The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1998

1998 is a year that will live in Academy infamy. Shakespeare in Love, Saving Private Ryan. Still, people argue over this. I, personally, don’t have a problem with the choice. Sure, I’d have chosen differently, but, who cares? The Best Director split, with Steven Spielberg winning for Ryan really let you know that it didn’t matter. (Which is why I feel 2010 will go down as being a worse decision. There was no split.)

Then, Best Actor this year — whoa boy — was Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful, which is one of the worst single decisions of all time in the Best Actor category (probably the worst, though I have weird issues with things and would probably (incorrectly) put it second. Still, it’s bad). Best Supporting Actor was James Coburn for Affliction, which, was a bad choice, but it was a veteran Oscar and James Coburn is awesome, so we can’t really gripe too much. Then Best Supporting Actress was Judi Dench for Shakespeare in Love, mostly because she was clearly the most likable performance in the category (and probably because she lost Best Actress the year before this). She was awesome.

And then, there was this category, which people are still talking about. I’ll admit — based on the actresses, yeah, Cate Blanchett probably should have won over Gwyneth. But, honestly, this probably comes down to the same thing 1997 came down to — there was one likable (albeit light) performance against one ho hum, boring, period piece. And when there are so many period pieces getting nominated, people are gonna be like, “Jesus, stop making me eat the fucking asparagus. I want some goddamn cookies.” And cookies are something I can get behind.

BEST ACTRESS – 1998

And the nominees were…

Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth

Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station

Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love

Meryl Streep, One True Thing

Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie

Blanchett — Let’s make it clear right now — Cate Blanchett does give the most powerful performance in this category. That’s not in question. The real downside to the performance is — Jesus Christ, what is this, 1969? This film looks like it should be starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn. It’s like making Hamlet the way Olivier did it in 1948, in 1998, and expecting to win Best Actor and Best Picture.

The film is about Queen Elizabeth, the “virgin” queen — in case you don’t remember, Cate was nominated for the same role 9 years later (the first time that’s ever happened) — who goes from being this innocent girl to ascending to the role of queen. She’d been in jail because her sister thought she was trying to kill her, and now she’s queen. So she’s on the throne, and the first move is — who you gonna marry? So she needs to find a husband, and, it doesn’t work out, and there’s a lot of pressure, and basically we see her, with the aide of Geoffrey Rush, go from being someone whose intentions in life did not involve royalty at all to having to command an entire country.

And we see her change. That’s the most amazing part. We see her become steely and hardened. And we see her get to the point where she’s like, “That’s right, bitches, I’m a virgin, and I’m your fucking queen. Do something. I’ll fucking kill you.” It’s a powerful performance, and she commands the screen really well. But, like I said, the one downside to this is — the film is so fucking boring. At least if it were made in 1969, I can go with it. Here, it’s shot in such a modern way, and it’s just not interesting. I’m sure anglophiles will love it, but for me — why? Why would I vote for this when I can vote for Shakespeare in Love? I know Cate gave the best performance and had a better career post-1998, but, for future Oscar Questers, do I really want them to have to watch this film for this category? (Specious logic, I know, but what if she did win?)

Montenegro — Yeah, gonna be honest, this was a foreign language performance by an actress who never did anything in America. She was never going to win. Ever. She did a great job here, but, never gonna win, not even worth voting for. Plus, I don’t really do foreign films all that much, so while some people would consider this a performance worth voting for, I see it as filler.

The film is about a woman in Brazil who sits in a train station and writes letters for illiterate people to send to others. And they tell her what they want to say, and she writes it. But, she never actually sends the letters. And then she ends up taking in this young boy, because, after his mother has a letter written out for her, she’s hit by a bus. And then she takes the boy to meet his family. And that’s pretty much the film. It didn’t do much for me. But if you’re into foreign films, maybe you’ll really enjoy it.

Montenegro was good, like I said. It’s just — it was never going to win, and I didn’t really care for the film all that much. Why would I bother voting for it? But, in terms of seeing the film, don’t go by me. You know I don’t always go for these types of films, so take that into consideration before you discount it based on my stupid opinion.

Paltrow — Shakespeare in Love. Thoroughly enjoyable film. Not sure why people bash it. Maybe because it won. As someone who takes to bashing The King’s Speech simply because it won — I can understand this.

It’s about a young William Shakespeare, who sets out to write a play, “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter.” And, along the way, he falls in love with Gwyneth Paltrow, a noblewoman who wants to act on the stage but can’t because they don’t let women on the stage. And she pretends to be a man, because he realizes that she can act better than any of the men can. And she’s engaged to Colin Firth, and Shakespeare is upset about this, so the play then becomes a tragedy, and becomes Romeo and Juliet. And they act out the scenes together, using the play as a mirror for their romance, and eventually they perform it in the Globe Theater, and it’s a whole momentous thing — and everything’s great. I love this movie. It’s fantastic. I’d have gone with Private Ryan, but I still love this movie lots.

Now, Gwyneth, while she didn’t reinvent the wheel with this performance, is perfectly admirable. She does a good job with it. And, in a category like this, where most of the time the vote is for the actress and not the performance, I’ll take it. (Have you seen The Hours?) In this case, I’d rather vote for the film over the performance, but even so, in this category, I’ll take the performance over the alternatives.

Streep — Yeah, Meryl. This is the first of the official “Meryl” nods. I thought it was Music of the Heart, but no, it’s this. Here, she’s clearly nominated purely because she’s Meryl and nothing else.

Renée Zellweger is a career woman in New York who idolizes her father (William Hurt) and openly treats her mother (Meryl) with disdain. And then she finds out her mother is dying. And she goes to care for her, and as she does, she realizes things aren’t as she thought they were. Her father is actually kind of a dick. He’s been having affairs for years, and Meryl never said anything, because she loves him. He goes out and drinks, ignoring his wife, who sits at home, being a perfect housewife and mother. And all this unfolds as Meryl dies.

Now — the film isn’t that good. It’s very schmaltzy. It’s just not a good movie at all. And Meryl was only nominated because she’s Meryl. If any other actress were in this role, they’d have aired the movie on Lifetime. But because it’s Meryl, she classes up the joint. There is no way in hell I’m even gonna think about voting for this performance. You know why? If she wins, that means she won for Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, and this. And not for any of the other performances she gave over her career.

I rest my case.

Watson — Yeah, I love Emily Watson, I think she should have won in 1996, but, I just can’t behind this film at all.

It’s about two sisters who grow up to be musicians. Watson is Jackie and Rachel Griffiths is Hilary. And, when they’re children, Hilary is the great musician and gets all the attention. And, when they’re older, Jackie is the famous one. She’s a cellist and is traveling around everywhere. And Hilary is the stable one, at home. And Jackie is now kind of unstable (a bit), and comes back, and sort of disrupts her sister’s life, but not so much, because Hilary loves her sister, to the point where, when Jackie says she wants to sleep with Hilary’s husband, she feels bad and tells her husband to go do it. It’s a weird film. And then Jackie gets MS or something, and starts losing control of her motor functions, and eventually dies.

The film is so-so, I didn’t really care for it. But Watson has a clear Oscar bait performance. She gets to be lively, slightly unstable, and then die tragically. The ingredients are there, but, for me, this performance doesn’t really amount to all that much. It’s just kind of there. A #4 at best.

My Thoughts: This is a pretty weak category. Not quite weak enough to call shenanigans and look for alternatives, but weak enough to where it makes voting difficult. It’s pretty much between Cate and Gwyneth. And, Cate gave the stronger performance, but her film is — meh. And Gwyneth, was likable and charming, and was in a great film, but the performance is simply good. Not really win-worthy. History has told us that Cate had the better career and was probably more deserving of this Oscar, but, honestly, I’m taking her film over Cate’s. I don’t care. If taking a slightly substandard performance saves us from having year after year of British costume dramas in all the awards, I’m okay with that.

My Vote: Paltrow

Should Have Won: Probably Blanchett. Probably.

Is the result acceptable?: Based on this individual category? I’d say yes. It was one of two. Both would have been okay. Strictly between the two films, I like this choice better. Historically, this was a horrible decision. Blanchett’s gone on to win an Oscar (Supporting Actress, 2004), be good enough to win a second (2007), get nominated a few other times, and continue to show versatility in things from small, actorly films, to big budget films, to even Wes Anderson comedies (forgot she was in The Life Aquatic, didn’t you?). And Gwyneth has been on Glee. I think that about speaks for itself. So, while in a way it’s not acceptable, I say it is. I don’t know.

Performances I suggest you see: Really, the only film I can recommend here is Shakespeare in Love. It’s a wonderful film. A tip top script by Tom Stoppard, and a great film. Did it need to win Best Picture? Probably not. It was good enough to, though. It  wasn’t that terrible a decision. It’s a really fun watch. If you get over the initial “fuck this film” that everyone seems to have just because we all love Saving Private Ryan so much, you’ll see just how enjoyable this film is.

Everything else here is — okay. Elizabeth is a good film, but, you need to want to see it in order to enjoy it. Otherwise, why put yourself through it? Seriously, why?

Rankings:

5) Streep

4) Watson

3) Montenegro

2) Blanchett

1) Paltrow

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