The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1996

I cringe when I see 1996. The English Patient is such a terrible movie to have won Best Picture. Fargo was so much better. Anthony Minghella winning Best Director for it, though, (talked about here) is understandable. Usually with one comes the other. But it still doesn’t make it a good decision.

Best Actor was Geoffrey Rush for Shine, which, as I said here, is a decision I consider one of the worst of all time. Not because of the actor, because of the performance. Read the article if you want to find out why. Then Best Actress was Frances McDormand for Fargo, which I love as a decision (as I said here), even though it wasn’t the best performance in the category (it was my favorite, though). And Best Supporting Actor was Cuba Gooding Jr. for Jerry Maguire, which is just troublesome. I talked about it  here, but basically, William H. Macy should have won for Fargo, yet Cuba Gooding is so likable in the movie, it swayed a lot of people to vote for him (even I did in when I wrote up the article!), and then after the fact we all realized, “Yeah…we should have given it to Bill Macy. That was dumb.”

So that’s 1996. Bad Best Picture and Best Director choice, terrible Best Actor choice, great Best Actress choice, but one that’s shaky because there was a better (or two) performance in the category, and a Best Supporting Actor choice that feels okay, but then you realize it probably shouldn’t have won. Then, there’s this category. It’s by far the weakest of the bunch (though that’s always been the case, historically), but they did made the right decision. Most people assumed Lauren Bacall was the odds-on favorite here (because she’s Lauren Bacall), but no one takes into account just how much an Oscar-winning performance actually requires a halfway decent film in order to be taken seriously.


And the nominees were…

Joan Allen, The Crucible

Lauren Bacall, The Mirror Has Two Faces

Juliette Binoche, The English Patient

Barbara Hershey, The Portrait of a Lady

Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Secrets & Lies

Allen — The Crucible is pretty famous as a play. Chances are, you read it in high school. I won’t get into it too much. It was Arthur Miller writing about the Salem Witch trials as a metaphor for the McCarthy hearings.

Basically, a group of teenage girls are practicing witchcraft in the forest and get in trouble for it. Instead, they accuse others of being witches instead. Winona Ryder plays the lead girl, who has had an affair with Daniel Day-Lewis. He ended it because he loves his wife, played by Joan Allen. And Ryder, upset that his wife is there, accuses her of being a witch. They stopped attending church, so the people think it’s possible. Then it becomes a full-blown trial, and people get bloodthirsty, becoming convinced that witchcraft exists. And basically, Joan Allen is convicted of being a witch, even though she hasn’t done anything, but then she gets off because she says she’s pregnant. And the film/play ends with Day-Lewis saying he was the one practicing witchcraft, saving his wife, and her not doing anything to save him and letting him hang. (And she also realizes that him having the affair was her fault and not his.)

It’s one of those characters that gets to change a lot. It’s a strong role. And Allen is a great actress. She’s good at these roles, and plays it well. But, you should know me by now (assuming you’ve read a fair amount of my Oscar articles). I’m not voting for a performance like this. I hate voting for seminal works on film. Not gonna do it. It’s not 1930 anymore, we’re past the days of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet winning Oscars. We just are. Death of a Salesman — sure, they’re great plays, but, you can put on a version every ten years with a different actor and they all can get nominated for it. It doesn’t mean they all should win. There’s like a 5% window where it’s okay for that to happen (see: Laurence Olivier) and this isn’t that window. So I’m not voting for it, even though the film is pretty good and the performance is strong.

Bacall — Okay, Lauren Bacall. A legend — yes. Should have an Oscar — probably. Is there a definitive role for which to give her an Oscar — not really. Now, this film. I read a review somewhere that said it best: this film is about the prime definition of the word hubris. This is Barbra Streisand’s Larry Crowne. I think that about sums up everything I could say about the film in one simple reference. That’s what this is.

Okay, Jeff Bridges plays a math professor. He’s divorced. He calls a phone sex hotline early in the film to just talk to the woman. (Yeah, it’s that kind of film.) Babs is a Lit professor. She lives with her mother (Bacall), and is kind of a spinster. (Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.) Her sister gets married. She feels lonely. But she’s too quirky to find a man. She says kooky things and every single man is like, “Oh no, she said something awkward, let me retreat!” (Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.) Bridges hears her lecture about something, he’s intrigued. He proposes to her that sex only complicates relationships between men and woman and tells her he wants to have a non-sexual relationship with her. (Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.) She doesn’t want to be a spinster who lives with her mother, so she says yes. They get together. She tries to sleep with him, he says no. Now, she’s got the type of character who doesn’t give a shit. She doesn’t exercise, eats bad food, sits and watches baseball games. This is personified in her always asking for extra dressing for her salad. (Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.) She ends up dieting and exercising, and getting in shape (not that she’s not in shape, but, you know, it’s that kind of movie), and leaves him, basically saying, “I want to fuck.” And he comes back to her and is like, “Okay, we’ll fuck,” and there’s a happy ending. It’s such a terrible movie.

It really is that kind of movie.

Lauren Bacall plays an old WASP housewife whose husband has died, and now she goes around, wearing expensive shit, and constantly digging at her daughter for not finding a man. She needles her and is kind of annoying. And yet — not really a bitch. Just — there. She has a few scenes, nothing major. The only reason she was ever going to win is because she’s Lauren Bacall. But come the fuck on. This movie was terrible. There is no way they would ever vote a performance from a movie this bad for an Oscar.

Binoche — The English Patient, as I’ve said, is a bad Best Picture choice. It’s not a terrible film. But it’s also not a particularly great film. I’ve said this a bunch. It feels like a film that would have been strong if it were made in 1950, and not by Miramax. It’s just overdone. It’s 40 minutes too long. So many of the subplots are unnecessary and could have been cut out, and the film would have been manageable, and even quite good.

The film begins with Ralph Fiennes, a count or something or other, flying a plane in the desert, which crashes. He’s badly burned. They save him and move him to a villa, where he’s cared for by Juliette Binoche. She’s a nurse who believes everyone she knows will die, because, they have, historically. And she cares for Fiennes, and he tells her his story. It’s basically — he’s a cartographer, and falls in love with Kristin Scott Thomas, who is married to Colin Firth. They have an affair. It’s steamy. They fall in love. Firth finds out. He puts his wife in a plane and tries to run it into Fiennes. Fiennes moves out of the way. Plane crashes. Firth dies. Thomas is badly hurt. Fiennes tries to save her. Can’t get to people. Puts her in a cave. Gets people. Comes back — she’s dead. So that’s why he’s in the plane at the beginning — he’s trying to kill himself. And then Binoche gives him morphine that kills him. Mercy killing.

Now, solid enough story, right? Flashback, intercut with scenes of him and Binoche — it works, right? Well, here’s where it’s overdone (to the full, Miramax, Oscar-style — aside from the fact that the love scenes are just too, too much. They fuck for like four minutes in a bathtub in one scene and you’re like, “Jesus now, why don’t you start playing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” behind it?”): outside of that, are 40 minutes of Willem Dafoe showing up, which consists of him having his thumbs cut off because he’s a thief or something, and he blames Fiennes for it, and he’s there for a while but then leaves. Also, Binoche. I think she’s great in the film, and more than earns the Oscar (especially in this weak-ass category). But, she has a totally unnecessary plot line. Outside of Fiennes (which, Binoche and Fiennes are really the best part of this movie. Their storyline is really the only part I was interested in), she meets and falls in love with a soldier who diffuses bombs. He’s played by that Indian guy that was on Lost. She’s upset that she likes him, because she thinks it means he’ll die. And she says this, and he’s like, “Nah,” and he ends up surviving a tense situation that, while it is tense and well-put together, has no business being in the movie. Unnecessary. So she ends up with him. I guess to give the film its happy ending. Utterly manipulative and serving up everything the Oscars want on a silver platter. That’s why I don’t like this movie.

Now — Binoche, however, deserved her Oscar. She did. She gave the best performance in this category, and she’s Juliette Binoche. I don’t see how anyone can disagree with this. Sure, there’s Lauren Bacall, but her film was such a piece of shit she didn’t even deserve to be nominated. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. S, Binoche is my vote all the way. Were this a stronger category, it might not have been. But it isn’t.

Hershey — I love Barbara Hershey. She’s been great since the 70s (unless we’re counting Last Summer, in 1969). To me, she’s the real veteran in this category. Because, unlike Lauren Bacall, she actually has a nice role in a bad film. So, to me, if you’re gonna vote for any veteran, she’s the one to vote for. And it’s weird to think of her as a veteran, but, she really is. She’s popped up in a number of high profile films throughout her career, and yet, I almost too no notice of her until I really got hardcore into film.

Here’s a list of films she was in: With Six You Get Eggroll (which I put on there because of its great title and because George Carlin was in it. And I’m interested in anything if it involves George), Last Summer, Boxcar Bertha (man, was she awesome in that. This was Martin Scorsese’s first film (unless we count Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, which is more a student film), and is pretty cool, in a B-movie kind of way), The Stunt Man, The Right Stuff (she’s Chuck Yeager’s wife), The Natural (as the woman who shoots him and then kills herself), Hannah and Her Sisters, Hoosiers, Tin Men, The Last Temptation of Christ (as Mary Magdalene — genius casting, Marty), Beaches (of course), Falling Down (as Michael Douglas’s ex-wife. Also, see this movie. It’s amazing), and of course, most recently, Black Swan, as Nina’s mother. That’s a strong career, no? Most people don’t know her as well because she kind of disappeared for a decade between ’95 and 2005.

So, The Portrait of a Lady is — Jesus, I hated this film — is based on a Henry James novel (great…), stars Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich (who hadn’t gotten over playing the asshole in period pieces. Or maybe it’s just that Jane Campion directed this one), Mary-Louise Parker, Shelley Winters, John Gielgud (who was 92 at the time), Shelley Duvall, Viggo Mortensen, and Christian Bale. Heavy cast, right? Still don’t know why this film isn’t any better.

Basically, Nicole Kidman is a young woman who is manipulated by Barbara Hershey and Malkovich. Hershey organizes the romance between Kidman and Malkovich, and basically it’s about suffering and shit. Hershey used to sleep with Malkovich and had a daughter with him, then gets Kidman to marry him and raise the daughter, then Malkovich is a dick who doesn’t love Kidman, but she likes the daughter, but then leaves, and maybe she goes back to him or maybe she doesn’t. Boring, British drama shit.

Hershey is good though. I don’t think the performance is quite up to snuff for a win, but, if there was any performance that was good enough to be carried to a veteran nomination in this category, this is it. I consider this like James Coburn in Affliction, sure you could vote for it, but you’d be voting for the actor more than the performance. Which, would be okay, even though I’m not doing it.

Baptiste — And, this one. Secrets & Lies is a Mike Leigh film, and I historically don’t like Mike Leigh films. I respect the hell out of the man’s process (which is, have a basic-to-no story, sit and rehearse with the characters for weeks and months on end, have them build the characters and the story together, and just work from there and create a film based on the actors being the characters), but most of the time it leads to some very boring films (at least for me). I know actors love it, and that’s fine. Just, I don’t. I liked Happy-Go-Lucky, but that was purely for the performance. The film itself barely held my interest were it not for the performance. So I should get that out of the way not. I don’t like this film very much. However, Brenda Blethyn is amazing in it, and there are ten minutes in this film that are really, really good. Outside of that, though, I don’t care for it.

The film is about Brenda Blethyn, who is a low-class woman who has a family and such, and is in her 50s. And we spend like, forty-five minutes with the family for like, no reason. And then, after all that, the point of the film is revealed. Brenda Blethyn is called by Baptiste, who says she’s her daughter. She went searching for her mother because she felt it was something she needed to do. So she found her, and Blethyn at first is like, “I don’t want to talk to you.” And eventually, she’s like, “Okay, I’ll meet with you.” And what follows is this scene:

It’s pretty powerful. Then she takes her to meet with her family, and they meet, it goes a bit shaky, but it ends with them sort of embracing her. That’s the film. It’s pretty boring outside of that scene up there.

Brenda Blethyn is the real performance of the film. Baptiste is just kind of there. I’m not sure why she got nominated. Some would consider her worth being here, and, I don’t really care whether she should be here or not. All it comes down to for me is — I’m not voting for this. I don’t like the film, and I don’t think the performance is worth an Oscar. Simple as that. So, no vote.

My Thoughts: For me, this category comes down to two actresses. And it’s not the two most people thought it would come down to. First, Baptiste is off. Didn’t like anyone’s performance in the film outside of Brenda Blethyn’s, so, she’s out. #5. Second off is Joan Allen, because, while she was good — she’s been better. Like in The Candidate and Nixon. Also, too on the nose as source material goes. Just, not something I want to vote for. #3 is Lauren Bacall. She’s easily #4 for my rankings, but is #3 for a vote simply because she’s Lauren Bacall. What really hurt her here is the fact that the film she was in blew. I mean really. It was bad. Don’t even watch it. It’s like a love letter Barbara Streisand wrote to herself.

The two this comes down to, for me, are Barbara Hershey and Juliette Binoche. Both were really great in their roles in different ways. Binoche is also a young actress and Hershey is the real veteran here. That’s usually how this category tends to go in most years. The young up-and-comer versus the veteran. I just think they got the veteran wrong this year.

Now, the tiebreaker for me comes down to the fact that Hershey’s performance — while really good — is essentially the same performance Glenn Close gave in Dangerous Liaisons — the manipulative woman working with John Malkovich. Seriously, it’s Malkovich in both films. And the fact that Close — who I felt was better overall in the performance — didn’t win, kind of eliminates my desire to vote for Hershey. Plus, I was probably gonna vote for Binoche anyway. She’s just so likable in the film. Her and Ralph Fiennes are the two best things about The English Patient. Their screen time is really the most interesting part of the film. Binoche manages to really make herself likable, which really is what kept the gun out of my mouth while I was watching this overly long and terribly boring film. So, I vote for her.

My Vote: Binoche

Should Have Won: Binoche, Hershey

Is the result acceptable?: I say it is. I say Barbara Hershey would also have been an acceptable result. I say Lauren Bacall, despite her status within the industry, would not have been an acceptable choice. Her movie was just too bad to have won. Both Hershey and Binoche were the best decisions, and since I voted for Binoche, I like that decision best.

Performances I suggest you see: Uhh — I didn’t really like any of these movies. I mean, The English Patient is a film I say everyone should see, just so you could join in and be like, “What the fuck is this shit?” Plus it’s a Best Picture winner, so, I guess that alone gives it some merit. And, uhh — The Crucible, well, it’s Daniel Day-Lewis, and it’s a play we all get stuck reading in high school, so, chances are you’ve watched it in English class at some point. Plus, it’s Daniel Day-Lewis. That alone makes it worthwhile. And the play is pretty important, so you should probably see at least one filmed version of it. And, uhh — Secrets & Lies has a really great performance by Brenda Blethyn. But, really, if you want to cheat sheet it, just watch the scene I posted of there. That’s all you need. The rest of the film is just — boring. And, The Portrait of a Lady — it’s Jane Campion, it’s young Nicole Kidman, evil Malkovich, good, evil Barbara Hershey (kind of like her Black Swan performance only, not at all), young Mary Louise Parker, Shelley Winters, John Gielgud, even Christian Bale and Viggo Mortensen. So, just for all those people it’s worth watching. So you could be like, “Oh shit, look at them.” But the film’s not very good. None of these are really all that great. Probably The Crucible is the best film on here. Also, don’t watch The Mirror Has Two Faces unless it’s to ridicule it. If you really want to see a film that is the definition of hubris — this is it. It’s so unbelievably self-centered it’s incredible. It’s really — you may want to see it just for that. It’s just — wow.


5) Baptiste

4) Bacall

3) Hershey

2) Allen

1) Binoche

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