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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1993-1994)

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.

1993

Angela Bassett, What’s Love Got to Do with It

Stockard Channing, Six Degrees of Separation

Holly Hunter, The Piano

Emma Thompson, The Remains of the Day

Debra Winger, Shadowlands

Analysis:

What’s Love Got to Do with It is a Tina Turner biopic.

Angela Bassett plays Tina Turner.

That’s pretty much all you need. I like it when it’s that simple.

Bassett is great here. 100% support this nomination. Would not take her, because I think the film doesn’t help her. But she does rate as high as #2 here for me. I want to want to vote for her, but every time I watch the film, I feel like the performance is great but it doesn’t all fully come together. Love the performance though. I just — wouldn’t vote for it.

Six Degrees of Separation is a catchy title, but I bet no one has any idea what this movie is about. Or remembers that Will Smith is in this as a gay con artist.

And no, Kevin Bacon is not in this movie.

Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland are upper class New Yorkers who get taken by Will Smith. It’s a Mr. Ripley scenario. “Oh yeah, I know your son,” and then pretty soon he’s charming and smart and living with them and giving him money. And in the end, even though they find out he’s a con artist, they get to tell stories about him, and find that he’s actually changed their lives.

Channing is fine here. Not sure I see enough to really say I loved the nomination. But I’m fine with it. She feels like she rates fourth or fifth here. Might be fourth for a vote because I like her, but that’s about it, really. No headway to make in this category.

The Piano is a Weinstein Oscar special. If you had to pull the five most “Harvey Weinstein” nominees they ever had, this would be on the list. But I digress.

Holly Hunter is a mute woman who moves to New Zealand with her daughter to marry Sam Neill. She communicates with a form of sign language that only her daughter can understand, and plays her piano pretty much any moment she gets. And the movie is about her adjusting to her new life and starting her relationship with Harvey Keitel, a white man who has adopted the Maori culture.

Holly Hunter is incredible here, and this is one of the more consensus wins of all time. It takes a lot of skill to convey everything about a character without being able to speak. And she pulls it off. You don’t see a lot of “silent” performances in this category, and when they are, they usually win because of how difficult they are to pull off. And Holly Hunter is masterful here, and as much as I’m pretty s0-so on the film, this performance is undeniable, especially in this category, which is good but not great around her.

The Remains of the Day is a very good movie made from a great book. Ishiguro had another one of those situations with Never Let Me Go, which not enough people ever saw. But the book is just terrific. I rarely stump for books, but this one is really, really good.

Anthony Hopkins plays a butler, born into a family of butlers. His family has ran this one house for centuries. And it’s sort of about the tradition and decay of the British Empire. And we watch as Hopkins assumes his role as head of the staff, and he’s so reserved that he never shows emotion. He’s entirely devoted to his job, almost slavishly so. And enter Emma Thompson, part of the staff. She’s vivacious and cheeky and outspoken. And Hopkins inwardly has a crush on her, and she him, but he’s so reserved he never acts on it. Ever. It’s a tragic book and the movie works quite well too.

Emma Thompson is great here, as she always is. I prefer her here than in Howards End, because I prefer this film over that one. But — and it’s been a while since I saw this film — could she be considered strong supporting here? I don’t think so, since the character is such an important part of the book. But my recollection of this movie is that she’s not in it as much as she should be. But either way, as much as I love her and like the performance, she only rates third for me here. Like her, don’t love her enough to take her for this.

Shadowlands is a movie that feels like Merchant Ivory, but it’s actually Richard Attenborough. Still Anthony Hopkins though, so it’s not that far off.

Anthony Hopkins plays C.S. Lewis, and the movie is about his relationship with an American poet. It’s very similar to Remains of the Day. Hopkins is quiet and repressed and she’s outspoken and vibrant. And then she dies (spoilers).

Debra Winger plays the wife. She’s fine here. Lively, does a good job. Wouldn’t vote for it in the least. Fourth choice at best. I’d take just about everyone else over her here.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This is Holly Hunter. Everyone else is playing for second place. Angela Bassett rates second for me, Thompson third. Bassett, in another year, might actually rate the vote for me. I know she doesn’t sing, but it’s Tina Turner. You don’t need to sing if you can pull off that essence and energy on the stage. And Bassett pulls it off. 1992, she may have been my vote. But not here. This year is all about Holly Hunter.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Holly Hunter, The Piano
  2. Angela Bassett, What’s Love Got to Do With It
  3. Emma Thompson, The Remains of the Day
  4. Debra Winger, Shadowlands
  5. Stockard Channing, Six Degrees of Separation

Rankings (films):

  1. The Remains of the Day
  2. The Piano
  3. What’s Love Got to Do With It
  4. Six Degrees of Separation
  5. Shadowlands

My Vote: Holly Hunter, The Piano

Recommendations:

The Piano is a solid film that I recommend medium highly. Not 100% essential, but for Oscar buffs it is 100% essential. In in the decade of the 90s, it’s probably essential. So it’s something most film buffs should see, but it’s not top tier essential. I’d say throw it in the queue around the 200s or so. That’ll work. Get to it, but not immediately.

The Remains of the Day is a strong film I recommend highly. I always recommend the book more though. Because that’s really good. The movie I think is the best of the Merchant Ivory films. Well, my favorite, anyway. Which should count for something, to people who know I don’t really care for most of those films. Not essential, but very good and worth seeing.

What’s Love Got to Do With It is a really good biopic. Music biopic too. Aren’t those always watchable? Great performances, good enough film. Highly recommended. Not essential, but definitely worth a watch for the performances.

Shadowlands is fine. Richard Attenborough, Anthony Hopkins, Debra Winger, and he’s playing C.S. Lewis. So there’s something that’ll appeal to most of the film population. The movie’s just okay. I don’t love it. Moderate recommend at best. Not for me, but it’ll intellectually appeal to a lot of people, and I definitely don’t not recommend it, if that makes sense.

Six Degrees of Separation is fine. Moderate recommend. Don’t love it, not something you need to see. But it is worth a watch for the cast. If you happen to catch it, you might enjoy it. Use your judgment on this.

The Last Word: Holly Hunter holds up as one of the better winners of all time. She was the best choice here, and holds up best of anyone. Bassett would have been second choice in terms of holding up. But Hunter was the best choice. They made the right one here.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1994

Jodie Foster, Nell

Jessica Lange, Blue Sky

Miranda Richardson, Tom & Viv

Winona Ryder, Little Women

Susan Sarandon, The Client

Analysis:

Our first year of all the precursors. Well… most of them.

SAG matched 3/5. No Richardson, no Ryder.

BAFTA only had Sarandon (she won too).

The Globes matched 3/5. No Sarandon, no Ryder.

So yeah. Too early to really matter.

Foster won SAG. Lange won the Globe.

No idea how to call this one.

Nell is a really strange film. I don’t think it’s particularly good, but when I saw it the first time, I was blown away by Jodie Foster’s performance. I had to watch it again to see if I really felt that way about it.

An old woman living in a remote cabin in the woods dies. When the town doctor arrives, they find there’s a grown daughter in the house that no one knew even existed. The woman doesn’t speak a word of English and instead speaks this weird version of gibberish. The doctor then tries to figure out how to communicate with her. They figure out the reason she speaks that way is because the old woman had a stroke and spoke with slurred speech. So they figure out how to communicate with the woman and eventually have to fight against the court, which wants to institutionalize her, saying she’s unable to take care of herself.

Jodie Foster plays Nell, the woman. It’s a tricky part, and I think she pulls it off. I mean, sure, there will be detractors of this film and performance. “Full retard” and all that. It’s not totally dissimilar to the DiCaprio Gilbert Grape performance. She feels like she goes to a different place, where she’s completely free of the constraints of normal behavior. Which opens up to a wide array of reactions to the performance. I get it.

I thought she was wonderful. My way of analyzing the performance is — did I see this and go, “What the fuck is she doing?” or did I find myself transported by the performance and believe she was this character? I am in the camp of the latter. Now, five years later, is she a slam dunk, must choose nominee? No. I am willing to accept that someone could be better than her. But I doubt she falls below second here. Because just looking at this category, there’s only one other person who can overtake her. And here she is.

Blue Sky is a film that sat on the shelf for three years. Not because of any quality reasons. The company that made it went bankrupt.

Tommy Lee Jones works on a military base that tests nukes in the 60s. His job is to protect the men from radiation. Jessica Lange plays his wife. She’s a cross between Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. She sunbathes topless and dances with the soldiers, and clearly is mentally unwell. So she causes a lot of problems for her husband. They move from Hawaii to Alabama, and Lange begins to feel cooped up in her role as a housewife living in a crappy house on a crappy base in a crappy town. And she starts to get more and more erratic, building to — well, I won’t spoil what it builds to. But it’s not the best ending. Kind of ridiculous.

Lange is good here. Very strong. I found the performance a bit hammy. There are moments where she’s really strong, like when she flips out when they first enter the new house. Then there are moments where she’s basically playing Blanche Dubois by way of Marilyn Monroe. It is a sustained performance though, and she is easily top two in the category. I constantly struggle with whether or not I take her. But she is definitely good enough to take, and I’m not sure if I felt that last time, but I feel a much tighter race this time than last time.

Tom & Viv is one of those movies that makes me roll my eyes when I think about it. Not because it’s bad or anything. Just — “Ugh. Miramax Oscar movie. Boring as shit.” The movie’s not necessarily boring (even though I don’t love it). It’s just — subject matter, the whole thing is boring. It’s not interesting. It’s generic Oscar fare. The type that never holds up. The type that Weinstein excels at. And hey, no issues there. It’s just, going back to it makes me cringe sometimes.

This is about T.S. Eliot falling in love with his wife. He finds out she’s… a bit unstable. So it’s about him learning about her mental problems and dealing with them. That’s pretty much it.

Miranda Richardson plays the wife, and she gets to play crazy. That’s it. It’s a by the numbers kind of role and the performance is fine and she does well with it. You could consider her here and not be wrong to do so. I just don’t find these types of performances particularly interesting. So despite respect for the performance, at best she’s gonna end up third choice. I’d easily take Foster and Lange over her.

Little Women is a really famous book and has been made three times. Most people know the story.

I’ll start by saying, it’s hard to consider a performance from a movie like this as being vote-worthy for an Oscar. Same for Sense and Sensibility (spoiler alert: I’m not voting for Emma Thompson next year), Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre — insert similar movies here. I just… what are these actresses gonna do to really make the role stand out and feel fresh?

The story is easy — sisters. The March family. They’re different ages, have different things going on. Boys next door. All that stuff. One of them dies. Everyone knows this, or should. It’s hard to get to high school and not know this book.

Winona Ryder is good, but this nomination feels a lot like the Keira Knightley nomination in 2005. Up and coming actress who is really charming and likable in a familiar role and doing really charming things with it. This is more of a “welcome” nomination than anything. At best I consider her a fourth choice, though push coming to shove, I think I might take Sarandon over her just because I truly don’t think this type of performance should win Best Actress in an era like this. It’s not like Winona Ryder was so good here we’re still talking about how she did it.

Think of any of these types of movies. Hamlet, whatever. Movies that are based on really famous works of literature. Oliver Twist. Great Expectations. Gatsby. Throw them all on there. Movies that get made and remade all the time (for those of you thinking of going Mockingbird here). Has there ever been a truly revelatory take on any of the roles in these movies where you said, “No, that was truly good enough to win the Oscar”? I don’t think there is. And please, if you have one you think applies, let me know. But at best you’re gonna come up with, “Well, the year was weak, and so and so was really strong in the role, and I think they knocked it out of the park.” There are all these other factors into it. And even then, I still don’t think there’s really anyone that strong. Like, Kenneth Branagh in Henry V. He’s good, but I don’t take him. I truly don’t think (and I’m willing to be wrong) there’s a performance from those types of movies that’s, on its own, on performance alone, really strong enough to have won an Oscar.

The Client is based on a John Grisham novel. Which makes you wonder how Susan Sarandon got nominated here. There have been ten (theatrical) movies based on John Grisham books. They have accrued a total of two acting nominations. One for Holly Hunter in Supporting Actress 1993, and this one.

This is basically a legal thriller version of Witness. Young boy watches a guy shoot himself in a car, along with his brother. The dude was a bad man. He knows where a particular body is buried. The mob is now looking for the boys so they can find out where the body is. The cops want to know too. Enter Susan Sarandon, a lawyer recovering from alcoholism. The boy asks her to protect him and help his family live in peace. So she has to protect him from everyone.

The performance is fine. Sarandon is usually good. But this isn’t a performance that gets nominated. It’s just a solid thriller performance that only gets nominated for two reasons: it’s a weak year, and the actress is in her prime and can get nominated for anything. Both of those conditions apply here. She’s a fifth on performance, fourth on charm. Wouldn’t take her for this.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This one is so tough for me.

To start — Ryder I’d never vote for, Sarandon I’d never vote for, and Richardson is too on the nose. Plus I like the other two over her anyway.

This is between Jodie Foster and Jessica Lange. And it’s almost a dead heat all the way through.

On pure performance, I take Foster.

On film quality, tie.

On “deserves to win the Oscar,” it’s Lange.

On whose film does her the most disservice, it’s Lange.

Both sustain the performance throughout, and I think the fact that they do that makes them both very much worth taking.

If I’m voting politically, I take Lange. If I’m voting for favorite performance, I take Foster. I wish I could take someone over either of them, but that’s not the case in this category. I don’t know how I’d vote in 1994, knowing Jodie Foster had two and Lange hadn’t won in lead yet. But voting now, and knowing my edict for this go-through was to vote for who I thought gave the best performance. So I guess I gotta take Jodie Foster.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Jodie Foster, Nell
  2. Jessica Lange, Blue Sky
  3. Miranda Richardson, Tom & Viv
  4. Winona Ryder, Little Women
  5. Susan Sarandon, The Client

Rankings (films):

  1. The Client
  2. Nell
  3. Blue Sky
  4. Little Women
  5. Tom & Viv

My Vote: Jodie Foster, Nell

Recommendations:

Nell is a solid film that I give a solid recommend to. But this is not for anyone. Some people might hate this. I get it. All I can say is that I really liked it and think Jodie Foster was great in it. Do with that what you will.

The Client is based on John Grisham. And of the ten, most of them are watchable, if not good. The Firm is clearly the best. This is in that next tier of really entertaining. Definitely worth a watch, though not essential by a mile.

Blue Sky is a decent film. Call it a moderate recommend. Essential for Oscar buffs because of the win. Otherwise just an okay film that’s borderline ridiculous. Lange is very good, Tommy Lee Jones is regular good, and overall the film is just okay. Unless you’re really into the Oscars or love Jessica Lange, you can probably skip this unless it seems up your alley.

Little Women is Little Women. I think this is the weakest of the three adaptations, but that’s just me. You’re either gonna want to see this or not. Or you grew up with it and you know it and have a crush on young Christian Bale. I feel like that’s the most popular answer I get from female friends. Other than that, the film’s just okay. I recommend the earlier ones over this one, but this is acceptable as far as watching an adaptation of the book. These types of movies are on their own level in terms of rating them. You’ll know better if you want to see this than I’d be.

Tom & Viv is ehh. Not great. Don’t love it. Forgotten Miramax Oscar special. Richardson is good, and Willem Dafoe is there. Not my favorite. Not something I recommend. Up to you if you think you’ll enjoy this.

The Last Word: Yes and no, on this one. Yes, Jessica Lange probably should have had an Oscar. Is this performance worth it? Ehh… not wholly. But did Jodie Foster need three of them? No, not really. And did she need to win for this performance? No. So you could take either. Lange ends up holding up the best by virtue of getting her Oscar in a year where she could have gotten her Oscar. Sarandon wouldn’t have held up, nor would Ryder have, and Richardson would have been just as forgotten, if not more so, than Lange. And Foster winning three puts her on a much different plane than any other actor, and I don’t think she as an actress is quite on that plane, even if in her three particular instances she was worthy of the vote. So I think, all things considered, Lange was probably the best choice here.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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