For the love of entertainment
The Best Supporting Actress field for 2000-2009 was mostly sad, so thankfully the bar is much higher in the Best Actress category. It’s not all sunshine and daisies, but at least it isn’t so hard to find quality.
In undertaking this quest to find the best of the best, please note that I will only consider the performers who won an Academy Award for Best Actress. I may comment on an actress who was snubbed, but that ultimately cannot have an impact on rank.
Don’t get me wrong: I love me some Sandra Bullock. I am far from a hater. In fact, I would posit that Bullock deserved to win Best Actress over Cate Blanchett in 2013 for her remarkable work in Gravity. So there. But this? This right here is a performance that just wasn’t Oscar worthy. As the charitable wealthy woman who takes in a poor black kid and inspires him to realize his big football dreams, Bullock showed unexpected reserves of strength and brass (remember, at this point she was mostly known for romantic comedies). It’s just that brass and sass can only take you so far.
Fun fact: Sandra Bullock also won a Razzie in 2009 for the execrable All About Steve.
Should have won in 2009: I know people are tired of Meryl Streep being great, but if we’re being honest here we must admit that her incredible performance as Julia Child towered over this one. Give The Blind Side credit for reinventing Sandra Bullock’s career. It deserves it. But let’s also agree that Meryl was better.
First of all: this isn’t a Best Actress role. As depressed author Virginia Woolf, Nicole Kidman is really a supporting role in an ensemble. If Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore had to submit themselves in the supporting category with the same amount of screen time, then let’s be real. Furthermore, everyone gushed about how ‘transformative’ this performance was, and at the end of the day it’s just Nicole Kidman with a fake nose and a dowdy hairstyle. There, I said it. Charlize Theron transformed herself. Marion Cotillard transformed herself.
So why am I ranking this above Sandra Bullock? Because if this role had been submitted where it belonged (Best Supporting Actress) I could see it potentially winning. She’d be a whole lot better than a lot of the Best Supporting Actress winners for this decade, that’s for sure. So I guess you could make a case that Nicole Kidman could be Oscar worthy for The Hours–with some tweaking. I love Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago, but had Kidman been nominated in the right category I’d go for her Virginia Woolf over Zeta-Jones’ Velma Kelly.
Should have won in 2002: Any of Kidman’s competitors would have been a better choice simply because they fit the category better. I love Renee Zellweger’s merry murderess in Chicago, even if I’m not too keen on Zellweger in general. Diane Lane was fantastic as an adulterous wife in Unfaithful. But the main competition would have been Julianne Moore’s distraught housewife in Far From Heaven or Salma Hayek’s revelatory turn as Frida Kahlo in Frida. Either of those would have ranked much higher on this list, too.
This is another case where critics kept remarking on how Halle Berry really ‘transformed herself’ for her turn as a dirt-poor woman who loses her husband and overweight son, then puts her life back together with unexpected help from a formerly racist man she helps see the world in a new light (yes, you read that correctly). Except in this case ‘transformed herself’ means ‘didn’t wear makeup and maybe didn’t wash her hair for a day or two.’ She’s still Halle Berry–impossibly beautiful Halle Berry. This isn’t to say that the character shouldn’t be allowed to be beautiful, mind you, or that beautiful women can’t be good actresses–just that people try to apply a term that doesn’t work in this context. It’s not transformative to simply stop looking like you’re in a Revlon commercial.
Should have won in 2001:given what I just said, it may surprise you to know that I actually think Halle deserved to win that year. Sissy Spacek was deservedly close competition for playing another woman who lost her son (in In the Bedroom), but in the end I think Berry elicited more of an emotional response by being a little more raw. Don’t hold Halle’s career choices post-Oscar against her. It’s hard, I know.
Now here’s one that really hurts. If anyone deserves an Oscar, Kate Winslet does. Well, she did. She’s taken a lot of time off post-Oscar, appearing mainly in a mix of odd choices and paycheck movies here and there. Which is funny, because curious choices were what made her special in her early career. She took the role of Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and not only made the character make sense, she got nominated for an Oscar for it. That takes nerve. That takes talent. The worst thing that happened to Kate Winslet, arguably, is that she made herself inevitable. People began comparing her to Meryl Streep–except she began racking up Oscar nominations faster than Streep did in the early part of her career. By 2008 people were practically begging to give Winslet an Oscar.
So what happened? She won. For an utterly forgettable prestige film. For a role that wouldn’t even crack the top five in a list of Kate Winslet’s own best performances. The worst part is she even turned in a better performance the same year she won an Oscar for The Reader. But Academy voters were surprisingly dismissive of Revolutionary Road (and surprisingly in favor of The Reader). By the time nominations came out, it had been decided that Winslet was going to win, and then the role people thought she would win for ended up without a nomination. So they rewarded her anyway.
To be fair, Winslet is good as a German woman who ends up on trial for war crimes in the years after World War II. She’s actually very good, but the fact remains that even she has done better.
Should have won in 2008: Kate Winslet, but for Revolutionary Road. With the nominees the way they were, I might have gone for Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married instead.
The triumph of Hilary Swank’s performance as destitute-but-scrappy Maggie Fitzgerald is how understated it is, how completely Swank rejects the cloying earnestness that plagued Kate Winslet in The Reader. It was a very deft, shrewd move. Million Dollar Baby wouldn’t be nearly as affecting without that choice. You remember Maggie Fitzgerald because of her quiet determination and her dignity. Your heart breaks for her in the movie’s final act because you know that dignity was the most important thing she had in life.
It sounds like a bad pun to say that a movie about a female boxer packs a sucker punch, but it does. And the reason that punch lands so well all comes down to the actress who took on the role. I can’t think of any greater compliment than that.
In the end, though, quiet dignity doesn’t have the fireworks to crack the top five. Which is a shame.
Should have won in 2004: much was made of the rematch between Swank and Annette Bening (who previously lost to Swank in 1999), but things shook out the right way in the end. To my mind the biggest competition was Kate Winslet for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Fireworks are something definitely not missing from Reese Witherspoon’s turn as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, that’s for sure. What I really like about Witherspoon in this movie is that she goes toe to toe with Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliant portrayal of Johnny Cash and never misses a beat. A lesser actress would have let Phoenix run away with the movie, but Witherspoon says “hell no,” and makes her presence known. Her June is every bit the equal of Johhny Cash, and don’t you forget it. She’s brassy. She’s sassy. She’s confident. She sings (yup, both Witherspoon and Phoenix actually sang for the soundtrack instead of lip syncing to the original recordings). But she’s also vulnerable and cautious. I know this is based on a true story, but with lesser actors it would have been very hard to believe that June Carter would ever fall in love with a mess like Johnny Cash. Witherspoon makes you believe that she sees the best in him, even at his lowest. She makes you believe that Carter would eventually get over her sense of caution to help get Cash to, um, walk the line.
Should have won in 2005: Witherspoon’s biggest competition was Felicity Huffman, who played a MTF transgender in Transamerica. Witherspoon deserved the win.
Here’s where we start to get into the real powerhouse performances of the 2000’s. I know Julia Roberts is one of those actresses people either love or hate. There’s really no middle ground. I happen to love her, but I think even the haters have to give it to Roberts when it comes to Erin Brockovich. She towered over every other actor that year with her tour de force performance as the titular woman–a down on her luck single mom with a taste for tight clothing, a woman whose big brass balls get her a job at a law firm and the chutzpah to not only uncover a massive power company’s serious wrongdoings, but to take the suckers down as well. In a category filled with brassy performances, Julia Roberts reigns supreme. Like Brockovich herself, she makes it so you cannot ignore her. Like Witherspoon, the real win here is that she lets you see the vulnerable side of Brockovich: the frustration, the doubt, the love for her children … doesn’t matter if you love Roberts or hate her. This was her golden moment and she deserved every second of it.
Should have won in 2000: Julia. No question.
I complained a lot about misuse of the term ‘transformative’ when discussing other Best Actress winners of this decade. Here’s one where it really applied. OK, yes, first of all Charlize Theron looks nothing like Aileen Wuornos, a real-life prostitute in Daytona Beach who became one of the few female serial killers in American history. Charlize Theron does Dior ads, after all, while Wuornos, well, looked right at home in a truck stop. But that’s the trap people fell into earlier: sacrificing beauty does not a transformative performance make. The real story here is that Theron captured all the details of Wuornos. She disappeared into the role. If I were to go into this movie without any preconceptions, I probably would have sat in the dark theater for at least an hour trying to figure out who the actress was. That’s how good she is. Any other year this performance could have grabbed the top spot, but she gets edged out here by two roles that were technically irreproachable.
Should have won in 2003: it was definitely Theron’s year.
Flawless is the word that comes to mind when thinking of Helen Mirren in The Queen. The technical precision with which she captures Queen Elizabeth II in the period following Princess Diana’s untimely death is nothing short of astonishing. She’s regal and perfectly poised, of course, but she also perfectly captures the life of a woman at an utter loss for how to deal with the modern media machine when her entire life has taught her to hold to tradition without exception. She makes you consider the enormous difficulty of balancing life as the figurehead of your family during a tragedy when the entire world expects you to be the figurehead of your nation–no vacations or breaks allowed. Stories about someone trying to come to terms with the changing world have been done before, but they rarely feel so revelatory. Not to mention eloquent. As I said, Mirren is flawless in every scene of The Queen. So how, you may ask, is she only ranked at number 2? Let’s find out…
Should have won in 2006: as if there was any question: Helen Mirren.
What beats a flawless performance? Another flawless performance, of course. One that burns the screen down with its intensity, leaving you breathless that it could have been achieved at all. That’s exactly what Marion Cotillard did when she took on the incredible life story of Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. Like Theron, this is the definition of a transformative performance. Cotillard plays Piaf from her teens to her death at age 47, never missing a beat(one should note, however, that Piaf’s health had deteriorated so drastically by 47 that it was more like playing a woman in her 80’s). This is that rare instance where you actually feel like everything happening on screen is impacting the main character. By the time Piaf hits 47, Cotillard has created a palimpsest–where you can see how all of the events that came before added up to the broken woman you see before you. Even her body language changes as time goes by, perfectly indicating the passage of time and how it has left its mark. This is a performance that leaves you utterly breathless with its intensity and power.
A friend told me that Marion Cotillard doesn’t deserve the top slot because she believes that 9/11 and the moon landing were faked (Cotillard later claimed the remarks were taken out of context). At the end of the day, though, I’m critiquing performances–not politics. It would be impossible to do this list if I took the personal lives of all the actors into consideration. And if we’re only judging on performances, there’s nowhere else to put Cotillard than at number one.
Should have won in 2007: believe it or not, this wasn’t supposed to be Cotillard’s year. A lot of people put money on Ellen Page’s performance as the titular pregnant teen in Juno or Julie Christie’s heartfelt turn as an Alzheimer’s patient in Away from Her. Cotillard was the deserving dark horse, and thankfully she won.