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Who is the Best Actress of the 1990s?

Best Actress 1990s

The Best Supporting Actress of the 1990’s race was mostly a wash, so it’s nice to see things get more competitive in the lead actress category.

As usual, it behooves me to point out that the guidelines I have set for this ranking only allow me to consider actresses who actually won an Academy Award for Best Actress between the years of 1990 and 1999. So it doesn’t matter if you think Cate Blanchett was robbed–although I will point out instances where something like that happened. Let’s do this.

Helen Hunt-As Good as It Gets10. Helen Hunt, As Good as It Gets (1997)

Helen Hunt is great as a frazzled single mother who unexpectedly melts the heart of Jack Nicholson’s curmudgeonly OCD sufferer. She’s sweet and funny, and most importantly she effortlessly sells the movie’s most complicated plotpoint: she makes it believable that her character would slowly fall for a much older, much crankier man. The entire movie hinges on that, so let’s not undersell its importance. But at the end of the day, she’s the lead in a romantic comedy. This isn’t exactly Shakespeare. Any other actress on this list could have played this role just as well. Hunt got a big boost heading into Oscar night because of all the hoopla surrounding the fact that she was the only American in the Best Actress race. Critics referred to the nominees as the ‘British invasion.’ It was silly, because all we’re left with is a winner who didn’t really deserve it–and it derided stellar work from Julie Christie in Afterglow, Helena Bonham Carter in The Wings of the Dove, and Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown simply based on their race. Frankly, Dench should have won. The fact that she didn’t scored her a makeup Oscar for Best Supporting Actress the following year instead. Fun fact, though: Helen Hunt is the only second performer to date to win an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and an Emmy in the same year (for this movie and for her work on the sitcom Mad About You).

Should have won in 1997: Judi Dench for Mrs. Brown.

Gwyneth Paltrow-Shakespeare in Love9. Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love (1998)

OK, so a lot of what I just said about Helen Hunt’s role in As Good as It Gets applies here, except that this kinda is Shakespeare. Even so, Gwyneth Paltrow is playing the lead role in a romantic comedy. It’s just a romantic comedy with a much more pretentious script. When it comes down to it, all she really has to do is alternately look pretty and look pretty while crying. Luckily for Gwyneth, she has a pretty crying face, so she could do two at once. Basically, Gwyneth rode the Weinstein’s PR bandwagon all the way through award season. They generated a tidal wave of support for Shakespeare in Love, which meant Gwyneth got to ride that wave all the way to the podium.

Should have won in 1998: If we’re being honest, Cate Blanchett should have won for her breakout role as Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth.

Jessica Lange-Blue Sky8. Jessica Lange, Blue Sky (1994)

1994 is mostly infamous among Academy Awards buffs because the performance most critics deemed to be the best by an actress that year was deemed ineligible for any major awards. The Last Seduction aired on HBO before its theatrical release, which violated nomination guidelines and barred Linda Fiorentino from consideration. It didn’t help that there really wasn’t much of any competition that year. Jessica Lange ultimately won for playing the sexy wife of a military man, who causes trouble when they move to a military base involved in covering up nuclear bomb tests. To be fair, Lange’s fabric store meltdown scene alone does more heavy lifting than either Paltrow or Hunt did in their entire movies. It’s just that this is a role Lange could have played in her sleep. Her character would fit in with any of her seasons on American Horror Story. It’s hard to criticize her since she did it well in the end, but there’s no denying that 1994 was a weak year for actresses. Her competition isn’t much better: Susan Sarandon for The Client, Winona Ryder for Little Women, Jodie Foster for Nell, and Miranda Richardson for Tom & Viv. None of those performances have had any lasting impact on pop culture–except possibly Jodie Foster, but even then only because Nell was such an oddity.

Should have won in 1994: I guess we give it to Lange, but like I said: this was an exceptionally weak year for actresses.

Emma Thompson-Howards End7. Emma Thompson, Howards End (1992)

This hurts me, because two things I adore are Emma Thompson and Howards End. Especially Howards End. It’s one of my favorite books–and E.M. Forster is my second favorite author of all time. And it should have been an impossible book to adapt for the screen. The fact that it succeeded is astonishing-and so much of that comes down to Emma Thompson’s performance as the central character, Margaret Schlegel. Margaret is a delightful, kind woman–so much so that she inspires a woman to leave her family estate, Howards End, to Margaret instead of keeping it within the family. The family ignores her will, but things get complicated when her widower gets involved with Margaret and falls in love. It’s a completely improbable scenario–especially since Margaret is an idealist and humanist, while the widower is a capitalist and remarkably restrained emotionally. It’s not just that they’re idealistically opposed, it’s that a romance between them should be impossible. That Emma Thompson sells it so well is a major accomplishment. Still, it’s not a showy role. There are no real fireworks to be seen, which makes it difficult to place her any higher on this list.

Should have won in 1992: Thompson’s wit and emotional embodiment of a classic Forster character carried the day.

Hilary Swank-Boys Dont Cry6. Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

‘Transformative’ is a wildly overused term when it comes to the Best Actress category. This is one of those instances where it works. Hilary Swank plays Brandon Teena, a real-life transgender male who lived in Nebraska. Anatomically, Brandon was a female, but he lived his life as a man. When Brandon’s friends found out his secret, they beat him, raped him, and murdered him. Similar to how Philadelphia captured a then-taboo subject matter by portraying a gay man dying of AIDS, Boys Don’t Cry was an audacious movie not only for depicting the difficult life of a trans man, but the violence and fear with which people approached the very idea of such a person. And similar to how Hilary Swank brought quiet dignity to her female boxer in Million Dollar Baby, she imbues Brandon with determination and love. It’s a beautiful portrayal of a then-difficult subject matter, handled with all the respect it deserved.

Should have won in 1999: much was made of the showdown between Swank and American Beauty‘s Annette Bening, but the right woman won.

Susan Sarandon-Dead Man Walking5. Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking (1995)

After several years of nominations, Susan Sarandon finally won an Academy Award as Sister Helen Prejean, a nun who acts as a spiritual advisor to a convicted killer on death row. She helps him with his final appeal, stays by his side in the days before his execution, and helps heal both his family and the family of the victims. At heart, Sister Helen is a woman trying to do right in the world. She’s a woman of faith and deep convictions. Susan Sarandon doesn’t just convey her emotions and convictions, she embodies her humanity. It’s a rare performance that refuses to devolve into cliche or caricature. Sister Helen is just an everyday woman on the surface of things, but Sarandon really understood that her humanity ran so much deeper.

Should have won in 1995: definitely Sarandon despite stiff competition from Meryl Streep (Bridges of Madison County), Sharon Stone (Casino), Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas), and Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility). Particularly Streep.

Kathy Bates-Misery4. Kathy Bates, Misery (1990)

Kathy Bates was nothing short of a revelation as a famous author’s number one fan. In fact, Stephen King (who wrote the novel this film was based on) was so pleased that he wrote Dolores Claiborne specifically for Kathy Bates. That’s not so surprising given how well Bates brought Annie Wilkes to life in all her manic glory. It’s not every day that an actress wins an Oscar for playing the lead in a horror/thriller, but it’s virtually impossible to ignore Bates. Paul Sheldon is an author who writes books about a woman named Misery Chastain. He’s tired of the series and ready to move on to other things. Just as he’s on retreat writing his first new novel, he gets into a horrific car accident and finds himself at the mercy of Annie Wilkes, his ultimate fan. She takes him home to nurse him back to health all by herself. Except that she’s none too pleased when she finds out he killed off the hero of her favorite book series. She’s not going to let him go anywhere, and she’s going to make him write a new novel in the series to right the wrong. And little Miss Annie is very persuasive. Especially when she has a mallet. If I have one criticism, it’s that the movie’s staging is a little cheesy in some of the ‘chase’ sequences. It makes things a little over the top. Even so, there’s no denying Bates and her towering performance.

Should have won in 1990: Julia Roberts also turned in an iconic performance in Pretty Woman while Meryl Streep was irresistibly compelling in Postcards From the Edge, but Bates cannot be denied.

Frances McDormand-Fargo3. Frances McDormand, Fargo (1996)

When I first saw Fargo I was surprised Frances McDormand had been so wildly praised as the very pregnant Sheriff investigating a kidnapping and murder. With her outlandish midwestern accent and comical near-vomiting at the crime scene, she’s basically a cartoon. But a funny thing happens when the movie is over. She sticks with you. On repeat viewings, I began to notice the sly craftsmanship that went into creating the character of Marge Gunderson. Because make no mistake, this woman who may seem like a folksy small-town gal is actually the smartest person in any given room. It’s kind of like a female version of Columbo, where the detective seems to be clueless right up to the moment he arrests the bad guy and saves the day. But that comparison underestimates the depth and care McDormand brought to Fargo. In many ways, she made the movie.

Should have won in 1996: McDormand all the way.

Jodie Foster-Silence of the Lambs2. Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Putting Jodie Foster in second place for The Silence of the Lambs wounds me deeply. It’s one of the great understated female performances of all time. Clarice Starling, the FBI cadet trying to make her name on her first big case and get her badge, is a marvel. She’s brilliant but insecure, determined but timid, ambitious but courteous. She’s also a woman trying to make it and earn respect in an incredibly male-dominated field. Foster manages the incredible feat of conveying all of that without making Starling a contradiction. She also goes toe to toe with not one but two of film’s most devilish psychos of all time. Actresses in detective thrillers rarely get any respect, but rarely are the actresses of Jodie Foster’s caliber, and all-too rarely do they get such a multi-dimensional character to play with. As an aside, in a day where procedurals have become commonplace on television, we’ve become inundated with detectives who are too smart for their own good. You never doubt that they’ll catch the bad guy because they’re always improbably one step ahead of the killer. Part of why Silence is a such a success is that it deals with the complexities of an investigation–the doubt, the searching, the desperate need for a break in the case. And Starling is a much more compelling protagonist because she grapples with all the elements of her case.

Should have won in 1991: Foster, Foster, Foster.

Holly Hunter-The Piano1. Holly Hunter, The Piano (1993)

I wrestled with this choice. As I said, Jodie Foster gave one of my all-time favorite performances in The Silence of the Lambs. In the end, there’s just no denying Holly Hunter. Her work in The Piano is startling and wholly original. Ada, the mute piano lover who is sent to New Zealand with her daughter (Academy Award winner Anna Paquin) for an arranged marriage, is a character that adamantly refuses to adhere to classic character types. In that sense, Hunter basically had to invent her from scratch. And what a job she does! Ada is one of the most fully realized characters in cinematic history–an even more remarkable feat considering Hunter couldn’t use any words. It’s a truly remarkable–and truly original–performance. I may love Clarice Starling, but it’s Ada who deserves the top spot of the 1990s.

Should have won in 1993: this is tough because I absolutely love Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do With It. Any other year I would say that it deserved to win and it would have placed top five in this ranking. But it had to be up against Holly Hunter, and you just can’t deny her for The Piano.

For more, check out my Academy Awards page. Up next, we go to a new decade to decide what was the Best Picture of the 1980s.

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This entry was posted on April 2, 2015 by in Academy Awards and tagged , , .
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