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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1997-1998)

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.

1997

Helena Bonham Carter, The Wings of the Dove

Julie Christie, Afterglow

Judi Dench, Mrs. Brown

Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets

Kate Winslet, Titanic

Analysis:

SAG matched 4/5. No Christie.

BAFTA matched 3/5 out of four nominees. No Winslet, no Christie.

BFCA had only a winner, no nominees.

The Globes had 4/5 across two categories. No Christie.

So Julie Christie came out of nowhere. An Indie Spirit nomination and a National Film Critics Society and NY Film Critics win. And veteran status.

Hunt won SAG and the Comedy Globe. Dench won BAFTA and Drama Globe. Carter won BFCA.

Interesting. Curious how this one seemed. Was it Dench, or did Hunt have it all the way?

The Wings of the Dove is not a Merchant Ivory film. But it certainly looks like one.

Helena Bonham Carter is a woman stuck between two worlds. Her mother had money, but her father spent it all on opium. Now she’s under the care of her wealthy aunt, who has plans for her so she doesn’t end up like her mother. She, meanwhile, is in love with a struggling journalist. Which her aunt will not allow. So she has to decide whether to go for love or money. She finds out a friend of hers is dying and tries to game the system. She gets her boyfriend to seduce her so he can be included in the will, which will give him enough money to allow her aunt to allow them to marry. And everyone wins. Here’s the problem: the boyfriend actually falls in love with the woman. Naturally.

Carter is good here. She’s one of those actresses — she’s always really great. She delivers the goods nearly every time, and she’s almost never appreciated for doing so. And I think the whole Tim Burton thing actually diluted her in a way, because people take her for granted. But she’s really good in this, much more so than you’d expect. I certainly go into these performances thinking I’m never going to vote for them. But here, I have to consider it. And also because the major performances in this category (and next year too) are these types of performances. Not sure I take her, but she’s really solid here.

Afterglow is probably the most forgotten Best Actress nomination of the 90s.

Anyone?

Nick Nolte is a handyman married to Julie Christie. She’s an actress who was in shitty horror movies for years. The kind that has a cult reputation and only really gets to go to those conventions. Their marriage is stale. They meet a younger couple, and pretty soon they’ve swapped partners and are having affairs. Convenient, that.

Christie is fine here. This feels like a “welcome back” sort of nomination, where she’d been gone for twenty-five years and gets a veteran nomination. Similar to Diane Keaton the year before this. I don’t like the film very much and don’t love the performance. She’s fifth for me, even though I’m sure if I went back and watched this again, she’d probably be fourth. Either way, wouldn’t take her. As an actress she’s worth the nomination, but this feels like a weak nominee otherwise.

Mrs. Brown is a very… it’s very BBC. But it’s good. Mostly because of the performances.

Judi Dench plays Queen Victoria, recently widowed. Billy Connolly was a devoted servant of the house, and of her husband. After his death, Dench is horribly bereaved, and Connolly does everything he can to help her out of it, even if it means directly disobeying orders. She comes to regard him as a friend, and he treats her as such. He doesn’t treat her like a queen, but rather a friend. You can’t talk shit to a queen. You can talk shit to a friend. And of course this becomes a huge scandal, but Connolly doesn’t give a fuck. And the film is about their relationship (which may be sexual?), and the uproar it causes around the country.

Dench is good here. I nearly voted for her last time because I love her as an actress and was looking for anything to grab onto. Having seen it again, I don’t think is something you need to vote for. The movie’s just okay, and the performance is good, but it’s very BBC. Typical Judi Dench stuff. She does the same thing in Shakespeare in Love. And the thing with this film is, it’s more about Billy Connolly. So she gets to show up and punctuate her scenes with strongly delivered monologues and stern looks. It’s a very Judi Dench performance, which in this category may be enough, but I’m not sure.

As Good As It Gets is just a wonderful film. My opinions of it have always been skewed because I love it so much.

Jack Nicholson is a neurotic, OCD author whose life is very ordered, very insulated. He goes to the same places every day, does the same thing, hates people. And his neighbor gets beaten and he’s forced to care for his dog. And he starts to fall for a local waitress who waits on him every day.

Helen Hunt plays the waitress, a single mother whose son is constantly sick. She’s the strong, sarcastic waitress for the first part of the film and then the concerned mom for the other part, and then it becomes a romance with her and Nicholson.

She’s really strong and charming in the part. I get why people wouldn’t want to take her here. It’s not like she has quite the range of the other actresses on this list. But charming is charming. And she rates highly here for me despite that. This is the kind of performance that gets actresses the win. Does it hold up? I don’t know. Does it matter? I don’t know. We’ll deal with that part later. For now, absolutely she’s in contention.

Titanic. We’ve all seen it. Most of us have seen it in theaters. More than once. This was the legitimate blockbuster of our lives, those of us too young for the Star Wars days. This was the movie you went to see that stayed in theaters forever.

Kate Winslet plays Rose. Everyone knows Rose.

Do we think she was going to win this? No. Do we think she was worthy of a nomination? Sure. Would we vote for her? I wouldn’t. Would anyone? Doubt it.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I like hearing people’s opinions on this category. Because — yeah, I’ll leave it at that. It tells me a lot about a person, the way they vote in this category.

To me, Julie Christie is a blank, and Kate Winslet came along with the film. Neither are worth taking. I really like Judi Dench, and want to find a reason to vote for her. But I don’t see it. Helena Bonham Carter might only be third in most years but is top two for me. And I almost take her. But I still like Helen Hunt. Maybe it’s the type of films we’re dealing with and my love of As Good As It Gets, but I do like that performance best. Maybe in five years, I’ll come around to taking someone else, but right now, it’s still Helen Hunt for me.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets
  2. Helena Bonham Carter, The Wings of the Dove
  3. Judi Dench, Mrs. Brown
  4. Kate Winslet, Titanic
  5. Julie Christie, Afterglow

Rankings (films):

  1. As Good As It Gets
  2. Titanic
  3. Mrs. Brown
  4. The Wings of the Dove
  5. Afterglow

My Vote: Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets

Recommendations:

Titanic. ’nuff said.

As Good As It Gets is essential. Everyone sees this movie. Everyone enjoys this movie. It’s starting to get dated, but I don’t care. It’s enjoyable as hell.

Mrs. Brown is good. Moderate to solid recommend. Billy Connolly is awesome and Judi Dench is always great. Worth it for them. Decent movie, worth a watch, but can easily be skipped if you’re not into the Oscars or it doesn’t sound like it’s for you.

The Wings of the Dove is okay. Moderate recommend. Costume drama like all the others. Good lead performance, but that’s about the extent of my enjoyment of it. Not essential.

Afterglow is not something I recommend. At best I’d give it a very, very light recommend, but honestly, I didn’t even like it that much to do that. This one’s up to you if you want to see it.

The Last Word: Interesting. Winslet wouldn’t have held up. Christie would have been a terrible winner. Dench would have been ehh, even though we love her. She won after this anyway in a more appropriate way. Carter is worthy of an Oscar and might have held up, but I’m not sure. Hunt doesn’t necessarily hold up, but she doesn’t not hold up either. She’s just kind of middle of the road. Her winning with Nicholson bolsters it a little. Her or Carter would have been the best choices. I think this is a fair choice. Not great, not terrible.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1998

Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth

Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station

Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love

Meryl Streep, One True Thing

Emily Watson, Hilary & Jackie

Analysis:

SAG matched 4/5. No Montenegro.

BAFTA matched 3/5. They only had 4 nominees. No Montenegro, no Streep.

BFCA only had a winner.

The Globes matched 5/5 across both categories.

Paltrow won SAG and the Globe for Musical/Comedy. Blanchett won BAFTA, BFCA and the Globe for Drama.

I feel like Paltrow must have seemed the favorite going in, just because of Harvey’s reach. But maybe not. Probably ended up seeming like an upset.

Elizabeth is a biopic of Queen Elizabeth I. The “virgin queen.”

Cate Blanchett plays Elizabeth. She goes from being in prison to being in queen. Which is pretty awesome. Now that she’s queen, everyone wants her to find a husband. If she has a husband, she can have a child, and an heir. She goes from this innocent girl who never thought she’d have any sort of power to being queen of an entire country. My favorite part about the film and the performance is that you see how she becomes this woman.

Most years, she wouldn’t be the vote, and almost never would she actually be the vote for me because of the type of film. But with this category being what it is, all bets are off. She’s generally considered the person who should have won this category, and it’s with reason.

Central Station is a Brazilian film.

You know how many foreign language nominees there have been for Best Actress, ever? 19. Which, I know, is higher than you were probably suspecting. But still, over almost 90 years, that’s not that many. To make things more interesting, only 7 have been in the past 25 years. So it’s not that common an occurrence. One every 3-4 years.

Fernanda Montenegro plays a retired schoolteacher who writes letters for illiterate people to send to loved ones. She meets a young kid who hopes to see his father who he’s never met. The boy’s mother has Montenegro write letters to the kid from his father. One day, the boy’s mother is killed by a bus, and Montenegro is forced to care for the boy. She wants no part of him, so she accompanies him on a road trip to leave him at his father’s house.

You know the story. Grumpy old person softening around a kid. It’s that. Montenegro is really good here. It shows. In this category, she’s probably second on performance. But I don’t like her enough to take her over one of the nominees she’s better than, so she probably ends up third for me for a vote. Good, but nah.

Shakespeare in Love is probably the most controversial Best… oh wait, Crash. Second most controversial Best Picture winner of all time.

It’s about Shakespeare writing Romeo and Juliet. The movie’s great.

Gwyneth Paltrow plays a noblewoman who wants to be an actress, only they never allowed women on the stage at this time. So she pretends to be a man. And she falls in love with Shakespeare, and eventually they perform Romeo and Juliet together and it’s this big moment.

Gwyneth’s performance is fine. Not great, but fine. She’s charming, she does her part well, and it’s not as if another actress would have done a better job with it, it’s just that the part and how she plays it just really isn’t good enough to be a Best Actress winner. I mean, I get it. She’s charming and in this category, she got enough campaigning to win. But this on its own isn’t good enough to win. Though it’s so weak a category, she does contend.

One True Thing is… whoo boy. Not a film that I liked. It might be better now, but I’ll admit I haven’t gone back to watch it.

Renee Zellweger is a magazine writer who comes home to visit her parents for her father’s birthday. She loves her father and hates her mother. She finds out her mother is dying. She then comes home to care for her mother, and of course finds out she had her father all wrong, and he’s been having affairs, and her mother has known about it and shielded her from it for years. Pure melodrama stuff.

Meryl plays the mother. She’s dying, she gets to commit suicide. Only Meryl would get this nomination. And even with her playing it, she’s still fifth in this category. Not something I’d take. She’s fine and all, but at best she’s getting fourth here. Not a fan of the movie and the performance is just aight.

Hilary & Jackie is a biopic of a pair of musical sisters. One is steady, the other unconventional. You know the drill.

Emily Watson plays the unconventional sister. She’s energetic, prone to mood swings, has a nervous breakdown, and eventually gets MS. It fits the entire profile of an Oscar nomination. However this performance is not as good as Breaking the Waves, and is way more conventional. I get why she was nominated, but I would not take her over at least two of the other nominees. Most years she’d be a fourth choice, here she’s probably third, owing to a weak category.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Awful category. One of the worst of all time. Bottom ten, if not bottom five. You can’t take Streep, Watson is too generic, Montenegro doesn’t do much for me. Paltrow is a compromise choice in the way you choose something light and easy when you don’t want to make a difficult decision. Blanchett by far gives the best performance, but I don’t like the film all that much. But I guess that’s what you gotta do. The fact that I’m gonna take Blanchett, with this type of performance and this type of movie, tells you everything you need to know about this category. I’d only do it if I had to, and I really have to here. I wish the Paltrow performance was good enough for me to actually feel good about taking it, but I don’t.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth
  2. Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love
  3. Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station
  4. Emily Watson, Hilary & Jackie
  5. Meryl Streep, One True Thing

Rankings (films):

  1. Shakespeare in Love
  2. Elizabeth
  3. Central Station
  4. Hilary & Jackie
  5. One True Thing

My Vote: Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth

Recommendations:

Shakespeare in Love is essential on every level. I don’t think I need to explain them all at this point. But I will. Quickly. Every film buff needs to see this. It won Best Picture, it won Best Actress. It’s a controversial winner. And it’s great. If you want to talk Oscars, you gotta see it. If you want to complain that it won, you gotta see it. And it’s great and really entertaining and you’re gonna enjoy it. And the cast is insane. There is no reason for anyone into movies to skip this. At all.

Elizabeth is a fine film with a really good lead performance. It’s the same as those 60s costume dramas. If you liked those, you’ll like this. Otherwise the only real reason you need to see this is is to talk about this category. Solid recommend, but you’d know better than me if this is something you want to see.

Hilary & Jackie is okay. Light recommend as a film, not something that really anyone needs to see. If you love biopics, go for it. Otherwise, really only if you’re analyzing this category is there really ever a need to see it.

Central Station is fine. Light recommend if you’re into foreign movies. Not essential and only really worth it if this is your kind of movie or if you wanna talk this category. Otherwise, no point in running out to see it.

One True Thing is a movie that I don’t like much. But I’ll admit, with a cast of Meryl Streep, William Hurt and Renee Zellweger, it might be worth a rewatch on my own part. So I’ll give it a light recommend just because I can’t really say it’s not worth seeing. But when I did see it, I didn’t like it very much. That’s where we’re at with this.

The Last Word: Paltrow holds up simply because the category is so terrible and hey, it’s better than nothing. Streep would have been a bad winner, Montenegro would have been a forgotten blank of a winner. Watson would have been generic bordering on bad, and would have looked like a makeup Oscar for Breaking the Waves. Blanchett gives the best performance, but winning for this wouldn’t have looked particularly great. (Not that Blue Jasmine looks particularly great either.) She’d have been a fine winner. Paltrow only looks bad because the performance is whatever. But that’s Best Actress all over the place. She isn’t Sandra Bullock. But she’s no Charlize Theron either. I don’t even know if she’s a Reese Witherspoon. The category is bad and she holds up fair, but Blanchett would have held up just as well and actually had a performance to back it up, even if the film isn’t as good.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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