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.
Please note that although 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 Sandra Bullock. 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 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: Carey Mulligan gave a revelatory performance as a young girl seduced by a much older man in An Education, but I would go with Gabourey Sidibe’s knowingly empathetic turn in Precious.
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. Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore submitted themselves in the supporting category with the same amount of screen time. 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.
Should have won in 2002: Diane Lane was fantastic as an adulterous wife in Unfaithful. Julianne Moore was great as a distraught housewife in Far From Heaven and Salma Hayek was revelatory in Frida. But with Kidman bumped to the supporting race, I’d give it to Renee Zellweger’s merry murderess in Chicago.
If anyone deserves an Oscar, it’s Kate Winslet. In fact, she should have won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1995 for Sense and Sensibility, but that didn’t happen. The worst thing that happened to Kate Winslet, arguably, is that she made herself inevitable. By 2008 people were practically begging to give her an Oscar. So she won for a 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 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 when the role she was supposed to win for ended up without a nomination, 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.
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. And while she made a lot of career missteps after winning, she’s really good in this role.
Should have won in 2001: Sissy Spacek was deservedly close competition for playing another woman who lost her son (in In the Bedroom), and as much as I respect Berry’s raw emotions, I think Spacek’s simmering restraint is more haunting. Spacek.
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. Her June is every bit the equal of Johhny Cash, just as in real life. She’s brassy. She’s sassy. She’s confident. She sings (both Witherspoon and Phoenix sang for the soundtrack instead of lip-syncing). 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.
Julia Roberts is one of those actresses people either love or hate. 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 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 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.
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. The reason this movie’s (ahem) sucker punch lands so well comes down to the actress who took on the lead role.
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.
I complained a lot about the misuse of the term ‘transformative’ when discussing other Best Actress winners. Here’s one where it really applied. 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 make for a great performance. The real story here is that Theron captured all the details of Wuornos: the insecurity, the sadness, the anger. 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. 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. Mirren is flawless in every scene of The Queen.
Should have won in 2006: Helen Mirren.
What beats a flawless performance? Another flawless performance, of course. One that burns the screen down with its intensity, leaving you breathless. Cotillard plays Edith 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 80s). 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.
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.
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.
Now let’s take a look at how the list would look if all the ladies who should have won took Oscar home:
10. Renee Zellweger, Chicago (2002)
9. Gabourey Sidibe, Precious (2009)
8. Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road (2008)
7. Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line (2005)
6. Sissy Spacek, In the Bedroom (2001)
5. Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich (2000)
4. Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby (2004)
3. Charlize Theron, Monster (2003)
2. Helen Mirren, The Queen (2006)
1. Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose (2007)