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, I will comment on who I think should have won in each year, but whether or not someone deserved their win can’t have an effect on their ranking.
10. Helen Hunt, As Good as It Gets (1997)
Helen Hunt is great as a frazzled single mother who melts the heart of Jack Nicholson’s curmudgeonly OCD sufferer. She’s sweet, funny, and most importantly, she sells the movie’s most complicated plot point: she makes it semi-believable that her character would fall for a much older, much crankier man. But at the end of the day, this isn’t exactly Shakespeare. Any actress on this list could have played this role just as well. Fun fact: Hunt is the only second performer to date to win an Oscar, Golden Globe, and Emmy in the same year (for this and for her work on the sitcom Mad About You).
Should have won in 1997: Hunt was the only American in the race, prompting critics to refer to the nominees as the ‘British invasion.’ The hoopla gave Hunt a boost, which is silly, because 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 nationality. Dench should have won. The fact that she didn’t scored her a makeup Oscar for Best Supporting Actress the following year instead.
9. Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love (1998)
A lot of what I said about Helen Hunt applies here, except that this actually kinda is Shakespeare. Even so, Gwyneth Paltrow is playing the lead role in a romantic comedy, albeit a romantic comedy with a pretentious script. All she really has to do is alternately look pretty and look pretty while crying. Luckily for Gwyneth, she has a pretty crying face. Gwyneth was part of the Weinstein’s PR push through award season. They generated a tidal wave of support for Shakespeare, which meant Gwyneth got to ride that wave all the way to the podium.
Should have won in 1998: Cate Blanchett for her breakout role as Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth.
8. Jessica Lange, Blue Sky (1994)
Jessica Lange 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. 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.
Should have won in 1994: It didn’t help that there wasn’t much competition. The Last Seduction aired on HBO before its theatrical release, making Linda Fiorentino’s acclaimed performance ineligible. The field is so weak that I would have thrown most of the nominees out completely and used this as an excuse to think outside of the box, rewarding Jamie Lee Curtis for a truly excellent performance in (gasp) an action comedy: True Lies.
7. Emma Thompson, Howards End (1992)
I adore are Emma Thompson and Howards End. It’s one of my favorite books, and it should have been impossible to adapt for the screen. Much of its success comes down to Thompson’s performance as the central character, Margaret Schlegel. Margaret and her eventual husband, played by Anthony Hopkins, are not meant to be realistic so much as they are meant to embody ideas. Margaret is an idealist and humanist, he an emotionally guarded capitalist. Bringing these opposites together is the entire point. That Emma Thompson sells it so well is a major accomplishment. In any other decade, she would have been much higher than this.
Should have won in 1992: Thompson rightly carried the day.
6. Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
‘Transformative’ is an overused term for performances (in a way, all performances are transformative)., but this is an instance where it works. Swank plays Brandon Teena, a transgender male. Anatomically, Brandon was 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 for depicting the difficult life of a trans person and the violence and fear they live with. Swank brings a quiet dignity to Brandon. It’s a beautiful portrayal giving the subject the respect it deserved.
Should have won in 1999: Many predicted American Beauty‘s Annette Bening, but the right woman won.
5. Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking (1995)
After several years of nominations, Susan Sarandon finally won an Oscar 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 conviction. It’s a 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: Sarandon, despite stiff competition from Meryl Streep in Bridges of Madison County.
4. Kathy Bates, Misery (1990)
Kathy Bates was a revelation as an author’s number one fan. In fact, Stephen King (who wrote the novel this 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. Especially when she has a sledgehammer.
Should have won in 1990: Bates. Even if she didn’t deserve it, would you want to tell her no?
3. Frances McDormand, Fargo (1996)
Frances McDormand plays a very pregnant Sheriff investigating a kidnapping and murder. With her outlandish midwestern accent and near-vomiting at the crime scene, she’s basically a cartoon. But there’s sly craftsmanship that makes this a much more nuanced performance than you might expect. Make no mistake, this woman who seems like a folksy small-town gal is the smartest person in any given room. In a lesser actress’ hands, this would have been a one-note character. McDormand does so much more. In many ways, she made the movie.
Should have won in 1996: McDormand all the way.
2. Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
This one of the great female performances of all time. Clarice Starling, the FBI cadet assigned to a major case, is a marvel. She’s brilliant but insecure, determined but timid, ambitious but courteous. She’s also a woman trying to earn respect in an incredibly male-dominated field. Foster manages to convey 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. Starling’s doubt–her desperate, scrambling need for a break in the case, is part of what makes Silence great. 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.
1. 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 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: If you follow either film Twitter or gay Twitter, this year for Best Actress gets talked about a lot. Why? Because Angela Bassett is fucking amazing in What’s Love Got to Do With It and that performance deserves an Oscar. And yet, how do you take away Holly Hunter’s Oscar given all the things I said above? It’s one of the most hotly contested years for this category (the others being 1987, 1979, and 1950). I say end it in a tie.
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.
Let’s take a look at how the list would look if all those people who should have won had gotten Oscar instead:
11. Judi Dench, Mrs. Brown (1997)
10. Jamie Lee Curtis, True Lies (1994)
9. Emma Thompson, Howards End (1992)
8. Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
7. Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking (1995)
6. Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth (1998)
5. Kathy Bates, Misery (1990)
4. Frances McDormand, Fargo (1996)
3. Angela Bassett, What’s Love Got to Do With It? (1993)
2. Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
1. Holly Hunter, The Piano (1993)