Friday, October 26, 2012

Oscar Denied!: The 1996 Best Supporting Actress Race

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel used to do a special show where they got to decide Oscar winners. The purpose of this column is the same. What if I watched all five nominees in a category in a given year (there by seeing more movies than some actual Oscar voters), then decide for myself who should have won. This column will not be an argument with the Academy about award politics as much as a one time blank ballot. If faced with the same five nominees, who would I have voted for?

I remember seeing it. Lauren Bacall readied herself to go accept her Oscar for her first time ever nomination for "The Mirror Has Two Faces." It was in the bag. No one thought otherwise...until Juliette Binoche's name was called. Maybe Binoche's performance was better. Maybe Bacall was simply shafted and swept under the rug in the tidal wave that was "The English Patient." Maybe one of the three also-rans (Joan Allen, Barbara Hershey, Marianne Jean-Baptiste) should have got it instead of being crossed off automatically when Bacall's name was nominated. Well, I rented the five nominated films to find out.

I plopped in "The Crucible" and readied myself for some big old fashioned overwrought performances. I was pleasantly surprised, after an hour. Joan Allen was nominated for her role as Daniel Day-Lewis' wife, who is targeted by Winona Ryder with false witchcraft accusations since Ryder is in love with Day-Lewis. The first half of the film, starting with the accusations in 1690's Massachusetts, is atrocious. The film works better when finally fixing its focus on Day-Lewis and Allen, putting wide eyed stiff Ryder into the background.

I was surprised at how good Allen was. I had not heard too much about her performance here, and she deserved more recognition. Two scenes illustrate why Allen deserved her nomination. One, when her character is asked why she let go of Ryder as a housegirl (Ryder had slept with Day-Lewis), and Allen tells a lie for the first time in her life to save face and her husband. The look on her face when she realizes she should have stuck to the truth is wrenching. Another scene takes place on a seaside cliff, where Allen must try to convince Day-Lewis to confess to witchcraft so he will not be hanged. Another great moment, and Allen's is an unexpected performance to beat.

Next up, the Bacall. "The Mirror Has Two Faces" (and an awkward title) is the only romantic comedy among a bunch of serious performances in serious movies. Watching Bacall play the beautiful mother of frumpy Barbra Streisand, I realized Bacall should not have won the Oscar that year. Like the movie, there was no meat to the role. Streisand wonderfully directed an awkward script full of awkward characters, and Bacall and the rest of the fantastic cast (Pierce Brosnan, Mimi Rogers, George Segal, Brenda Vaccaro, Austin Pendleton, Jeff Bridges, and Streisand herself) never had a chance.

Bacall had some nice moments with Streisand, but the role is underwritten and there is nothing she could have done to make it any better. Good, but not great, and Allen continues to lead.

"Secrets & Lies" was a little British film that finally got writer/director Mike Leigh the notice he deserved. Marianne Jean-Baptiste was the nominee here, and out of all five nominees, her performance was the most natural. Playing the black woman given up for adoption as an infant by a white (and terribly shrill) Brenda Blethyn, Jean-Baptiste's laid back character Hortense makes her one to notice in an otherwise tense cast. Laughing quietly at some of her birth mother's sayings, being unsure of developing a relationship with this stranger, Hortense readily accepts the events around her.

The majority of Jean-Baptiste's scenes are with Blethyn, but a scene I really admired was without anyone at all. Hortense is looking through the paperwork dealing with her adoption at a social worker's office. She then begins crying. I do not mean hysterical sobbing for the benefit of an awards show nominee clip, but simply tears. It was a touching moment. I still give Joan Allen the lead, but Jean-Baptiste comes in a close second so far. Hortense was a little TOO laid back for my tastes, and Leigh sometimes seemed more concerned with his soap opera dramatics then what this was doing to Hortense.

"The Portrait of a Lady?" Ah, here are my big old overwrought performances. Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, nominee Barbara Hershey, and a cast of huge stars get caught in Jane Campion's boring tale of love professings and polite societal schemings in 1870's Europe. Campion tries her best, adding some nice cinematic touches to wake the audience, but the cinematography is overly cold and the plot is too simplistic for this type of heady execution.

Barbara Hershey plays a poor man's version of another, better schemer- Glenn Close in "Dangerous Liaisons." Hershey is a good foil to Malkovich and Kidman, having nice scenes with both, but she is as restrained as her corset. Once she lets her true demeanor slip through near the end of the film, I did not care either way for anyone concerned. As a performance, Hershey may have listened too well to her director. Allen is still getting my vote before I turn to the one performance of the five that I have seen before.

Although I arranged the films according to shortest to longest running time, it is luck that they got progressively worse. "The English Patient" is a maddening World War II epic romance between Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, with their story being recounted to nominee Juliette Binoche, who is caring for a dying Fiennes. The film jumps back and forth in time as writer/director Anthony Minghella tries to cram everything from the dense novel into the film.

While Juliette Binoche won the Oscar, she did not give the best performance of the five nominees. There is simply nothing commendable or special about her character, much less her acting. She became a victim of Minghella's cinematic cramming, and never offers the audience anything challenging except pensive stares and crocodile tears. Of the five nominees, she was the only one to appear nude onscreen. If an actress takes her top off for a B-flick, it's exploitation. If an actress takes her top off and is nominated for an Oscar, it's a brave performance. Go figure.

"And the Oscar goes to...Joan Allen for 'The Crucible'"!; words that should have been uttered that night. Ranking the performances from best to worst: Allen, Jean-Baptiste, Bacall, Hershey, Binoche. Instead, I hereby award Joan Allen the Golden Chucky. No, it does not exist, but if it did, it would be a brass plated statuette of me, sitting in a recliner (in my underwear), with a remote control in my left hand and my middle finger extended on my right hand. Joan, for what it's worth, you got my vote.