09 July 2008

Worst "Best Actress" Winners?

So, I've just finished reviewing the performances that were nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for the film year 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).
Now, Susan Sarandon won that year for her performance, opposite Sean Penn, in the weak "actors' drama" Dead Man Walking, a kind of preachy and rather simplistic morality play about right and wrong - needless to say, I wasn't very impressed - by the film as a whole as much as by Ms. Sarandon's performance, which was capable, yes, but far from wonderful and which suffered, I felt, primarily from the lack of a strong screepnlay. As I felt that way about it and as hers was only the second of the five for me to see (after Emma Thompson's, whose I cherish), I was naturally curious to complete the set and, so, I watched the outstanding three next: first, Ms. Shue: excellent; then, Ms. Stone (my predicted weak link): surprisingly strong; and, finally, Ms. Streep: wonderful, even despite the obvious flaws of the maudlin film(, but from her that's to be expected). So, needless to say, I was very confused: Why, o why, had the Academy decided to reward Ms. Sarandon, when her competitresses were not only just as deserving as, but moreover far more deserving than, she? But I chalked it up to another witlesss-Academy blunder, to another hopeless mistake of the so many that the group has made over the years, to their bizarre distribution tendency that had to just give it to her already after 4 previous winless nominations; and so, clearly, this is not where my issue lies.
My issues lies within the popular choices for "Worst 'Best Actress' Winners of All Time" that I found when, after completing The Bridges of Madison County, I quickly searched the internet for such lists, to determine how high up Ms. Sarandon ranked as one of those "Worst 'Best Actresses'" - undoubtedly, thought I, she has to be at least Top 5. I was shocked and dismayed, however, to discover not only that none of the critics who have posted such rankings online have found her performance to be as lacking as I did, but also and morever that those performances that they did all seem to rank in their lists, especially their #1 choice, were among my most cherished and admired performances by leading actresses of all time - a situation that undoubtedly, I know, makes me go "WTF?!"
Basically: they all think that Helen Hunt's performance in As Good as It Gets (1997) was the worst performance to win the Best Actress Oscar of all time!! What?!!? Now, I appreciate that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but seriously: did someone send out a memo that I didn't see, instructing everyone to afflict Ms. Hunt with this dubious title? Among the reasons these beraters offer up as validation of their collective criticism, the three most common/major are boredom, television, and even nationalism - am I the only one who sees the absurdity in each of these supposed reasons? Boredom: what? Seriously, what were you expecting? The film is essentially a small romantic comedy; simply because she doesn't have crashing emotional breakdowns, doesn't play a prostitute, and doesn't sing, she does not deserve the critique of being bored/boring, especially in the face of how she beautifully lightens up the screen and provides a skillful counterbalance to Mr. Nicholson's (equally neurotic but on the opposite extreme) antics. Television: what? Seriously, what does that mean? Are you trying to say that, because she was a TV actress before she was in films, she is somehow inherently lesser or in some way negatively handicapped or held at a higher standard than her film-actress peers? How would that work exactly?? And, for all of you who love Judi Dench invariably: she began on (BBC) TV too - so, suck on that. Nationalism: I'm not even going to address this one, just so ridiculous are its implications. The only sensible argument I've read in the many that have been lobbied against Ms. Hunt and her performance were that the other nominees/actresses were simply just better, and this is a claim that I can't outright refute. I can accept that the other three (Julie Christie's performance in Afterglow being the exception that I haven't seen) were all tremendous and elegant - and I do feel that, along with Julianne Moore, Kate Winslet is the most deserving actress working yet to receive an Oscar, especially after five(!) nominations of which at least 2 were simply criminal passes over her - but I have to agree with the Academy on this one and say that it was just none of their years. Ms. Winslet was elegant as always but suffered from Mr. Cameron's overly emotional bent and poor writing skills; Ms. Dench was clever but lacked what I felt was a significant investment in her character's world, where she frequently seemed to be more of Dame Judi Dench in costume than Queen Victoria in life; and Ms. Bonham Carter was both considered and emotional but lacked what I felt was a focused strength that would have otherwise grounded her role not only within the context of her character's world but also within the context of a performance general. Ms. Hunt, on the other hand, was considered, emotional, elegant, strong, clever, and invested; though it may be largely attributable to smart casting, she moved fluidly in Carol Connelly's world as though it were naturally her own and built a character that was as neurotically prepossessed of her principles and ideals yet simultaneously as endearingly earnest in her attempts to do right as was her glorious co-star's character, whose quality no one questions. So, while Ms. Hunt may not be one of my "Best 'Best Actresses' of All Time", she most certainly is not ranking in the "Worst" either.
Other botherings in the "Worst" lists of these critics, all much less unanimous than the ranking of Ms. Hunt, were Ms. Kidman in her role as Virgina Woolf in The Hours, who was an eloquent powerhouse of startling implosion and desperation and so certainly ranks among my "Best 'Best Actresses'"; Ms. Paltrow in the charming Shakespeare in Love, who was perhaps not awesome but agile in a role that demanded a lot of fluidity, both physically as a character capable of being both male and female and emotionally as a character both willfully independent and emotionally raw/naked, and whose mention is not automatically validated by the implication of a "snubbed" competitress into the argument (i. e., Cate Blanchett for her admittedly glorious turn in Elizabeth); and Ms. Holliday in the classic Born Yesterday, who was spectacular and also does not merit mention simply because of "snubbed" competition (i. e., Bette Davis in All about Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard).
Now, if you want my opinion on who really were the "Worst 'Best Actresses' of All Time" - well, maybe just of the years whose nominated performances I've seen - here it is:
  • Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby - Unextraordinary, basic, lacking depth - Should have gone to: Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich - Unimmersed, more like Julia Roberts being herself than the character - Should have gone to: Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream
  • Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking - (All the above reasons) - Should have gone to: Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility
I will also say that a few other amendments should be made, but not that these changes mean that the women who actually won deserve the distinction of being called among the "Worst 'Best Actresses' of All Time":
  • Charlize Theron's statuette for Monster most definitely given to Diane Keaton for Something's Gotta Give
  • Halle Berry's statuette for Monster's Ball given to Nicole Kidman for Moulin Rouge
  • Hilary Swank's statuette for Boys Don't Cry at least shared in a tie with Annette Bening for American Beauty
  • Judy Holliday's statuette for Born Yesterday shared in a tie with Gloria Swanson for Sunset Boulevard
Phew, that was a lot of opining, but I'm still feeling unfulfilled. Perhaps I'll tackle "Worst 'Best Actor'" tomorrow?

Signing off.

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