Jodie, which is nothing to question about. As for starters, it is very refreshing for a woman to headline a thriller such as this one and gain much critical and commercial success. of course it would be unfair to dismiss the efforts of Anthony Hopkins who churned in an iconic performance himself, but Foster’s Clarice Sterling is basically the heart of the movie. And how it succeeds is definitely a gender bending milestone of how thrillers are associated with only male actors front and center. It also does not hurt that this performance is really great as well. In it, Foster rarely (or none at all) relied to histrionics and made Clarice driven but not totally ambitious, subtle but never forgettable, and complex without being one-sided. This is the same year when both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were nominated for their team up in Thelma and Louise and part of me thinks that’s also another reason which helped Foster’s road to the podium at all. While one can argue that those two are better than Foster (I belong to that camp to be honest), it is easier to reward this performance than pulling a Sophie’s Choice between the two. But in the end, it must not limit the merits that Jodie has brought into this performance, as it’s probably one of the most respected wins in this category especially for non-Oscar aficionados.
And from one Anthony Hopkins leading lady to another, queen of British period pieces Emma Thompson won the following year for her performance as Margaret Schlugel in Howard’s End. It was one of those easy Oscar calls as she has been the frontrunner all season long, and it’s not difficult to figure out why. Thompson brought a warm touch to a likable human being that isn’t a scene stealing, attention grabbing character. She was the voice of sense and reason, and Emma was quick to figure that her character balances the story in between her hands. Margaret was a sympathetic character but not one who you’d feel pity for, and there’s a certain glow that Thompson just radiates while playing this character. Whether it’s her tea sessions with Vanessa Redgrave or finding out about Anthony Hopkins’ romantic past, she inhabits Margaret’s confidence effortlessly reflecting Emma’s class act performance. 1990 winner Kathy Bates, Emma Thompson would go on and play another period character in another James Ivory film, The Remains of the Day, for which she nabbed another Oscar nomination, but whether it is arguable if she did well better in the former or the latter, the heart of Howard’s End will always belong to Emma Thompson and with that, she is certainly deserving of this Oscar recognition.
1993 was all about talking (or lack thereof). With Whoopi Goldberg hosting the Oscars — being the first black woman (and up to now still remains the only one) to do so, this was also the last previous bid for a black actress to win the coveted Best Actress Oscar prior to Halle Berry’s historic win in 2001. The person in talks was Angela Bassett for portraying iconic performer Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It? And the talks are loud, perhaps really loud, that this is still the subject of some debates years after. But the woman who ended up with the Oscar needs no talking in her film, at least. The Piano‘s Holly Hunter became the seventh person in Academy history to win an Oscar for not uttering a word on screen (except the narration at the beginning and the end). In hindsight, why people argue Holly Hunter’s win years after is beyond me. In a really strong field that includes Stockard Channing in Six Degrees of Separation and last year’s winner Emma Thompson in The Remains of the Day, Hunter towered above the rest of the field with her performance. The mute aspect isn’t gimmicky nor calculated for me, as she was able to translate a performance that started as a mail ordered bride who was cold but willing to open up, just given the opportunity to do so. Hunter has always been praised for her delivery and the energy she inserts into the role she plays, but she managed to overcome all that and give an equally impressive one stripped off her usual assets. The stares, the body language, and the actions are far from a stunt performance and on top of that, the emotions that she just poured in it. I doubt performances like this could win an Oscar in this period now where showy OMG acting in this category seemed to be the key to be considered an “actress.” It’s a performance that stood well the test of the time, and it’s one of the times when Oscar go against the norm and ultimately get it right.
There is such a stigma being labeled to the 1994 Best Actress line up to be one of the weakest in this category’s history. After all, this was the year when Linda Fiorentino should have swept all the awards if only The Last Seduction wasn’t shown briefly on HBO, thus making her ineligible for the rest of the season. But while there’s a hint of truthfulness with that, you can all spare Jessica Lange’s winning performance in it. Say what you want about her weak ass nominees, but Lange is nowhere a weak winner this year. Playing a mentally unstable wife of a military man and causing troubles to his career, Jessica was able to amp up the physical, emotional, and mental requirements of the role effectively that it’s definitely one of the underrated wins in this category’s history. Much of the talks about this performance and film was how it was dumped in the shelf three years after its completion, when in fact we should be talking about Jessica Lange slaying the hell out of this role. It’s a very complex performance which suited a woman of her age as she oozes her sexuality and shifts to calm to showy in a snap. While some performances get carried along the strength of their overall films, the opposite can be said about here as Blue Sky ended up as inferior to what Jessica brought to the role. Besides, her only Oscar until this year was a thank you for a great year supporting win in 1982, and if someone fits the narrative of a multiple Oscar winning actress, her name would definitely be up on that list. So this one albeit a weak year is an inspired win and one who should overcome, if anything else, the weak field she’s been grouped with.
After a weak 1994 line up, we’re bound to have a strong one no? But to say the 1995 Best Actress line up is a strong one is even an understatement if we are to look past the performances that were left off that year (Nicole Kidman in To Die For, Julianne Moore in Safe, Kathy Bates in Dolores Clairborne among others). Now if we are to look at those actual nominated performances, then it makes the case even stronger with Elisabeth Shue acting opposite the eventual Best Actor winner and Meryl Streep in the second best performance of her career are unrewarded with Oscars. But then, it’s all about Susan Sarandon. Sure, her overdue status would have pushed her the win that year especially since she was nominated four times the last five years, but to consider that as a demerit to her performance is reaching it. Playing real life nuin Helen Prejean, Sarandon would always be on the odd side of the film. On the outer, you have to act opposite Sean Penn’s more interesting and showy character as Susan is relegated to facial reactions to what his character is saying. To act with such a very complex character and not be overshadowed is a feat itself, but Sarandon perfectly crosses the line of being receptive but not totally eaten and distinct without overshadowing her co-star. If anything, it was a perfectly arranged harmony that she has showed here. And beyond that, she plays the character of a nun. It’s hard to play a character who is morally good and be believable in it, but Sarandon’s Prejean’s cling in her “faith” does not only resonate to Matthew Poncelet but to humanity is an acting accomplishment that is deserving to be honored with an Oscar.
On one hand, it would be a waste to hate on Frances McDormand’s win here especially since she’s a very talented actress whose charisma really transcends through her works. On the other, this was the year when the revelation that is named Emily Watson brought one of the best performances I’ve ever seen on screen via Breaking the Waves, that even if I know Oscar won’t touch it, I still feel like my hopes were dashed. But since I’ve let that one out of the way, let’s go back to our 96 champ Frances McDormand. Playing police officer Marge Gunderson, McDormand certainly made the most of all of her scenes in Joel Coen’s Fargo. It is very hard to root for a character as lovable and likable as Marge, and like Thompson’s Margaret, there’s a certain amount of rooting for that you feel with the character. Much of Marge’s magic — if I may call it that — can be attributed to Frances McDormand’s own wit and charisma. Her confident personality seems to play a factor with the end result of Marge’s character and that it will make you want to see more of her (granted she’s only in the film half of the time). There is a reason why Marge, despite limited screentime and borderline supporting appearance, is an iconic character and Frances is the main reason why. On a totally unrelated note, I would just like to share that I am amazed with Alison Tollman’s portrayal of such role in the FX adaptation series of Fargo because even if she wisely did not copy the same approach that McDormand did in her character, you can see the influences and nuances that McDormand indelibly left in her portrayal 18 years before.
Before we start the 1997 discussion, let’s get this one out of the way: Nope, Helen Hunt did not win just because she’s battling against four British actresses in here. If anything, Helena Bonham Carter and Dame Judi Dench are in British period pieces, Julie Christie has been rewarded an Oscar already, and Kate Winslet is
the reason why Leonardo di Caprio died serviceable but in no way awards worthy in Titanic. There’s a certain level of vitriol spawn on Helen Hunt’s Oscar win and that’s probably because her post-Oscar career sizzled or that like any others, she was perceived as the darling of that year’s awards season. In As Good As It Gets, Helen plays the longer version of what makes her a prominent American that time: a big TV star sweeping off Emmys for her show Mad About You. But that is not to say that Hunt wasn’t good in what she did in the film. As waitress Caroline who found love in the most unusual way, Hunt was pleasantly and delightfully sweet that it charms the Oscar voters to give her that trophy. It’s a performance where she’s acting off one of Hollywood’s finest Jack Nicholson, and how he did not swallow her in their scenes together must be credited to the both of them. I still don’t think Helen Hunt had any business winning an Oscar that year, but she was convincing for the most part, albeit sitcom-ish as well, in her performance in the film.
Now think of the vitriol that Helen Hunt received in 1997 and double it to come up with the reception that Gwyneth Paltrow’s Oscar win had earned over the years especially from fans of the performances of co-nominees Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth and Fernanda Montenegro in The Central Station. But then I think it is unfair to simply attach Paltrow’s competition to the performance that she has given in Shakespeare in Love. This is not the same case as that of the previous year’s winner since Shakespeare in Love is mighty ahead in terms of being the better film. As a matter of fact, Paltrow and the film itself carried the same burden with regards to their Oscar legacy — she and the film are perceived to tackle lighter subjects; thus they are easier to dispose. This is not to say that both her and the movie are rightfully and every inch deserving of their wins but more of an underestimation with the accomplishments that they have achieved. Focusing back on Gwyneth, her gender bending role as Viola de Lesseps provides the perfect heroine accessory to the film. Given that great screenplay and lavish production of the movie, it does not need an actress that will overshadow all of that but instead one that will understand the circumstances and just go with it, which she did in the movie. It is not easy to be charming and delightful as your film’s heroine and she possesses both of that in her performance. So while I understand that this leans on the lighter fare of stuff as compared to playing a queen, it does not warrant the notorious image that it has since then received.
Now after three comedic performances in a row, the decade closed with one of its closest and most infamous Oscar rivals. In 1999, Annette Bening, one half of the power couple with Hollywood legend Warren Beatty, is up for her performance as part of eventual Best Picture winner American Beauty. Prior to the Oscars, she has won the SAG and there’s a really great chance that the film will join the elite few of winning the four major awards (Picture, Director, Actor and Actress). Then there’s up and coming actress Hilary Swank, whose probably known for her remake of Karate Kid sometime in the mid 90s, playing the role of real life transgender Teena Brandon in the small indie film Boys Don’t Cry. And in a Cinderella moment, David beats G0liath as Hilary Swank became the last winner of the decade. That is probably one of the boldest moves made by the Academy and one of the best upsets if I may say. In one of the best breakthrough performances by an actress here, she was raw, heartbreaking, and every inch convincing in this performance. Swank never made the movie about her tics or her adjustments, but she assured that it will be about Brandon’s journey, and it is within this fearlessness that she made this character and performance remarkable. If anything, I think it’s even braver that she denied the easily to use sentimentality nor trademarks that in the hands of a lesser actress would rely to, and instead let it breathe and parade it with so much clarity and confidence. Whatever Hilary Swank did for the remaining of her career after this is hers to celebrate or to blame, but in this one particular performance, she made it clear that she would be remembered.
The 90s Best Actress winners line up in general have been less receptive to biopics (with only two out of the ten winners were for playing real persons) and more to poetic costume pieces films. There’s also a stage where humor works best (even three in a row from 96-98) and if you’d even include, Kathy Bates in Misery. Ranking this is difficult since there’s a lot of performance here that I admire and the ones I appreciate and respect aren’t even totally deserving of a low ranking. That said, I guess I’m gonna go with…
01. 1993 (Holly Hunter, The Piano)
02. 1999 (Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry)
03. 1995 (Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking)
04. 1992 (Emma Thompson, Howard’s End)
05. 1991 (Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs)
06. 1996 (Frances McDormand, Fargo)
07. 1994 (Jessica Lange, Blue Sky)
08. 1990 (Kathy Bates, Misery)
09. 1998 (Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love)
10. 1997 (Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets)
So who is your favorite 1990s Best Actress winner? Who would you consider as the best of the decade? And how many of those performances have stood the test of the time? Chime in the Comments section below and let’s converse! 🙂
You can also follow me on Twitter: @nikowl