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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1995-1996)

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.

1995

Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking

Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas

Sharon Stone, Casino

Meryl Streep, The Bridges of Madison County

Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility

Analysis:

SAG matched 4/5. Joan Allen was nominated lead for Nixon here and Supporting at the Oscars. No Stone.

BAFTA matched 2/5. No Stone, no Streep, no Sarandon. And Mirren as lead and not supporting, which is where she went at the Oscars.

BFCA had no nominees and went off the board, so they’re out (it was their first year).

The Globes went 5/5 (in Drama, too).

Sarandon won SAG. Thompson won BAFTA. Stone won the Globe.

This had to be a cakewalk for Sarandon, right?

Dead Man Walking is Susan Sarandon finally going over the top and getting her Oscar. Four nominations in five years will do that. It’s like when someone keeps making the finalist list for the Hall of Fame and finally breaks through that one year where everything works out. She hasn’t been nominated since, by the way. Which tells you everything you need to know about the Academy. They push someone to multiple nominations and a win, and then immediately forget about them. They’re so preoccupied with this one thing and then it happens and it’s like, “Yeah, okay, what’s next?”

Like the end of Home Alone. You guys remember that? I feel like no one does. Kevin is home and they get home and they’re all so happy to see him, because they rushed back and stopped their entire vacation to come back and get him. And they finally get the thing they were after and they hug him and it’s all happy… and then they promptly go back to what they were doing and ignore him again. Which is really fucked up when you think about it, but insanely funny. No one remembers that part of the movie, for some reason. Anywho…

Susan Sarandon plays a nun who gets a letter from a death row inmate. Sean Penn. Obviously. Everyone looks back at this movie for his performance, but no one ever goes back for hers. Anyway, Penn is on death row, gonna be executed, and wants her to help him. He says he’s innocent. So she finds a lawyer and gets him to try to commute the sentence. And meanwhile she has long discussions with him leading up to the eventual lethal injection.

I like the film a lot, but I don’t love it. I think this must have been real impressive to those who saw Sean Penn only as Spicoli and didn’t think Tim Robbins was a good director.

I’ve always had issues with this win. Not because Susan Sarandon wasn’t deserving, but why they picked this performance. I don’t think she has a whole lot to do, I don’t think she changes at all over the course of the film. I am convinced she won for two reasons: she was overdue, and this was their way of rewarding Penn without actually rewarding Penn. I get it. And ultimately I’m fine with it. But I wouldn’t put her any higher than second here.

Leaving Las Vegas is the movie that will convince even the biggest naysayer that Nicolas Cage can act and act very well.

He plays a screenwriter with a drinking problem who can’t get work anymore and decides he’s going to go to Vegas and drink himself to death. That’s it. So he goes and does that. And he meets Elisabeth Shue, a prostitute, and they adopt a bit of a symbiotic relationship. He doesn’t ask her to stop being a prostitute, and she doesn’t ask him to stop drinking. So it’s this beautiful, tragic romance between two damaged people. It’s wonderful.

Elisabeth Shue, in my mind, gives the best performance of the category. She’s really good here. But this is like a lot of categories where the best performance loses to an actress of a much higher profile who really deserved an Oscar and finally got one. So while I can’t argue with the result, I would 100% always take Elisabeth Shue in this category. She is really good in this movie, and the performance completely holds up.

Casino is Martin Scorsese. Everyone knows Casino. You get to this before you ever get to me.

Sharon Stone plays Ginger, the… what exactly did she do before she met him? I wanna say prostitute, but I don’t entirely know if that’s true. She’s a woman who goes around the casinos, hanging on men’s arms during hot streaks and taking a cut of their winnings. And De Niro takes to her and marries her, even though she constantly goes back to an pimp ex-boyfriend of hers. And she loves everything she gets from De Niro, but ultimately doesn’t love him, and eventually starts spiraling out of control from drugs and everything.

It’s a competent performance. More about star power than acting. Her being a huge star powered her through to the nomination. I can’t say she needed to be nominated, but I’ll take it. It’s certainly an effective performance. I’d take her third here. Meryl for sure gives a better performance, and I’m sure Emma Thompson is better too, but I don’t remember those performances like I remember this one. And that counts for something. Still, Shue for sure goes over her and probably even Sarandon too. Enjoy the work, wouldn’t take it.

The Bridges of Madison County is Meryl entering her “lost” years. She got nominated a bunch still, but the films aren’t as remembered and the performances aren’t as good. This is her first nomination in five years and is the only one whose movie you could really remember before Adaptation. Don’t worry, we’ll talk about the others.

This is Clint Eastwood directing him and Meryl. She plays a lonely woman who starts an affair with a photographer. They have a great fling, but ultimately have to part, and it’s sad and shit.

This is kind of a weepy melodrama of sorts, and it was known, at least for me growing up, as that sort of movie. The kind of movie “women” liked. I’ll admit, it’s actually pretty good, and the moment in the end is very well done. Eastwood is a great filmmaker.

Meryl is fine here. She’s always good. This is one of those where I watch it and go, “Yeah, I know, we get it, you’re really good at accents.” But that’s only when looking at it as an Oscar nominee. As a performance, yeah, no, she’s great. I wouldn’t take her though. Fourth choice, and third on performance. This isn’t her category.

Sense and Sensibility is Sense and Sensibility. I mean, shouldn’t you know this movie by now?

Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet. Dashwood sisters. One is sensible, the other is headstrong. They find love. Everyone comes across this story at some point.

Thompson as Elinor is fine. This is another one of those performances — she’d given three of these by now — I just don’t love them and, as I said with Winona Ryder, I can’t vote for them. They just don’t appeal to me for Oscars. She’s fine, but I can’t. I also don’t particularly see what everyone loves about this movie. It goes completely over my head every time I watch it, so I just stay out of it at this point. She’s fifth for me, even though I’m sure the performance is better than that.

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The Reconsideration: It’s Elisabeth Shue for me. I don’t love the Sarandon performance enough to take it, and no one else rates worthy of a vote for me. They’re nice, but Elisabeth Shue really wowed me. So I take her. Not much for me to reconsider. I feel pretty strong about this one.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas
  2. Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking
  3. Sharon Stone, Casino
  4. Meryl Streep, The Bridges of Madison County
  5. Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility

Rankings (films):

  1. Casino
  2. Leaving Las Vegas
  3. Dead Man Walking
  4. The Bridges of Madison County
  5. Sense and Sensibility

My Vote: Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas

Recommendations:

Casino — really?

Leaving Las Vegas is amazing. Very high recommend. Cage sublime, and Elisabeth Shue is also incredible. Essential for Oscar buffs, and a film that most film buffs should see. It’s really good.

Dead Man Walking feels essential, but probably isn’t. Worth it because it won an Oscar for Sarandon and is looked at as the turning point for Sean Penn’s career.

Sense and Sensibility is another one of those movies — based on classic literature, story’s been told a bunch of times on screen. This is probably the seminal version of Sense and Sensibility, so in that regard, it’s essential. On its own, it’s just a solid recommend. Because it’s Ang Lee, Thompson, Winslet, Rickman, etc, that probably makes it worth seeing for most film buffs. Essential for Oscar buffs, since this is a film a lot of people think was the best of 1995 and should have won. Might as well just see it.

The Bridges of Madison County is fine. Solid recommend. Eastwood always makes worthwhile movies. Not essential, but worth a watch. Good performances, and enjoyable enough to see. Throw it in the queue. See it when it gets to the top.

The Last Word: Sarandon holds up. I don’t think she gave the best performance, but that’s a personal opinion. Shue would have been great on performance but not have held up as well as Sarandon on stature and that stuff. Meryl didn’t need this, Stone wouldn’t have held up outside of peoples’ love for the film and Thompson had one and I don’t think she needed a second for that film. She got one for Screenplay, and that feels right. I think Sarandon was a good choice, even though I think Elisabeth Shue gave the best performance.

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1996

Brenda Blethyn, Secrets & Lies

Diane Keaton, Marvin’s Room

Frances McDormand, Fargo

Kristin Scott Thomas, The English Patient

Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves

Analysis:

SAG matched 4/5. No Watson.

BAFTA matched 4/4. No Keaton.

BFCA had no nominees.

The Globes matched 4/5 across both categories. No Keaton.

McDormand won SAG and BFCA.

Blethyn won BAFTA and the Drama Globe.

So this was a tight race that clearly favored the American performance. One would think.

Secrets & Lies is Mike Leigh. And he’s… his own type of filmmaker that you either get or you don’t. He doesn’t appeal to everyone (I’m one of the people who doesn’t quite love his movies at first glance, but I’ve built up a passing respect for him and have grown at least fond of his process, if not the films), but he does make films that do resonate with the Oscars.

This is a movie about two women. Brenda Blethyn is a working class woman with a family that has its own issues. And Marianne Jean-Baptiste is a woman who was adopted and is trying to find her birth mother. That birth mother happens to be Blethyn. And eventually they encounter one another and Blethyn makes roads to bring Baptiste into her life.

I found this film pretty boring, as I tend to do with most of Mike Leigh’s films, but there’s no denying the strength of that coffee shop scene. That’s a powerful piece of acting by both actresses.

Blethyn is fine here. That single scene is the crux of the performance and the nomination, but the rest of it — it comes down to how you feel about her as an actress. The same thing happened with Little Voice in 1998. People either loved the performance or they thought she was irritating and overacting. Strangely, my opinions are split. I liked the Little Voice performance, because there, she was supposed to be annoying and over the top. Here — it’s a mix of, I don’t love the performance outside of the one scene, I do think she is overacting at times, and I just don’t love the film, really. So I’m not inclined to take her over what are otherwise two really strong alternatives. So as much as some people think she should have won this, I wouldn’t take her. I leave that to the people who feel strongly about this performance. I just like and respect it. I don’t love it.

Marvin’s Room is one of the weakest nominees in the past twenty years. This is an example of them bringing Diane Keaton back into the fold after what, fifteen years or no nominations? The movie’s loaded with star power, but I just did not think it was very good.

Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep are sisters. Their father had a stroke 20 years ago. Streep didn’t care and left. Keaton stayed behind and ignored her own life to care for him. Now, Keaton needs a bone marrow transplant and needs Streep’s help. And there’s a lot of family shit that goes on, and eventually they mend those relationship. All that annoying stuff you’d see in an indie movie now.

There’s no real need for this nomination whatsoever, and I’m convinced it’s purely because it’s Diane Keaton and nothing else. I would be shocked if anyone looking at this category would actually vote for her over all four of the remaining nominees. Easy number five, and as soon as this category is put in front of me, she’s immediately cast aside and I don’t even consider for a second that she could be the vote. This performance (for an Oscar, mind you) was unmemorable in every way.

Fargo is Fargo. We all know this movie.

Frances McDormand plays Marge Gunderson. She’s awesome.

The only knock you can have against this performance is that she might not be a lead. She doesn’t show up until 30 minutes into the movie, and there are so many different storylines going on, she doesn’t have the largest amount of screen time that you would attribute to a leading performance.

But, on the other hand, as we had with Patricia Neal and etc — just because they put her in one category, you gotta base it on the performance. So I won’t discount her because she could be more supporting than lead. But I also do have the ability to dock her in the end because of that. Regardless, she rates top two for me easily, and still might be the vote. There’s a big wild card at the end of this category that will decide where we end up.

The English Patient is big, classy and all that stuff. A notorious “bad” Best Picture winner, even though, on its own, its not that bad.

A man crashes a plane in the desert and ends up horribly burned. He’s transferred to a villa and is cared for by a nurse with her own problems. We learn his story in flashback, which is full of romance and all that good stuff.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays the woman in the flashback. Basically, her and her husband are traveling, and Ralph Fiennes is their guide. And she and Fiennes fall in love and have an affair, which eventually ends tragically.

Thomas is fine here, but feels like she came along with the film. She’s fine, but as an actress, I always feel like she comes across as cold, so I can never fully get into the whole romance angle. Plus, given the way the film is structured, she might not entirely be a lead, but the way the story goes, she is clearly the one meant to be lead. So I won’t argue there. I am totally fine with the nomination. But at best, she’s fourth. She makes no headway past fourth, given the three performances above her. Put her in a different year, maybe she makes third. But here, the nomination is the reward and she stands zero chance at anything higher than fourth.

Breaking the Waves is Lars Von Trier. An the problem with this movie is that it’s so weird and offbeat and — you know, Lars Von Trier. That turned a lot of people off, and hides the fact that within it, Emily Watson gives a fucking tremendous performance.

She and Stellan Skarsgard marry. She’s this innocent girl and he’s an oil rig worker. And of course she falls hard in love with him after their wedding night and all that. She constantly talks to God and prays for things. One day, Skarsgard gets paralyzed in an accident on the rig, and Watson thinks it’s her fault. Skarsgard, no longer able to have sex, tells Watson she should sleep with other men. And she at first wants no part of it, but eventually she does it because it’ll make her husband happy. And eventually she thinks this is what God wants too.

It’s a hard film to watch for those who don’t know Lars Von Trier. But man, is it engaging. And Watson — really good here. I think this performance is far and away better than Brenda Blethyn’s. And I think that she makes a really difficult category even harder because I don’t know if I take her over Frances McDormand or not. Which is a conversation I’ll leave for… well, now.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: So yeah. Keaton and Thomas have no shot, and Blethyn falls off immediately after when faced with the prospect of taking her over McDormand and Watson. Those two are the class of the category for me.

McDormand. Pros: it’s Fargo and Marge Gunderson. Very iconic character. GREAT performance. Immensely likable role. Cons: she may not be a lead and doesn’t have as much screen time as you’d theoretically want in this category.

Watson. Pros: By far the best pure acting performance in the category. Incredible all around. Cons: the film is very weird, kind of hurts her, in a weird way.

The weird thing about this is that while I feel that Watson gives the best performance, I do kinda want to vote for McDormand because I like the performance so much. And I know this time the edict was best performance is the vote. But last time I took Watson. This time, I want to take McDormand. So fuck it. I’m taking McDormand. That’s my preference. Watson does give the best performance, and I’d have been happy with either winner. But sometimes the heart wants what it wants.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves
  2. Frances McDormand, Fargo
  3. Brenda Blethyn, Secrets & Lies
  4. Kristin Scott Thomas, The English Patient
  5. Diane Keaton, Marvin’s Room

Rankings (films):

  1. Fargo
  2. The English Patient
  3. Breaking the Waves
  4. Secrets & Lies
  5. Marvin’s Room

My Vote: Frances McDormand, Fargo

Recommendations:

It’s Fargo. Are you nuts?

The English Patient is an essential movie. Culturally, everyone knows it, it won Best Picture, it has a great cast — there’s no reason why not seeing it would ever help someone really into film. So just see it.

Breaking the Waves is Lars Von Trier. I can’t tell if it’s essential or not, but I will say you should see it. There’s an area of film this represents and it’s worth seeing for that, for the performance (Emily Watson is great) and because it’s also a really engaging film too. As a serious film buff, I would consider this essential.

Secrets & Lies is Mike Leigh and known as one of his best. The restaurant scene is essential for all film buffs, and since you should be familiar with Mike Leigh and his style, this might be his most essential movie. So just see it and make it easier.

Marvin’s Room I can only recommend because Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton and Leo are in it. Otherwise, nothing to recommend. I don’t like it very much.

The Last Word: McDormand holds up. This is an example where, sure, she’s not the best performance (that would be Emily Watson, though some would argue it’s Brenda Blethyn), but the character is so likable, the performance is so memorable and the film is so good that she holds up. Blethyn or Watson didn’t need the win. They’d have held up fine on performance, but all around, no one looks as good coming out of this as Frances McDormand does. So she was a good choice. There were others to be had, but she holds up best.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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