Best Supporting Actress: A Look Back

Today begins a new blog series where I’m looking back at five of the major Oscar categories from 1990 to the present: the four acting races and Best Picture. This is essentially the time period where I’ve closely watched and analyzed. My charge? Picking the three largest upsets in each said category and the three least surprising winners… a film or performer where it truly would have been a shock if they didn’t emerge victorious.

We begin with Best Supporting Actress and this is one in which there have been some genuine upsets over the past quarter century plus. Unlike some other races we’ll get to later, it was not a challenge to pick three unexpected winners.

The other agenda item here is I’m picking my personal selections for strongest and weakest overall field among the five nominees in the acting derby’s and five-ten for Best Picture.

For starters, here’s the list of women that won gold statues in the supporting race from 1990 to now:

1990 – Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost

1991 – Mercedes Ruehl, The Fisher King

1992 – Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny

1993 – Anna Paquin, The Piano

1994 – Dianne Wiest, Bullets Over Broadway

1995 – Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite

1996 – Juliette Binoche, The English Patient

1997 – Kim Basinger, L.A. Confidential

1998 – Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love

1999 – Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted

2000 – Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock

2001 – Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind

2002 – Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago

2003 – Renee Zellweger, Cold Mountain

2004 – Cate Blanchett, The Aviator

2005 – Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardner

2006 – Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

2007 – Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton

2008 – Penelope Cruz, Vicky Christina Barcelona

2009 – Mo’Nique, Precious

2010 – Melissa Leo, The Fighter

2011 – Octavia Spencer, The Help

2012 – Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables

2013 – Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

2014 – Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

2015 – Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

2016 – Viola Davis, Fences

2017 – Allison Janney, I, Tonya

I’ll begin with the least surprising winners. Truthfully, there are plenty of selections (and will be in each race) to pick from here. It’s normal procedure for the front runner to actually win. Here’s three that did just that:

3. Dianne Wiest, Bullets Over Broadway

Of the 28 recipients to choose from, note that 3 of them were under the direction of Woody Allen. None were surprise winners. That’s most evident with Wiest’s showcase work as an aging diva here. Her win here came just eight years following her Oscar winning role in another Allen pic, Hannah and Her Sisters.

2. Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

Fans of the Broadway play this is based upon knew Ms. Hudson could have a legitimate breakthrough part here. She nailed it and her win was never in much doubt.

1. Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables

Similar to Hudson’s victory, Hathaway’s casting as Fantine and her “I Dreamed a Dream” dramatic solo made her the odds-on favorite from the moment the project was announced. That never changed.

Now we get to the upsets and there were four to choose from. I could easily include Anna Paquin in The Piano, who became the second youngest winner when she beat out favorite Winona Ryder for The Age of Innocence. Here’s 3 I rank as even more surprising:

3. Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock

Harden had won no significant precursors and Kate Hudson was expected to have her name called for Almost Famous. She wasn’t even nominated for a Golden Globe or SAG.

2. Juliette Binoche, The English Patient

While the film itself was the anticipated winner for Picture (which it did), the Oscars were expected to select the legendary Lauren Bacall for her work in Barbra Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces. Yet it was Binoche’s performance that was unexpectedly honored.

1. Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny

For starters, comedic roles are rarely nominated and wins are even more unheard of. Tomei was a newcomer in a picture that wasn’t a factor in any other category. Her competition was a list of venerable actresses: Judy Davis (Husbands and Wives), Joan Plowright (Enchanted April), Vanessa Redgrave (Howards End), and Miranda Richardson (Damages). The victory here was so shocking that conspiracy theories emerged that presenter Jack Palance had accidentally read the wrong name. That’s been debunked, but Tomei’s trip to the stage remains one of Oscar’s largest jaw droppers.

As for the fields, I’m going with 1991 for the weakest link in the chain. I probably would have given the award to Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear. However, the group was not particularly strong:

Mercedes Ruehl, The Fisher King (Winner)

Diane Ladd, Rambling Rose

Juliette Lewis, Cape Fear

Kate Nelligan, The Prince of Tides

Jessica Tandy, Fried Green Tomatoes

For the strongest field overall, I went with 2004 when Cate Blanchett won for her portrayal of Katherine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. The other nominees:

Laura Linney, Kinsey

Virginia Madsen, Sideways

Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda

Natalie Portman, Closer

And there you have it! I’ll have Supporting Actor up soon…

Throwback Thursday Reviews: Cape Fear (1991)

Upon its release in 1991, Cape Fear had the unique and odd distinction of being both Martin Scorsese’s most conventional picture and his most experimental. Here the master filmmaker was working in the mainstream world of crafting an audience pleasing thriller. Yet Scorsese was most known for titles that weren’t developed for mass consumption and were made with a more personal touch. Some of them turned out to be masterpieces – Mean Street, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas.

Cape Fear was a different animal. A remake of a 1962 B movie thriller that starred Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. This would allow Scorsese to pay homage to it and Hitchcock’s catalog while modernizing it. Robert De Niro stars as Max Cady, a recently released convict with plans to exact revenge on his defense attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), who hid evidence that could have exonerated him. Unlike the 1962 predecessor, Sam’s family is not near picture perfect. Far from it. His wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) is still scarred from her husband’s past infidelities. Danielle (Juliette Lewis) is their bored and sometimes rebellious teenage daughter. One of the things that makes the picture most interesting is that Max is not just going after Sam for vengeful purposes. He has designs to emotionally wound the family even more and he succeeds.

The film is filled with nods to genre pictures that Scorsese undoubtedly feasted on as a young man. Anyone who’s read about him knows he’s an encyclopedia of the trade he’s exceled in for nearly half a century. And Cape Fear‘s greatness is due to the infectious joy that we feel due to Scorsese’s joy in creating it.

Yes, it’s a mainstream thriller with all the conventions we’ve come to expect. A phone ringing unexpectedly during a tense moment. Cady disguising himself in a manner which I still recall had crowds understandably gasping in the theater. However, Cape Fear comes equipped with a brilliant director and first-rate actors participating. De Niro (Scorsese’s go to actor before DiCaprio) is often terrifying in the role of the Southern menace wreaking havoc on the Bowdens. The actor infuses his character with a demented religious fervor and a workout regiment that shows him in a way you’ve never seen him before or since. He received an Oscar nomination and deserved it.

Nolte’s work is worth lots of praise, too. He successfully strays away from making the character heroic and it’s a great twist to have the protagonist written and portrayed in that way. Lange is equally impressive as the frustrated wife and Lewis is a revelation as Danielle. The most famous sequence in the pic involves Max’s first encounter with her. It’s been noted that the scene is improvised and it isn’t your typical scary movie scene, but it might be the most chilling thing of all. For those who’ve yet to see it, I won’t spoil it. The subplot involving Sam’s law clerk (Ileanna Douglas) and her encounter with Max is unforgettable and horrific as well. Their pairing provides our first glimpse of what our main character is capable of.

In a nod to the ’62 original, its stars Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, and Martin Balsam all appear in welcome cameos. Joe Don Baker (one of the terrific characters actors of our time) provides some fine and often humorous moments as a P.I. trying to help Sam out.

As you’d expect in a Scorsese pic, the technical aspects from music to cinematography and so forth are impeccable. Cape Fear may not get mentioned in the same conversations as the director’s beloved group of classics. That’s OK, but it’s a remarkable viewing experience in its own right. And on this Throwback Thursday – it’s one you need to seek out if you haven’t watched it. Or watch it again for that matter to see one of cinema’s best directors put his delicious spin on a well-worn genre.

**** (out of four)