The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1999

I’ve talked about 1999 a bunch already. American Beauty wins Best Picture, Best Director for Sam Mendes (which I talked about here) and Best Actor for Kevin Spacey (which I talked about here). Angelina Jolie wins Best Supporting Actress for Girl, Interrupted (which I talked about here), and Michael Caine wins Best Supporting Actor for The Cider House Rules. That’s about it. It’s great having said a lot of the stuff you’ve wanted to say about a year already. You can get right into the category.

And while we’re on that — what the fuck? Look, I don’t dislike Hilary Swank, she tries and she’s likable. But what did she do in this performance that was so good to have beaten Annette Bening? Are people just unwilling to say that because of the subject matter? Personally, I think the Academy once again went with the “likable” over “unlikable” character bullshit they’re known for. Which really fucked things up, historically. Great job, guys.


And the nominees are…

Annette Bening, American Beauty

Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds

Julianne Moore, The End of the Affair

Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart

Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry

Bening — Most people, unless they’re younger than I am, I’d wager have seen this film. You kind of have to, right? I was eleven when it came out, and I saw it the year it won Best Picture. So I’m just under the assumption that we all know about this. But I guess we’ll do the synopsis thing anyway, because — well, because.

Kevin Spacey is a middle aged man, hates his life. Highest point of the day is jerking off in the shower. In a loveless marriage, his wife and child don’t respect him. Then, when at a basketball game where his daughter is cheerleading, he meets her friend, the head cheerleader. He is smitten. This causes him to have a midlife crisis. He starts working out, smoking pot, manages to quit his job and blackmail his boss for almost $70,ooo (“pass the asparagus”), starts working at a fast food place, and really becomes a happier person. But, as he tells us in the first minute of the film, within the year, he’ll be dead. And the rest of the film is him reaching happiness and everyone else in the film, mostly doing what they do, and then he ends up dead. It’s not really a mystery, except the exact moment of his death, when they make it as though any number of characters could do it. But, otherwise, the film is just about all the beauty in the world that no one pays attention to. But you knew that, didn’t you?

Annette Bening is Spacey’s wife, and she is perfectly portrayed. Savage career woman. We first see her, in full business suit, pruning roses in the garden while also engaging in that overly fake small talk with her neighbors, whom she secretly dislikes anyway because they cut down her tree that was growing onto their property. And the first real scene we see her in is perhaps the most enlightening as to her character. It’s only 45 seconds long, but, it tells you everything you need to know about her:

And then we see her trying to sell the house as if it’s a mansion to people who are average people who just want a house. She oversells it to the point where it’s off-putting. And that’s her character, driven to the point of unattractiveness. And she despises her husband because he’s just a mess. He sleeps in the car on the way to work, stuff like that. And she dominates the house like a control freak. There’s that great scene where her daughter asks why they have to listen to her elevator music at dinner and she’s like, “When you start paying the bills, come home, and serve a delicious, but nutritious meal, then you can pick what music will be played.” It’s as if she rehearsed everything she was gonna say for just such an occasion. Then later in the film, she starts an affair with Buddy Kane, the real estate “king,” who is someone more in line with her. He’s the top real estate dude in the county, and is slowly putting her smaller business out on the street. And they start fucking, and there’s that great scene where they pull up in Spacey’s drive through window and he catches them, and he’s like, “I’m her husband. But something tells me you’re gonna remember me this time,” playing off the earlier line when Spacey meets him and Kane doesn’t recognize him and he’s like, “Oh, don’t worry, I wouldn’t remember me either.” Great scene.

Anyway — Annette Bening is really great in this movie. She plays her character perfectly throughout, and really, she should have won for this. Her not winning made it possible for her to potentially win for Being Julia or The Kids are All Right, two films she most decidedly should not have won for. It’s actually kind of terrible she didn’t win for this, for reasons I’ll explain at the bottom. But just know — she should have won. Don’t believe me — compare the performances.

McTeer — Janet McTeer is a relatively unknown actress (I’m assuming. Unless you’re hardcore into British films). She hasn’t really made that many films most people would have seen. And this is kind of a phantom nomination. I think she really only got in because of the weak year. There were the two strong ones that duked it out for the win, but, otherwise, the other three are take it or leave it performances.

This film is about a mother and her daughter who, at the very beginning, leave her abusive boyfriend. It’s almost exactly the same setup as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, except here, they leave instead of the dude dying. And that’s what we learn her reaction to trouble is — just pick up and go. And her daughter does that with her, and we see them getting to a new place. They just drive from one place to the next, and we see that she’s very much the eccentric mother. Very open, does crazy stuff. Throws her shit out the window on a whim, things like that. The kind of mother that’s fun to hang out with, but causes problems in other areas, like, you know, waking you up at 2am and telling you to pack your stuff because you’re leaving town forever. And we see them settle in one place, where the mother gets a job at some kind of office, typing, and the daughter goes to school. And we see the daughter really settle in. She gets a boyfriend (she’s like, 12, so it’s cute), gets the lead role in the school play, and the mother starts sleeping with and moving in with another boyfriend. Then, as always, things go sour. She breaks up with the boyfriend, quits her job, and is prepared to leave like she always does. But the girl doesn’t want to go. She likes having a stable life. Imagine that. So her refusal to leave forces the mother to realize they need to make some changes, so they end up settling down in the town for good.

So, the performance is fine. It’s good. It’s comic, mostly. I’m not really sure why she was nominated aside from, it was a kind of weak year. Just glancing at the list of films, no female performance really jumps out at me that says it needs to be nominated, so I guess that’s what it was. Anyway, she was fine here. But she was never gonna win. She would have won if she were Julia Roberts. But she isn’t. So, all we have is an entertaining performance, which is really all we need.

Moore — Julianne Moore. Perhaps the one name I’ve been hearing every year over the past decade come Oscar time, where everyone’s like, “She made a halfway decent movie this year. Is this the year where she finally wins one?” There’s an insane Julianne Moore love out there. But that’s neither here nor there.

This film is based on the Graham Greene novel and is directed by Neil Jordan, which automatically gives it that Oscar sort of pedigree. Or like that star they put next to the horses in the racing form when you know they’re being bred to potentially run in the Kentucky Derby. That sort of thing.

The film is about Ralph Fiennes, who used to have an affair with Julianne Moore, who is married to Stephen Rea. He meets Rea one night, and that gets him to thinking about Moore again. He starts having an affair with her again. And they fuck, a lot. And they keep fucking, and then they feel guilty, but keep doing it, and eventually she gets a terminal illness, and dies. That’s it, really. Not a particularly entertaining movie on any front. Julianne Moore once again gets naked and has a really long sex scene, but, when does she not do that? (She cries too.)

I can’t say the performance is particularly great. I was mostly listening to the dodgy accent most of the time. But, since she is Julianne Moore, I guess she gets, by default, third choice for a vote, just because she is who she is. I guess that’s something. As for the film and her performance, I thought the film was boring, there were way too many unnecessary sex scenes, and I thought her performance was nothing special. So, you really don’t need to concern yourself with this film at all.

Streep — This might be the first of the official “Meryl” nominations. Or maybe One True Thing the year before this is. Put it this way. She did all her great work in the 80s, got the nomination in 1990 for Postcards from the Edge, a good performance. Then in the 90s she got the official label (though she probably had it in the 80s as well) “best living actress,” so the Academy was thinking, “Well fuck, we should probably give her a second Best Actress at some point.” So she got the Bridges of Madison County nomination in 1995. Which isn’t bad, since, 5 years after the other one. Then, 1998, she gets the One True Thing nomination. Okay, woman dying of cancer, makes sense. Then, this one. This is really a “Meryl” nomination. The kind you’re used to seeing her get now, most of the time.

Here are her nominations, post-1995: 1998, One True Thing. 1999, Music of the Heart. 2002, Adaptation. 2006, The Devil Wears Prada. 2008, Doubt. 2009, Julie & Julia. In that, I count one great performance. Lead. The Adaptation. one is cool since it’s Supporting and there are totally different rules there. But, of the leads, I count one great one. Doubt. One she’d have won for if they didn’t really owe Kate Winslet one (though I’d have voted (in spirit) for Anne that year). Julie & Julia is a great impression, but, it’s not an Oscar-winning performance. We leave that kind of performance to the Golden Globes. (I love the amount of condescension I felt as I made that statement. I feel like a rich man talking about poor people. “We leave that to — other people.”) Anyway, I think you understand the “Meryl” nomination.

And to prove to you just how much of a Meryl nomination this is, listen to this synopsis. Meryl is a single mother of two whose husband has stopped sending her alimony checks (I think that’s what it is). She’s taught them the violin since they were children, and they’re not basically child prodigies of sorts. Not like, prodigies, but, proficient. And she takes a job as a violin teacher at an inner-city school. Well, she fights her way into one. And she has a small class of like 20 students, and teaches them. It’s like Staccato and Deliver. Meryl is no Edward James Olmos, trust me on that. I mean, she’s great here, as she always is, but, this is no Stand and Deliver. So, she teaches, and her children try to set her up with a man, and there’s that, and then the program takes off and she does it for the next twenty years. Mrs. Streep’s Opus. And then the big thing is, she needs to save the program when funding is cut, so they have a big concert where they raise all the money. It’s an enjoyable film, I guess. I mean, I wasn’t bored, but, come the fuck on. You nominated her for this? Well, it is a weak year, so, Meryl does tower over everybody based on stature alone. But, the film is fine, don’t not see it. It’s perfectly okay if you find it on Starz or something and have a hundred minutes to kill.

But the real kicker here is — you know who directed the film?

That’s right — you guess it — Wes Craven.

That’s not a joke. Wes Craven did legit direct this film. I know, it’s fucked up, right? Where the fuck did that come from? That’s really the joy of this nomination. We get to see that Wes Craven directed a film about an inner city violin teacher, co-starring Gloria Estefan.

Swank — And now, Hilary. Let me spend these first few lines defending the performance. Just because I say she shouldn’t have won doesn’t mean the performance was for shit. It just shouldn’t have won.

Just this side of Clarence Darrow, aren’t I?

The film is about a transgender teenager who, has a bit of a history of doing stupid things. Stole a car, took it for a joyride, shit like that. And he/she/ze — fuck it, it’s Hilary Swank, so I’m sticking with she. She decides to just go around pretending to be a man. Problem with that is, she’s in the south. They don’t take kindly to queers down there. That may have been an accidental verbatim quote from the movie. It almost has to be, doesn’t it? So, she goes around as a guy, and gets in trouble, occasionally, since the brothers of the women she sleeps with occasionally find out. And she then goes out drinking one night and ends up in a completely different part of the state with Peter Sarsgaard, Chloë Sevigny and their friends. And they all think she’s a dude. And she stays with them for a while, and falls in love with Chloë, and then they find out he’s a she, and they make a big stink over it. The guys rape her, and she runs away, and then they go and kill her. That’s the film, really. It’s more interesting than that, but, it’s not exactly a masterpiece. It’s simply a good film that is better because it deals with a real issue.

The performance is good, but let’s not get crazy here. I don’t want to badmouth it, but, let’s leave it at this — for this year, all you need to see are these two performances. The rest were never going to win. Just watch this performance and Annette Bening’s performance. Then tell me, as objectively as posible, which was the better one and which deserved to win. I said objectively. No rationalization, just straight, which one was the better performance. That’s it.

My Thoughts: It’s clearly a race between Annette Bening and Hilary Swank. That’s not the question. They got that part right. The real problem is, they made the wrong decision. Annette Bening should have won this. Then Hilary could have won for Million Dollar Baby and no one would have said anything (I might have. I’d have voted for Kate that year. But I’d have understood). Put it this way. As it stands, Hilary Swank was nominated twice for Oscars, both Best Actress, and won them both. You know who else has those statistics? Vivien Leigh. I rest my case. Annette Bening should have won here.

My Vote: Bening

Should Have Won: Bening

Is the result acceptable?: No. It fucked up Oscar races for the next decade. It almost cost Natalie Portman an Oscar this year. Not giving Annette Bening an Oscar for this performance is like Final Destination. You delayed the inevitable. That was the opportune time to do it and make all of our lives easier. I guarantee you now that when she wins (if she wins), it’ll be at someone else’s expense (or for Supporting, but even still). Swank was good and all, but, really — come on, now.

Performances I suggest you see: American Beauty is, like I’ve said before, in that gray area, where I’m not sure what it’s legacy is gonna be. So I can’t tell whether it’s an essential film or not. So I’ll just say, if you haven’t seen it, you probably should, just because, most of us have, and I don’t think anyone would think to tell you to see it, because, we’re just assuming you’ve seen it. It’s a great film at that. I’m not sure how it’ll age, but, it’s a great film, so sooner rather than later is better, since, if it ages poorly, you won’t get to see just how great it is. And — uhh — I think that’s it. I mean, Boys Don’t Cry is interesting, and you might want to see it because she won (and because Chloë Sevigny is so good in it as well), but, you don’t really need to unless you want to. Wow, this was a weak year. Only one I can definitively tell you is worth seeing.


5) Streep

4) Moore

3) McTeer

2) Swank

1) Bening

2 responses

  1. Ty

    Yea I don’t like this year to much, a lot of people rave about Swank(I’ve only ever found her to be a competent actress). Chloe Sevigny was the real heart of that movie, it was a shame she lost. Hilary’s performance is very stilted and I am sort of convinced they would have given it to anyone for the same role, it’s so baity.

    July 18, 2011 at 9:06 pm

  2. Jacob

    Also interesting – had Annette Bening won, American Beauty would have become the fourth film to win the Big Five. What could have been.

    June 24, 2014 at 4:27 pm

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