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Who is the Best Supporting Actress of the 1990s?

Best Supporting Actress 1990s

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

As always, in undertaking this mission to determine the best of the best, I am limiting myself only to considering actresses who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress between the years of 1990 and 1999. Trying to balance all the snubbed or ‘should-have-wons’ would be far too daunting. I may comment on snubs when applicable, but it 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 to them than Basinger’s beautiful prostitute, Lynn Bracken. She seemed to be the movie’s attempt at a femme fatale figure, but she’s too sweet to fit the bill. She’s basically just the cliched hooker with a heart of gold. Basinger executes the role well (and looks the part), but if we’re being honest you could swap her out for any number of actresses and the part would be just as well done. It’s just not a very strong role–which is surprising, coming from such a morally complex film. Truth be told, everyone knew Titanic was steamrolling its way to the big awards that year. Basinger’s performance was the biggest category in which Academy voters could throw critical darling L.A. Confidential a bone and still feel good about themselves in the morning.

Should have won in 1997: There was a sentimental push for Titanic‘s Gloria Stuart in the Best Supporting Actress category, but if we’re being honest the real overlooked actress was Julianne Moore for her work in Boogie Nights.

Judi Dench-Shakespeare in Love9. Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love (1998)

I worship at the altar of Judi Dench, so this is hard for me. But even diehard Judi-philes have to concede that she was only in six minutes of the 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 enormous 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. I might have given the award to Lynn Redgrave for Gods and Monsters instead, but here we are.

Fact is, Dame Judi got a raw deal in the Best Actress race in 1997, when she was up for Mrs. Brown but inexplicably lost to Helen Hunt for As Good As it Gets. This was the Academy’s way of apologizing.

Should have won in 1998: Lynn Redgrave for Gods and Monsters.

Juliette Binoche-The English Patient8. Juliette Binoche, The English Patient (1996)

Heading into Oscar night in 1996, most people 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. Like everything that has anything to do with The English Patient, Binoche’s performance can be described as good, very capable, and dull as dishwater. In the years since I saw the film, her performance has completely faded from memory. This is the only role in this decade that sent me to YouTube for a refresher, and that says a lot. Some say that Bacall’s loss is emblematic of the Academy’s perceived dislike of Barbra Streisand, but that sounds a touch dramatic, don’t you think?

Should have won in 1996: had Bacall won, it would have been a lifetime achievement Oscar. Let’s be honest. Given the competition, I might have gone with Barbara Hershey in Portrait of a Lady instead, although Binoche’s determined humanity in The English Patient isn’t far off track.

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

There’s a grand Hollywood tradition of actresses playing hookers with hearts of gold. Don’t put this in that category. Not really. Mira 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, weird 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 in a weird way Sorvino does. By all rights, Linda should be totally un-watchably annoying–especially when paired with the typically neurotic Woody Allen. If we’re being honest, she does tip over the line a bit. Still, Sorvino does pull off the mean feat of making Linda a sympathetic 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?

Should have won in 1995: Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility.

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

Marisa Tomei is probably the most infamous Oscar winner of the last thirty years. Her win was so unexpected that there’s actually a conspiracy theory that Jack Palance read the wrong name when he opened the envelope, and the Academy was too embarrassed to correct 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. Judge if you must, but I like her. I would probably have given the Oscar to Vanessa Redgrave that year, but I like her nonetheless.

Should have won in 1992: maybe it’s the goombah in me, but I’ve always gotten a kick out of Tomei in My Cousin Vinny. Sue me.

Mercedes Ruehl-The Fisher King5. 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 sassy girlfriend with New Yawk mannerisms, leaning toward the comedic. 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. For the most part, Ruehl went back to Broadway and did some smaller TV roles in the years since The Fisher King, making her perhaps the least known actress on this list (personally, I enjoyed her arc as Frasier’s ballbuster boss/romantic interest on Frasier). Anyway, she’s good in The Fisher King but she wasn’t really spellbinding or all that memorable (I also hated the movie, but that can’t factor in). That she ended up right smack in the middle of the lineup seems appropriate to me.

Should have won in 1991: Jessica Tandy was in fine form in Fried Green Tomatoes, but I’m okay with Ruehl’s win.

Dianne Wiest-Bullets Over Broadway4. Dianne Wiest, Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

Shh. Shh–shhhh. Don’t speak. Yes, it’s another brassy lady (and the second Supporting Actress winner to come from a Woody Allen movie in the 90’s). And 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. But then, this would have been around the time Woody’s private life became something of a scandal, so maybe Wiest thought it was best to move on.

Should have won in 1994: honestly, I would have given it to either Sally Field or Robin Wright Penn for Forrest Gump, but neither were nominated. Of the nominees, Helen Mirren was probably the most deserving for The Madness of King George, but you can’t really top Uma Thurman’s magnetic bad girl in Pulp Fiction.

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

To be honest, up until now most of these ladies have been filler. Several of them are actresses I like and respect, but these particular performances wouldn’t go very far any other decade. Now we’re getting to the heavy hitters. Angelina Jolie’s intensity practically burned down the screen when she took on the role of Lisa, a sociopathic patient in a 1960’s 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 in many ways she seems to be playing a wildly 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.

Anna Paquin-The Piano2. Anna Paquin, The Piano (1993)

To be perfectly honest, this is a kind of sentimental choice on my behalf. I thought Anna Paquin was just totally 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. OK, a child caught up in some very dangerous, adult circumstances, but still. Children on film are usually one of two things: wise beyond their years or annoyingly cutesy. Paquin’s Flora is neither of those. She’s just a kid! 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. As an aside, the scene where Flora is forced to wash trees as punishment still makes me chuckle to this day.

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.

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

Comedic performances get very little respect in the Best Actress race but they have a way of sneaking in the Supporting Actress category. Counting Judi Dench, six of this decade’s winners played comedic roles. But even beyond the 90’s, Whoopi Goldberg is far and away 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. She deserves it for her delivery of “Molly. You in danger, girl” alone. Besides, 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 by 1990 for her incredible 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.

Should have won in 1990: 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.


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This entry was posted on March 30, 2015 by in Academy Awards and tagged , , .
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