Sunday, April 03, 2011

Best Supporting Actress Grades of All Time (Pt II)

Part I is here

I've also written historical highlights over on helium:

Best Best Supporting Actresses of All Time (Part II):

1991 Mercedes Ruehl, Fisher King C+
Character: Anne, girlfriend of an out-of-work radio DJ (Jeff Bridges) who's (and I'm referring to the DJ, here) guilt-stricken over inadvertently causing a shooting spree

Analysis: I like this film very much and was originally going to give Ruehl a decent grade because she create a unique character and commands attention when she's on screen. Then again, the shrill domineering wife stereotype (never mind that she's not yet a wife, she still fits that stereotype) has been around since the days of W.C. Fields and beyond. My other problem is that Amanda Plummer, a shy bookworm who's sworn off men through adulthood, gave a more memorable performance. Ironically, neither Plummer nor Ruehl had very prominent careers after winning the Oscar.

1992 Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny D-
Character: Mona Lisa Vito, Loudmouth car mechanic and girlfriend to "Cousin Vinny" (Joe Pesci)

Analysis: I'm pretty sure that no other award in the history of the Oscars generated speculation in the Hollywood Reporter that Tomei was only rewarded the Oscar because the presenter (Jack Palance) that night read the wrong name off the teleprompter. That's literally how far below the standard she was. How awkward it must have been to be Marisa Tomei that night: Going to all the post-show galas with many of the people who are congratulating her don't actually believe she legitimately won! Nonetheless, Tomei made up for her "fluke" win by legitimately earning two more nominations.

As for my judgement? I'm in the camp that it was a pretty unremarkable performance. If I'm marking Ruehl several points down for playing to a stereotype, than I can't ignore Tomei whom I would mathematically express as something like Ruehl's stereotypical shrill squared. Not completely flunking her because it was an honest effort and I'm not questioning the legitimacy of the award.

1994 Dianne Wiest, Bullets over Broadway B+
Character: Helen Sinclair, an aging Broadway diva who commands a lot of attention for cast and crew around her

Analysis: Anyone else see the irony that Woody Allen-- largely incapable of writing outside his own personal experiences and still hated by all of womanhood for dumping Mia Farrow-- has been able to write and direct the women in his films to five Oscars?
Oddly enough, I'm not the only one who picked up on the notion that the quality of Woody Allen's characters declines the further they stray away from the mold of nebbish Jewish men living in New York. While the sheer volume of quality movies proves this is an oversimplification, I can't help but notice how well this film plays into that theory. The main character, played by John Cusack, is a neurotic New York playwright with a confusing love life. Wiest's character isn't a fully fleshed-out person but rather a distraction for Cusack's journey to artistic self-confidence.

At the same time, that doesn't really take anything away from Wiest's performance which is an entertaining part of an otherwise unremarkable film. Wiest's role is fairly stereotypical but she really owns it and has fun with it.

1995 Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite A

Character: Linda Ash, a prostitute who begins a platonic friendship with the protagonist (Woody Allen) after he discovers she's the birth mother of his adopted daughter

Analysis: I really liked this character. She's just a giddy ball of energy and I was completely disarmed by her. There was just the right amount of room in the script for Sorvino to launch off from and do something with it.

Although I was not following the Oscars at this age, I do know that not everyone has felt like Sorvino winning was a good thing. She hasn't had much of a career after this film and she is the daughter of a famous enough Hollywood actor, so those are a couple reasons to resent her right there. Additionally, I do think Kathleen Quinlam could have also done Oscar justice by taking home the trophy, but I don't bear a grudge towards Sorvino because, as I said, she was terrific.

1997 Kim Bassinger, LA Confidential B-
Character: Lynn Bracken, a prostitute who becomes romantically entangled with a pair of cops in a noirish expose of police corruption

Analysis: This is an odd one because I could put forth an argument that this was a moving performance and a deserving win, but I can just as easily argue the opposite. I can see her as being a prostitute with a heart of Gold (sort of like Donna Reed and others) who infuses the very bloody story with some brighter moments. On the flip side, if you take the performance away from the context of the story, it's not particularly memorable. Similarly, if you're watching the film expecting a juicy crime thriller, she's kind of chewing up scenery and getting in the way from the good stuff. So let's call it a split decision with a B-

1998: Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love F
Character: Queen Elizabeth I 

Analysis: Epic fail! Dench did very little except dress up and wear a stern facial expression for 12 minutes of screen time. I am aware that Straight won an Oscar on half that screen time, but she was actually doing stuff. Dench largely sat on a throne and looked regal. This was clearly a make-up for Dench not winning the year before for "Mrs. Brown." It also highlights the Academy's compulsion to award an Oscar to anyone or anything that has to do with British royalty. Dench went on to score four more Oscar nomintions but a lot of them are for movies that seem designed just to get best actress nominations.

2000: Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock B
Character: Lee Krasner, wife of the brilliant but perpetually drunk and child-like artist Jackson Pollock (Ed Harris)

Analysis: Major bonus points for that distinctive New York accent.It is true that Marisa Tomei and Mercedes Ruehl donned a New York accent (or perhaps a New Jersey accent for Tomei? She sounds like the women of Jersey Shore) but I felt like if Rex Harrison's character from My Fair Lady were on a street corner with Lee Krasner. Anne and Mona Lisa Vito, he would be able to pinpoint Krasner to within a 3-block radius in Queens, he would call out Mona Lisa for being a fake, and plead for Anne to stop talking because her shrill voice was annoying the hell out of him.

In other words, Harden did her homework. It's easiest to measure the effectiveness of Harden (and Harris, for that matter) on the basis of how into the film you are, since it's really a relationship film that rests on their shoulders. I was pretty engaged for the first half, got a little tired two-thirds of the way in, and nearly tuned out with 30 minutes to go but held on. So that would be somewhere in the range of a grade of C. On the other hand, it's a testament to Pollock and Harris that the relationship between the brilliant crazy artist and the long-suffering wife has its own uniqueness here in that it's nothing I've quite seen before.

Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind A
Character: Alicia Nash, wife of brilliant mathematician John, who gets more than she bargained for in her husband when it turns out he's a schizophrenic (in addition to being socially awkward).

Analysis: I've always felt that Connelly won this one from the trailer alone. Specifically, that one tear-inducing line which is cemented in my brain from all the TV spots I must have seen too many of in 2001: "I need to believe anything extraordinary is possible." (In the extended cut of the trailer, she actually follows that line with "Boo yah! How do you like them apples, Maggie Smith?") In all honesty, I liked the movie a fair amount and find the performance very deserving. I just specifically don't remember that line ever popping up in the film or even working in the context of the film.

Anyways, this is a undoubtedly great performance when you consider the fact that Alicia Nash is a terrible character on paper and, therefore, if you feel any sparks flying between Connelly and Crowe, you have to credit that entirely to Connelly. For example, has anyone noticed how awkwardly scripted the John-Alicia romance was in the film? In an earlier scene, John tried to pick up a girl using the ill-advised method of treating her as if she were a biological specimen.

Later, Alicia shows up and asks him to dinner for a reason that isn't really given and he tries to consummate their relationship by saying he dislikes social protocol and would prefer to skip to the intercourse. Is the film suggesting growth on John's part? He hasn't really picked up social nuance since the earlier scene. Perhaps, we're meant to believe that John has just found the right woman for him (and by that I mean one who will tolerate idiocy)? If this seems too good to be true, that's because it isn't. The real Alicia Nash divorced John after just six years of marriage and the two were remarried nearly 40 years later in the year of the film's release, 2001 (publicity stunt?).

Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago D+
Character: Velma Kelly, an inmate on Chicago's death row who passes the time singing and dancing with her new gal pal Roxy Hart (Rene Zellweger)

Analysis: This analysis gets interesting when you consider that Chicago has become one of the most popular plays in the last 20 or so years and there have probably been many famous stars who played the role of Velma. I know that everyone from Wayne Brady (Who's Line is it Anyway?) to Usher to Jerry Springer has played Billy Flynn.

Whoever played Velma before Zeta-Jones (internet broadway database lists the originator as Bebe Neuwirth) must have been an improvement, because Zeta-Jones' performance rung hollow for me. It never resonated past the singing and dancing. For that reason, it wasn't the least bit memorable. Zellweger, on the other hand, infused her part with pathos underneath all the glitz and glamor.

2003 Rene Zellweger, Cold Mountain B+
Character: Ruby Thewes, a tomboy hillbilly helping the more lady-like Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) defend their plantation against evil homesteaders

Analysis: Zellweger's win had been a pretty easy target for haters and I'm not surprised that she was voted the Worst Supporting Actress Winner of All Time. This was the first Oscar season I closely followed so I have some sense of context for this one. For one, this was a year in which Miramax (controversial movie studio known for actively campaigning for their films) hate was pretty high and "Cold Mountain", a late December release got the bulk of the hype that year. I don't know what the Oscar voters were thinking, but the purveyors of the internet at the time were reacting to Cold Mountain's snub as if the Wicked Witch of the West had finally been melted. From that point of view, Zellweger's anti-conformist tomboy can be seen as carefully crafted Oscar bait.

Personally, I have seen A LOT of films from 2003 and, while it's a close call, I unabashedly maintain that Cold Mountain is the best of all of them (See my article celebrating the talents of Anthony Minghellia for more). Likewise, I understand how you can make a joke that Zellweger comes off as she's auditioning to replace Ellie May Clampett on "'The Beverly Hillbillies" but that's only because we're likely to make fun of anyone who wins an Oscar for playing a Hillbilly. The fact of the matter, however, is that Cold Mountain boasts several great acting performances and Zellweger sticks out in the cast. She brings an energy and provides a sort of Han-Solo-like comic relief to the epic. I think it's based on whether you buy the film as a whole.

2004 Cate Blanchett, Aviator C
Character: Katharine Hepburn, the 4-time Oscar winning actress

Analysis: I wasn't really impressed with this. I think the Academy just loves Katharine Hepburn and four Oscars wasn't enough. It also makes more sense when you consider that it was a great way to honor her because she literally died the previous year. Personally, I don't even think this performance channeled Katherine Hepburn as much as it did a slightly raunchier version of Hepburn's character in "Bringing Up Baby" or "Philadelphia Story." I never felt like watching her performance got me any closer to realizing Hepburn as an actual person.

Between the ladies of The Aviator, I preferred Kate Beckinsdale's saucy take on Ava Gardner which went virtually unnoticed throughout the entirety of awards season.

2005 Rachel Weisz, Constant Gardener A-
Character: Tess Quayle, activist traveling to Africa accompanying her Diplomat husband and sticking her nose in the business of evil pharmaceutical companies

Analysis: Oscars in the supporting categories ideally should go to scene stealers and Weisz's character really lit up the room in the film's initial scene. While her husband-to-be is conducting a question and answer session at an official state function, Weisz stands up and makes a lot of noise about how the British are really just imperialist pigs disrupting the whole stuffy Victorian affair. From that point on, she has your attention and while it's the way the scene was written that first hooked you onto her character, she sustains it.

The character drifts from present to past (by which I mean she lives on in the memory of her husband) and so Weisz is playing the image of a woman from the point-of-view of a man who's in love with her. If she appears overly idealized in some cases, that's why. It's a very clever role and Weisz is a very good actress. I'm happy to see her enjoying a respectable career since her Oscar.

2006 Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls A-
Character: Effie White, a singer being given the chance of a lifetime by a Motown-like recording artist

Analysis: It's a pretty big coincidence that this was the only season of American Idol I watched start to finish, so I was familiar with Hudson beforehand. Her singing and dancing are, of course, up to the standard of what you would expect in a musical like this and the singing is what you remember more than anything else. That's how all musicals are.

In my book, however, Hudson won this on the acting. Lots of people can sing and you can't sing anyone with pipes into a film and have an Oscar. There have been a lot of musical stars like Rex Harrison, Yul Brenner, and Liza Minelli who have won Oscars but I believe they all cemented their wins through acting. Hudson herself was only the 7th best singer in her season of American Idol. The character had an arc that went upward and downward and I think Hudson got on both slopes of it.

2007: Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton A
Character: Karen Crowder, A corporate attorney and spokeswoman for the morally dubious multi-billion dollar conglomerate of "U North."

Analysis: "Michael Clayton" was a movie of fascinating characters and Swinton's Karen Crowder was no exception. In an early scene the camera lingers on her looking at herself in the mirror without a shirt and adjusting her bra. She's a woman who's heavily invested in image from a professional sense and who also knows of the challenges she has as a woman in a man's world. Perhaps, she also knows the advantages of being a woman as well as no one would think of her as malicious if she were to do something deadly. The reveal that she is the antagonist is a twist but Swinton has a darkness underneath her all along and it's a potent performance because you can see it lurking underneath the surface.

2011: Octavia Spencer, The Help B-
Chracter: Minny Jackson, a sassy maid in 1960's Mississippi who displays impressive resilience after being fired and blacklisted by one of the the town's most prominent society debutantes

Analysis: I enjoyed Octavia's character for what she was meant to be: A satisfying  B-story and comic relief. I would even go so far as to say that I don't think Octavia had a false note in her performance. At the same time, the sassy black maid is a little bit too stock of a character for me to be pleased to see earn it someone an Oscar.

Mind you, there was a sizable backlash to this film when it came out that there are better role models to glorify than African-American maids in the 1960's, but I'm not in that camp. I agree with the counterargument voiced by Viola Davis in interviews that it does a greater disservice to limit true and courageous stories about the African-American experience because they aren't exclusively of positive
role models.

My problem is that it made the most sense for the Academy to give Octavia an Oscar for mostly strategic purposes. Viola was Oscar-worthy but Meryl Streep was immsensely due after 12 successive losses and they decided to award Octavia instead. In addition, Jessica Chastain gave a better performance (at least, in my opinion) but after getting negative press for failing to nominate a black actor the previous year (which statistically was not really that big of a deal), the Academy didn't want to hear grumbling over racial diversity again. In short, Chastain didn't stand a chance.


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