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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actress, 1989-1990)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

1989

Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot

Angelica Huston, Enemies, A Love Story

Lena Olin, Enemies, A Love Story

Julia Roberts, Steel Magnolias

Dianne Wiest, Parenthood

Analysis:

My Left Foot is the story of Christy Brown, born with cerebral palsy, with only the use of (insert title here). Everybody knows Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, but his is not the only one in the film that’s great.

Brenda Fricker plays Christy’s mother. One of the great things this movie does is, at the start of each scene, more and more children keep getting added without a word, implying just how many times she’s giving birth.

She’s the strong, supportive mother who is unwavering in her care for him. It’s your standard mother role, but she’s so good in it. It’s an Irish mother, so she never resorts to actor’s tricks or over the top emotion. You know how you know this is a great performance? Any time they cut to her during a scene you feel safe. The beauty of this performance is how ordinary it is. It’s rare to get a role like this where the strength of it is in how unremarkable it is. Like Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath. It’s not showy, it’s Ma. Don’t underestimate the power of Ma.

Enemies, A Love Story is a movie that I actively did not like the first time I did this Quest. And, I’m gonna come right out… I didn’t watch it again this time, so I’m really only going by what I remember from last time.

The film is about a Holocaust survivor living in New York. He escaped Germany with the help of a woman he later married and had kids with. But now he’s bored with her, so he’s having an affair. Oh, and then there’s his wife, thought long dead, who resurfaces as well.

Anjelica Huston plays the wife who comes back. She’s entertaining in the movie, though I don’t think it’s her best work. It’s a comedic performance, and it works

Lena Olin plays the mistress, who I remember as being feisty, but also potentially going a bit over the top. I think some of the nomination may have been spillover from The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Both are fine. I think Huston gives the better performance, Olin gives the more entertaining performance, and probably the performance to have nominated, because it’s the trickiest to pull off, is the one who played his current wife, who finds out that not only is he cheating on her but that his previous wife is alive, thereby negating their marriage.

I’ll take Olin fourth, Huston fifth. Wouldn’t vote for either of them. Maybe if I saw this again they might either or both overtake Julia Roberts for third, but they’d still not go above that.

Steel Magnolias is a southern movie.

Julia Roberts is getting married, and Sally Field is her mother. We get introduced to all the characters as they prepare for the wedding. Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah, Shirley MacLaine, etc. They hang around, get their hair did and gossip. The big issue in the film is that Julia is sick. She’s got the diabeetus and has seizures. And she wants to have a real family and have a child, but it’s medically dangerous. And eventually she needs a kidney, and it doesn’t take and she dies. It’s a weepy. The kind of film that’s stereotypical for women to watch that some men “secretly” enjoy.

It’s honestly a good movie. Great actresses, laid back pace make it an easy, enjoyable watch. A bit too over the top with the dying parts, but you know, that’s the territory.

Julia is good. This is the role, along with Pretty Woman the year after this, that made her a star and made her America’s Sweetheart. You have all the vets there — Sally Field with her two Oscars, Shirley MacLaine with her Oscar — but the young upstart gets all the notice. Now, Julia’s kind of the lead of the movie, but it’s fair enough a nomination. I understand what they did.

She’s fine. She’s likable, and she’s doing the typical Julia Roberts thing that we’re all used to be now. Only back then it was new and fresh. So I get it. I could also see how this character could come off as superficially acted and annoying (like most of Julia’s characters). That’s to each his own. In this category… maybe fourth in terms of performance (possibly fifth), third in terms of how much I enjoyed it? I don’t know. Not gonna vote for her. There are two clear other choices for me over her, but as far as the nomination goes, it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen.

Parenthood is a comedy about (insert title here). Directed by Ron Howard, with a great cast on it. They turned it into a TV show some years back. The film is actually really entertaining. A light comedy with some heart to it, a bit too sitcom at times, and approaching real drama at others, it’s a solid film that people a bit older than myself think of as a cultural touchstone.

There are a bunch of different stories going on, but we’re only interested in one, so we’ll focus on that.

Dianne Wiest plays Helen, Martin’s sister, who is raising two kids on her own. Her son is distant and won’t talk to her. And her daughter is dating a guy she thinks is an idiot and refuses to listen to her. She’s trying to date her son’s biology teacher, and keep the fragile pieces of her life from tumbling down.

She gets some really funny moments and some really sweet ones. It’s a well put together performance. Though she does mostly exist as a punchline for a lot of the film, she does get some really powerful scenes to make up for it.

Overall, it’s solid, but I don’t know if I take her. This might actually be a better performance than the

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The Reconsideration: For me, this is an easy, easy Brenda Fricker win. It’s not even close. Now, some people might favor Dianne Wiest. I can understand that. I don’t think Julia Roberts is, or will ever be, a good choice here. And I’m not partial to either of the Enemies nominees. Not sure either is a good choice in the category. I think Fricker wins this by a safe distance.

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Rankings (category and films):

  1. Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot
  2. Dianne Wiest, Parenthood
  3. Julia Roberts, Steel Magnolias
  4. Lena Olin, Enemies, A Love Story
  5. Angelica Huston, Enemies, A Love Story

My Vote: Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot

Recommendations:

My Left Foot is close to essential, if only for the Daniel Day-Lewis performance. He’s so incredible here. It’s one of the great film performances of all time. You should consider it must-see based solely on that.

Parenthood is an 80s comedy classic. A strong film with a great cast. I recommend it. You don’t need to see it, but it’s definitely worth seeing. Definitely check it out.

Steel Magnolias is a nice film. A weepy with a great cast. It’s good. Definitely better than Fried Green Tomatoes, the other film that people tend to conflate with this one. I recommend it, even though to most it sounds like a “chick flick” you wouldn’t enjoy.

Enemies, A Love Story is a film I don’t care for all that much. It’s fine, and it’s Paul Mazursky, who is a great filmmaker. I just don’t love it. It’s not essential, and I’m not one to really recommend it.

The Last Word: Fricker all the way. Maybe Dianne Wiest, but even so, most people would and should take Brenda Fricker, and I consider that one of the stronger decisions of all time.

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1990

Annette Bening, The Grifters

Lorraine Bracco, Goodfellas

Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost

Diane Ladd, Wild at Heart

Mary McDonnell, Dances with Wolves

Analysis:

The Grifters is a neo noir that’s really great.

John Cusack is a small time grifter whose mother is Anjelica Huston, who works for a bookmaker placing big bets on longshots at the track to lower their odds, thereby lowering the potential payouts if they win or come in the money. She comes back into town and meets him and his girlfriend, and the three get embroiled in your typical noir/con artist scenarios. It’s a terrific film.

Annette Bening plays John Cusack’s girlfriend, who’s shady and crooked and willing to use anyone or anything to get what she wants. She and Huston don’t get along. Mostly because Huston sees her for what she is. She enlists their help in a long con, and slowly starts plotting to get rid of Huston so she can have Cusack for herself.

It’s a fine performance. It’s the right mix of ditzy and smart. She’s playing dumb, but clearly knows what she’s doing. She uses her sexuality and plays all the angles. I like the character and think she did a fine job with it. For me, it’s fighting for middle of the pack. It’s strong, but she’s outshone by Anjelica Huston in the film. Plus, in this category, there are more memorable performances, even though I think she’s well worth the nomination.

Goodfellas is a movie you should know about. I find it hard that any movie buff hasn’t already seen this movie at least a half dozen times by the time they start reading all the shit that I write.

Lorraine Bracco plays Karen, Henry’s wife. She’s there. You know most of her scenes by heart. She’s really strong in the part. Not an established actress, so she’s a bit rough around the edges, but you definitely understand and feel for the character. And this is the closest thing to a fully rounded female character in a Scorsese film that you’re probably ever going to get. Who else is there, really? Sharon Stone in Casino?

The point is, she’s strong in the film, and I can understand both voting for her and not voting for her. I like the performance, and given the rest of this category, she’s someone I’m considering heavily for a vote. Although I’m not remotely upset that she lost.

Ghost is one of those films that’s so very 90s, and yet also kinda great.

Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore are madly in love. One day, he is killed. It was murder. He comes back as a (insert title here), and is determined to warn Moore that the person who killed him is now after her. It has so many iconic scenes and moments, and yet is such an utterly hokey movie. It’s wonderful.

Whoopi Goldberg plays Oda Mae Brown, a phony psychic who suddenly finds herself able to communicate with Swayze. She becomes his mouthpiece as he goes around town. It’s… basically comic relief. And, yes, it is also a literal magical negro character. She’s quite entertaining in the part. I can’t say it’s dynamite acting, though she has her moments. The moment that stands out is the one at the end where she decides to let Swayze “use’ her body in order to be with Moore one last time. Other than that, she really only exists for comedy and the whole thing is borderline racist.

Her winning is one thing. I’m fine with that, especially after the Color Purple snub five years prior. But voting for her is a completely different thing. This isn’t a performance I’m gonna vote for. This is

Wild at Heart. Look, I’ll start by saying I have no idea what this film is or what the fuck it’s trying to do, but it’s batshit entertaining.

Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern are in love. Her mother wants him dead. They’re on a road trip. Hitmen are pursuing them. That’s all you need to know, because there’s barely a plot on this movie. It’s a crazy David Lynch fever dream that’s apparently his version of The Wizard of Oz. You’re either gonna enjoy the shit out of it for being so weird or just out and out despise this movie.

Diane Ladd is Laura Dern’s mother. In life and in the movie. She actually got both of her Oscar nominations playing mother to a character played by her actual daughter.

She’s… something. I don’t know how else to say it. She’s fucking batshit. She plays by no rules and does whatever the fuck she wants. There’s a scene where she covers her entire face and neck in lipstick and plays the scene that way. She’s so fucking crazy. She also disappears about an hour into the movie because Lynch just stopped thinking of scenes for her to be in. Her character just goes away and it’s never explained why.

This is one of those performances where, either she’s #1 by a mile for you, or she’s #5 and you don’t understand what the fuck she’s doing. I’m closer to #1, but I don’t think I’d put her #1. I think she’s so off the wall and such a wild card in any scene that I will rank her pretty highly in the end. I don’t think I can actually vote for this performance, though.

Dances with Wolves is Kevin Costner’s epic western. Aside from the fact that it beat Goodfellas, it’s a strong film. A bit indulgent (there’s a four hour cut that’s just wholly unnecessary), but overall a solid western.

Kevin Costner plays a Civil War vet who is told he’s gonna lose his leg. Rather die than lose it, he rides between both lines, expecting to be killed. Suicide by battle. But the other side is shocked to see him to the point where his side is able to storm over and take them all out. He’s given a medal, proper care to save his leg, and put in a remote outpost way out west where only the natives are. There, he befriends the natives and becomes one of them. Until the whites show up. Fucking white people.

Mary McDonnell plays Stands With a Fist. A white woman kidnapped by the tribe as a child, she was raised as one of them and married one of them. Her husband has died, and Costner first encounters her trying to kill herself. He takes her back to the tribe and helps her recover and befriends her. Of course he also starts sleeping with her too (because the white Indian has to sleep with the other white Indian).

I feel like the role is there only for plot purposes, to give Costner a love interest, and basically be there to make Costner look better. It’s horribly underwritten, even though the set up for the character is great. She gives it a better performance than the character deserves based on what’s on the page, but there’s no real way I can put her as anything more than #5 in this category. She’s fine, but there’s nothing particularly great or revelatory about this performance.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: No idea what to do here. I think we can all agree that it’s not Mary McDonnell and it’s not Annette Bening. After that, go nuts. Wanna take Diane Ladd because she’s so batshit? Go for it. Wanna go with Whoopi? Fine. Don’t love the performance, but I get it. A lot of people, as I’m about to do, would probably just take Lorraine Bracco because you loved the film and enjoyed the performance enough. That’s where I’m at. Don’t love Whoopi enough to take her, and Diane Ladd is too crazy and meandering to really go for, even if she is memorable. So I’ll take Bracco. Even though it’s not polished, there’s enough there to warrant a vote.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Lorraine Bracco, Goodfellas
  2. Diane Ladd, Wild at Heart
  3. Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost
  4. Annette Bening, The Grifters
  5. Mary McDonnell, Dances with Wolves

Rankings (films):

  1. Goodfellas
  2. The Grifters
  3. Dances with Wolves
  4. Ghost
  5. Wild at Heart

My Vote: Lorraine Bracco, Goodfellas

Recommendations:

Goodfellas. No one goes to jail unless they want to, Karen.

The Grifters is an essential film. Not all-time, but for me. See this movie, because it’s great, and it’s still underseen and underrated, historically.

Dances with Wolves is an essential film because for a while it was considered one of the best films ever made. And it beat Goodfellas, which means if you want to complain, you gotta see it. So it’s essential.

Ghost is culturally essential. Made a shit ton of money, references all over the place in pop culture… you gotta see this. See it the way you need to see Spinal Tap, just so you can quote it and reference it and know what you’re talking about. It’s also really good.

Wild at Heart is so fucking insane I love it. David Lynch and Nicolas Cage is a match made in heaven. It’s so weird. If you love Cage, you’ll love this. If you hate Lynch, you might well hate this, because it makes no fucking sense and crazy shit happens non-stop. But I’m generally a fan of Lynch, and I’m a huge fan of Cage, and I fucking loved this movie. No idea what I saw, but I loved how insane it was. Definite recommend if you think you can handle it.

The Last Word: No clue what to do here. Goldberg is a good choice as a winner. Bracco also would have been a good choice. And Ladd may also be worth taking. Depends on how you feel and how you can justify it. Don’t think it’s Bening or McDonnell, but I guess maybe a case could be made for one or either of them if you really wanted to. I’m cool with the result, but there are definite opportunities to go another way, if one were so inclined.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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