Ranking Every Best Supporting Actress Oscar Winner of the 1990s

Best Supporting Actress 1990s

I’m beginning to see a pattern here. The ranking for Best Supporting Actress of the 2000s was pretty weak compared to other categories for that decade, and there’s more of that here.

As always, although I may comment on snubs or people who should have won when applicable, but whether or not an actress deserved her win by itself cannot impact the ranking.

Kim Basinger-LA Confidential10. Kim Basinger, L.A. Confidential (1997)

L.A. Confidential is a great movie. No doubt about that. But the male characters had much more depth than Basinger’s beautiful prostitute, Lynn Bracken. She seemed to be the movie’s attempt at a femme fatale, but she’s too sweet to fit the bill. She’s basically just the clichéd hooker with a heart of gold. Basinger executes the role well, but if we’re being honest you could swap her out for any number of actresses who could have done just as well. It’s just not a very strong role.

Should have won in 1997: Basinger won because Titanic was steamrolling its way to the big awards, so this was the biggest category for Academy voters to toss a win to L.A. Confidential. There was a sentimental push for Titanic‘s Gloria Stuart, but the real overlooked actress was Julianne Moore for her work in Boogie Nights.

Dianne Wiest Bullets Over Broadway9. Dianne Wiest, Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

Like all Woody Allen actresses worth their salt, Dianne Wiest is far and away the most memorable thing about Bullets Over Broadway. As the eccentric actress Helen Sinclair, Wiest is an oddball delight. Certainly not as memorable as Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction (also a nominee that year), but I guess we can’t have everything. It’s a little disappointing that Woody Allen hasn’t used Wiest since Bullets Over Broadway, especially since she previously won a Supporting Actress Oscar for his movie Hannah and Her Sisters in 1986. She had a way of making his material sing–and is equally capable of playing for laughs or for tears.

Should have won in 1994: Of the nominees, Uma Thurman’s performance in Pulp Fiction is the most memorable, but Helen Mirren was probably the most deserving for The Madness of King George. I would have given it to either Sally Field or Robin Wright Penn for Forrest Gump  (neither were nominated), with Wright Penn getting the edge.

Judi Dench Shakespeare in Love8. Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love (1998)

I worship at the altar of Judi Dench, but even diehard Judi-philes like me must concede that she was only in eight minutes of this movie. That’s the second-shortest Academy-Award winning performance ever (Beatrice Straight, who was only in five minutes of Network, holds the record). To her credit, Dame Judi brings no small amount of life and nerve to her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in her later years. She is shrewd, playful, and remarkably stern. She makes such a splash that you almost don’t notice how little of the movie she’s actually in.

Should have won in 1998: Judi got a raw deal in the Best Actress race a year earlier when she inexplicably lost to Helen Hunt, so her win here was the Academy’s way of apologizing. Lisa Kudrow, meanwhile, wasn’t even nominated for her sharply funny performance in The Opposite of Sex.

Mira Sorvino The Mighty Aphrodite7. Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

The hooker with a heart of gold is a grand entertainment tradition, but don’t put this in that category. Sorvino plays a hooker/wannabe porn star named Linda Ash who seems like a sweet, daffy lady who dresses like a doily (with an off-putting, deep voice). She’s actually filthy. I mean raunchy. And totally nonplussed by any of it. I’m not sure any other actress could have made this role work, but Sorvino does. By all rights, Linda should be un-watchably annoying–especially when paired with the typically neurotic Woody Allen. The weakness is that she’s a one-joke character stretching that joke out for the entire movie.

Should have won in 1995: Sorvino manages to make Linda a realized character, but can we honestly say she was more deserving than Kate Winslet’s star-making turn as the emotional Dashwood sister in Sense and Sensibility? Or Joan Allen in Nixon? I’d go with Winslet.

Marisa Tomei-My Cousin Vinny6. Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny (1992)

Marisa Tomei is one of the most infamous Oscar winners. Her win was so unexpected it prompted a conspiracy theory that Jack Palance read the wrong name when he opened the envelope, and no one corrected the error. To some, it’s the only explanation for how a lightweight comedic role defeated heavy competition from Miranda Richardson for Damage, Joan Plowright for Enchanted April, Vanessa Redgrave for Howards End, and Judy Davis for Husbands and Wives. I can’t explain the voting, but I do think that a lot of the outrage and conspiracy theories are unfair to Tomei, who has since earned two more Academy Award nominations (for In the Bedroom and The Wrestler). As Mona Lisa Vito, the totally Jersey girl girlfriend of Joe Pesci’s goombah lawyer, Tomei stole the movie. I frequently catch My Cousin Vinny on TV, and if it’s near the end I make sure I catch her big moment on the witness stand.

Should have won in 1992: Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in Batman Returns has proved to be iconic because it was a remarkably deft balance of camp and drama.

Anna Paquin The Piano5. Anna Paquin, The Piano (1993)

I thought Anna Paquin was just adorable in The Piano. But more than that, I thought it was perhaps the most honest portrayal of what it is to be a child captured on film. Children on film are usually one of two things: wise beyond their years or annoyingly cutesy. Paquin’s Flora is neither of those. Prone to flights of fancy (read: lies), sometimes petulant, sometimes sweet, and possessing a slightly self-centered view of the world. This is a performance that embraces childhood in all its complex wonder. Whether or not Paquin knew what she was doing or, more likely, director Jane Campion just knew how to coax such a revelatory performance from a child is up for debate. But it remains an astonishing performance.

Should have won in 1993: You may argue that Paquin’s fellow nominees were more seasoned and therefore more worthy of the award (among them: Winona Ryder for The Age of Innocence, Rosie Perez for Fearless, Emma Thompson for In the Name of the Father, and Paquin’s own costar Holly Hunter for The Firm [Hunter won Best Actress for The Piano that year instead]). As for me, I’ve always been just fine with the way this race shook out. Besides, Paquin’s breathless acceptance speech remains a highlight of Academy Awards past.

Juliette Binoche-The English Patient4. Juliette Binoche, The English Patient (1996)

Most predicted Hollywood legend Lauren Bacall would finally walk away with an Academy Award for her turn as Barbra Streisand’s tough mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces. That turned out not to be the case. In a show of solidarity with the night’s big winner, The English Patient, Juliette Binoche got the trophy instead for playing the nurse of the titular burn victim. Some snivel at Binoche’s win because Patient was a pretty but dull movie, but Binoche is wonderfully subtle–providing an essential humanity and sorrow that the movie really needed in order to work.

Should have won in 1996: An award for Bacall would have been more of a lifetime achievement award than based on merit. Instead, this year was a heated showdown between Binoche and Barbara Hershey from Portrait of a Lady–a battle between ladies who have had their hearts stomped on. As much as I like Binoche’s work, I might give the edge to Hershey.

Angelina Jolie Girl Interrupted3. Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted (1999)

Angelina Jolie’s intensity practically burned down the screen when she took on the role of Lisa, a sociopathic patient in a 1960s mental hospital. With her dangerous charisma, Lisa has a frequently unhealthy sway over the other patients. Also a lot of anger. Jolie is great, but she also seems to be playing an exaggerated version of herself in the 1990s. Remember, back then Jolie wasn’t the restrained actress/director/humanitarian she is today. Back then she freaked everyone out by jumping in pools fully clothed after winning a Golden Globe, practically making out with her brother at the Academy Awards, and wearing a vial of her then-husband Billy Bob Thornton’s blood around her neck. So she’s great as Lisa, but, well, it wasn’t exactly a stretch for her.

Should have won in 1999: Jolie had it locked.

Mercedes Ruehl-The Fisher King2. Mercedes Ruehl, The Fisher King (1991)

The Academy definitely had a thing for brassy ladies in the 90’s. Like Sorvino and Tomei, Mercedes Ruehl played a comedically sassy girlfriend with New Yawk mannerisms. Unlike Sorvino and Tomei, Ruehl’s had some dramatic heft to it–mostly because her movie’s script wasn’t strictly comedic, but still. Ruehl had played this part on Broadway, and she brought a stage actor’s sentiment and familiarity along with her to the silver screen. She has depth and nuance in spades–every gesture and look in her eye is spot on. I didn’t like this movie, but Ruehl was and is the real deal.

Should have won in 1991: Jessica Tandy was in fine form in Fried Green Tomatoes, and Juliette Lewis was great in Cape Fear, but Ruehl’s deserved it.

Whoopi Goldberg-Ghost1. Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost (1990)

Comedic performances get very little respect in the Best Actress race but do better in the Supporting Actress category. Counting Judi Dench, six of this decade’s winners played comedic roles. Whoopi Goldberg is one of the category’s strongest comedic performances. Her Oda Mae Brown, a fake psychic whose life gets turned upside down when a real ghost forces her to communicate with his girlfriend and solve the mystery of who killed him, makes the movie. Sure, the love story does a lot (the pottery scene is so iconic that it still gets parodied twenty-five years later), but Oda Mae lets you roll your eyes at the movie even as it sweeps you away. She supports the movie and makes it better in the truest sense.

Should have won in 1990: Anyone who wants to sneer at Goldberg winning an Academy Award for playing it funny should consider that she should have already been an Oscar winner for her dramatic work in The Color Purple. That she didn’t win that year says a lot about the difficult road black actresses had getting credibility in Hollywood. Consider this: Goldberg was only the second African American actress to win an Oscar after a gulf of 51 years, when Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind. It would be eleven years before another African American actress won an Oscar–that time breaking into the Best Actress category. Goldberg was a groundbreaking actress in that respect. She’s also a member of the prestigious EGOT club–one of the few performers who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award. And of the EGOT winners, she’s part of an even smaller minority who got there without being a composer. So take that. Some might make a case for Annette Bening in The Grifters or Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas, but I like Whoopi.

For more, check out my Academy Awards page. Up next: Best Actor of the 90s.

Just for fun, here’s how the list would have worked out if the actresses who should have won took Oscar home instead:

10. Robin Wright Penn, Forrest Gump (1994)

9. Lisa Kudrow, The Opposite of Sex (1998)

8. Anna Paquin, The Piano (1993)

7. Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted (1999)

6. Julianne Moore, Boogie Nights (1997)

5. Kate Winslet, Sense and Sensibility (1995)

4. Mercedes Ruehl, The Fisher King (1991)

3. Barbara Hershey, Portrait of a Lady (1996)

2. Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost (1990)

1. Michelle Pfeiffer, Batman Returns (1992)

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