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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 2005-2006)

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.

2005

Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents

Felicity Huffman, Transamerica

Keira Knightley, Pride and Prejudice

Charlize Theron, North Country

Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line

Analysis:

Oh yeah, this one. I have a pretty good idea how this one is gonna go.

SAG matched 4/5. They missed Knightley in favor of Ziyi Zhang for Memoirs of a Geisha. Which is fascinating to me but not something we need to get into just now.

BAFTA matched 3/5. They had Rachel Weisz lead even though she won Supporting. So that explains one. And they also had Ziyi Zhang.

BFCA had all five, out of six nominees.

The Globes had all five across both categories.

Reese won everything. All of them. Felicity Huffman won the other Globe, but it was clear who was winning the Oscar all the way through.

Mrs. Henderson Presents is a Weinstein Oscar special. They love them some Judi Dench, and I love that they do.

Judi plays an eccentric widow who buys a theater during World War II and decides to open a burlesque show with nude performers. So she has to fight to allow that to happen and then put the show on in the middle of a war, with the blitz going on. The progression is something you’ve seen before, but the movie is entertaining.

Judi is really good here. Bob Hoskins is the secret weapon of the film, by the way. But Judi is good. Not something that wins, because she’s basically playing the same Judi Dench character she plays in nearly all these Weinstein movies. But she’s lively and puts in good work. I might consider her a solid #3 here.

Transamerica is one of the early transgender movies. I don’t remember a whole lot of these in this era. And as such, it was promptly ignored and forgotten. Because Hollywood wasn’t ready for it yet.

Felicity Huffman plays a pre-op transvestite. So get that — a “man” transitioning into a woman. A week before her surgery, she finds out someone claiming to be her son was arrested. She has to fly out to meet her son and thus begins a road trip.

The film is fine. It’s just pretty good. Indie tropes galore. But Felicity Huffman — holy shit. She’s terrific here. How she didn’t win the Oscar on performance alone says a lot about where the Academy was at in 2005. No Brokeback Mountain, no Transamerica. I wouldn’t say this was a “decision” so much as Crash over Brokeback was a decision. At least here, Reese won all the precursors (Huffman won the Globe for Drama, but Reese won the other one, so that’s a wash), so they could say they had their choice and went with it. Which is fine. They can defend that. But the performance speaks for itself. Reese holds up better as an actress, but Huffman’s performance is clearly the best in the category.

Pride and Prejudice is self-explanatory. Jane Austen, directed by Joe Wright.

Everyone knows what this is about. Unless you completely zoned out during English class.

Keira Knightley plays Lizzy Bennett. And she’s good. She’s lively, she makes you fall in love with her. But I don’t think there’s any debate that she’s fifth in this category. Maybe fourth if you really love her. I really love her and still wouldn’t put her higher than fourth on a good day. It’s a nice start to her career, but she doesn’t stand a chance in this category. And part of it is my aversion to these types of “obvious” films and roles this late in the Oscar game.

North Country is Oscar bait to the max. Good film, but one of those films that’s so obvious that when it gets nominated you ignore it because it’s so standard fare.

Charlize Theron works at a coal mine and faces horrible discrimination from all the men. Because of course. And eventually she starts a class action lawsuit about it, and that of course leads to retaliation, and she has to fight for respect for herself and all the women who work at the mine.

It’s a good film. I really liked it. But it’s standard Oscar fare and Theron’s performance is solid but also very much in the realm of what you’d expect for this type of movie. She’s one of those people who sprints to the nomination but stalls after that. Because she’s good, but not good enough that you’d actually take her. Especially with her having won two years before this for a far better performance. So she ends up fourth/fifth. I put Keira fifth on performance but fourth on vote just because Theron had one and this performance isn’t something I really take. That’s how this one shakes out. Theron is fine, but you don’t take her.

Walk the Line is the Johnny Cash biopic.

This is always a tough one to talk about. Because I love the film. I’ve watched this so many times and I really like it.

I also am aware that Reese Witherspoon is more “movie” good  than “Oscar” good. She’s very entertaining and does a good job, but Best Actress? Nah. She might not even be a lead in this movie. She seems more supporting, the more I go back to it. But she’s here, so that doesn’t matter.

I think this is an example of a major A-list actress being charming and winning because it was her time. Sandra Bullock had that. Julia Roberts had that. That’s how they do it with these actresses. Is it fair? No. But that’s what it is. Whether you think she should have won or not, you have to understand it.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This reconsideration is all about understanding why what happened happened.

Looking at this category — no one takes Theron, and no one takes Knightley. I feel like 1 or 2 people might take Knightley, but most people understand what that nomination is. Judi Dench always finds herself in these categories (see 2013), where there’s a clear winner who isn’t everyone’s choice. It’s the actress who is finally gonna get her due and is good, but not something that everyone loves for the vote. Usually I am part of the dissension. And Judi is entertaining bordering on very good, and legitimately puts herself in conversation for the vote. I don’t think this performance is as solid as Philomena, so I ultimately wouldn’t seriously consider her for the vote, but she is good enough to be that alternate choice for those not into the Huffman and Witherspoon performances.

Now, Witherspoon — ignoring the fact that she might not be a lead — she’s charming, she’s very entertaining. Me loving the film so much, I would take her over Judi Dench. I will admit to that. But there’s no fucking way that she really delivers a better performance than Felicity Huffman. So that’s my vote.

But again — you have these two actresses, and the films, and the subject matter… you get why Reese won. You have to understand the decision even if you don’t fully agree with it. I don’t think this is an egregious win, even though I do think this is one of the weaker winners of all time.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Felicity Huffman, Transamerica
  2. Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line
  3. Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents
  4. Charlize Theron, North Country
  5. Keira Knightley, Pride and Prejudice

Rankings (films):

  1. Walk the Line
  2. North Country
  3. Mrs. Henderson Presents
  4. Transamerica
  5. Pride and Prejudice

My Vote: Felicity Huffman, Transamerica

Recommendations:

Walk the Line is… is it essential? I don’t know. I’m too close to it. I love it. I watched it a shit ton the past eleven years. I think it’s essential. Especially since it immediately became such an archetype for the musical biopic that two years after this, Walk Hard spoofed the shit out of it and everyone understood what they were doing. Plus it’s essential for Oscar buffs. And it’s awesome. So just see it. I don’t know why someone would skip it. Johnny Cash is the fucking best.

Pride and Prejudice is Joe Wright. And he’s proven himself to be close to an essential filmmaker (even though I don’t think nearly enough people have seen his other films outside of Atonement), so you probably have a reason to check this out. It’s just pretty good, as far as quality goes.

North Country is a solid film. Oscar bait, but entertaining. Good cast, good performances, engaging all the way, and a trial aspect. Which I love. Solid recommend.

Mrs. Henderson Presents is an entertaining film. Moderate recommend. It’s fun. Worth seeing, but easily can be skipped.

Transamerica is an okay film with a great lead performance. Worth it for the performance and essential if you want to talk about this category.

The Last Word: Reese holds up okay because the category is so ho hum. Huffman gives the best performance and probably should have won based on that, but I’m not sure she would have held up. Reese holds up for reasons other than the performance, which is solid in and of itself. I think Reese was an okay choice, though not the best performance in the category. Her or Huffman were the only two options here.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

2006

Penelope Cruz, Volver

Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal

Helen Mirren, The Queen

Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada

Kate Winslet, Little Children

Analysis:

Oh, this’ll be interesting to look back on.

SAG matched 5/5. Which pretty much ends all discussion right there.

BAFTA matched 5/5. And again.

BFCA matched 5/5. I think I got it.

And the Globes had all 5 across both categories.

So yeah. Maybe not as interesting as I thought.

Guess who won every single award? Yeah… this one was one of the least interesting Best Actress races of the past fifteen years.

Volver is Pedro Almodovar.

I honestly haven’t seen this in five years, but I remember thinking that Penelope Cruz was admirable in the movie, but that the nomination was the reward. I know for sure that I wouldn’t take her, so ultimately I didn’t feel the need to go back and watch this. Next time I’ll have to for sure.

I know it involves Penelope Cruz coming back home after her mother’s death to try to fix things with the family, and things don’t go quite as planned.

I feel somewhat negligent with this one, but I know how I feel about Almodovar and I know how I’d have felt about this performance again while watching it. At best she might have ended up second, but it would take something truly incredible for me to say I’d vote for her. I erred on the side of that not being the case.

Notes on a Scandal is to me, the best of the Judi Dench nominated performances, pre-Philomena.

She plays a teacher who has a crush on a new, younger teacher played by Cate Blanchett. She befriends her and writes in her diary all these fantasies she has about the two of them. She then finds out Blanchett is sleeping with one of her students. Eventually, the whole thing is found out (but Blanchett doesn’t know Dench is the reason), and Blanchett ends up moving in with Dench, who positions herself as an ally, with of course dubious intentions.

Dench is really great here. She, again, is in a position of not having a chance at a win, but being good enough to vote for as an alternative. If you’re not taking Mirren in this one, Dench seems the most likely alternative. She’s really good in this.

The Queen is a movie that I always felt was thought of as better than it is.

It’s about the royal family in the days after Princess Diana’s death and their silence on the whole thing, as pressure builds from the public for them to say something.

Helen Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth, and she’s wonderful here. I don’t think necessarily that this is an all-time best Oscar-winning performance, but I think she does capture the essence of the Queen, even if the film is largely fictionalized. There was no way she wasn’t winning here, and honestly, looking at the category, it’s hard to argue against it. I don’t know if I have a preferred alternative.

The Devil Wears Prada is an amusing film, and only serves to show that they’ll nominate Meryl for anything.

Anne Hathaway gets a job as personal assistant to, basically, Anna Wintour. The head of the biggest fashion magazine in the US. And most of the film is Meryl acting as the cold boss with high demands who ends up melting that cold heart and showing some respect for Hathaway.

Good film, lot of fun, but why this performance is something anyone would vote for is beyond me. The nomination is more than enough. At best she’s a third choice on sentimentality. More like fourth or fifth.

Little Children is a movie that was really great in 2006, very good in 2011, and now just solid in 2016. Hasn’t held up for me at all. I think it’s the omniscient narrator.

A convicted pedophile moves into a suburban neighborhood and everyone freaks out. And it’s all about the hypocrisy of these people, as they condemn this man and are all addicted to pills and having affairs and all this other stuff.

Kate Winslet plays the main character, whose husband is addicted to porn and ignores her. She becomes friends with the “hot dad” at the park, and pretty soon they start sleeping together. And the drama plays out.

She’s fine here. Mostly this was her being nominated because it’s a weak year and she’s Kate Winslet. I saw this again recently for the Haley nomination and didn’t much see a whole lot going on for Winslet. I’ve seen her be better. I wouldn’t want to vote for her here except because she’s Kate Winslet and is horribly overdue. In terms of performance… maybe third? Probably fourth.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This category is so middle of the road for me it makes me want to go chalk.

Streep is a no for me. Cruz is a no for me. Winslet garners some consideration but because I saw the performance again recently, I wouldn’t take that performance over the others. So no to her. I’m sure in five years I’ll actually think Cruz is better than Winslet, but at this point, that swap is meaningless for this category.

This one comes down to the vets. Dench and Mirren. Dench’s film, I think, ultimately lets her down. She’s very good and the film is just okay. Mirren is very good in a really solid film, and I think that, along with her being Helen Mirren (don’t worry, Dench has the same deal), makes her pretty much the default choice.

I don’t love the Mirren performance, but in this category, it’s just easiest to take her and move on. I don’t love Dench enough to actually take her. And I’d only be taking Winslet because she’s Kate Winslet. So let’s just go chalk. I’m okay with that.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Helen Mirren, The Queen
  2. Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
  3. Kate Winslet, Little Children
  4. Penelope Cruz, Volver
  5. Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada

Rankings (films):

  1. The Devil Wears Prada
  2. Little Children
  3. The Queen
  4. Notes on a Scandal
  5. Volver

My Vote: Helen Mirren, The Queen

Recommendations:

The Queen is a solid recommend. Not a high recommend. I don’t think it’s that good. Essential for Oscar buffs, probably a “should see” for most film buffs, but not an essential movie.

The Devil Wears Prada is culturally essential but not film buff essential. So if you can deal with hearing non film buffs go, “You haven’t seen The Devil Wears Parada???” then feel free to skip it. Otherwise it’s just easier to see this. And I imagine most people growing up now with cable will end up seeing this along the way regardless, so you should be fine.

Little Children is a good film that hasn’t held up. A solid recommend, but time has shown that you really don’t need to see this. Though it’s worth it for the cast. Deep queue kind of movie.

Notes on a Scandal is an okay film with a great Judi Dench performance in it. Moderate recommend. It’s just okay as a film and you don’t need to see it.

Volver is Almodovar. Base seeing this on your opinions of his films. If you haven’t seen any of them, then you really don’t need to see this. If you love him, then you’ll see it. That’s what this is.

The Last Word: Mirren has held up as the best choice, and no one else would have held up. So there’s really nothing more to talk about here. They made the right decision.

– – – – – – – – – –

(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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