Who/What Should Be Nominated
Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 29, 1997
Every year around this time, I have a apoplexy when the Academy Awards nominations are announced
because someone that I was pulling for is unceremoniously ignored and someone far less deserving is
given the nod. I've found that one tonic for this situation is to write about those performances that I deem
nomination-worthy. In some cases, I'm aware that there's little or no chance that a particular film/person
will attain Academy notice, but my intent here isn't to talk about who I think will receive an Oscar
nomination, but, rather, who I think should.
Unless there's a compelling reason to do otherwise, I'll restrict myself to five "nominees" in each category.
These are in alphabetical order (except the "best scenes", which doesn't reflect an Oscar category anyway).
Certain categories (screenplay, foreign language film, documentary, and picture) are presented without
commentary, largely because I've already written about these ad nauseum elsewhere, or because I didn't
have much to say.
ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE:
- Amy Locane, Carried Away: Although Carried
Away showcased Dennis Hopper's finest work in years, the film wouldn't have had nearly the same
impact if it hadn't been for Loncane's performance as a troubled teenager who is desperate for love. Like
so many girls her age, Catherine is lonely and unsure of herself, and this is the quality that Locane brings
forcefully to our attention. Sure, there are times when she plays the vixen, but it's during the quieter,
more human moments that the actress' most impressive qualities are revealed.
- Courtney Love, The People vs. Larry Flynt: I'm
not going to evaluate Love as a singer, because she doesn't sing in this film. But she does act, and it's an
impressive performance for someone who was described as director Milos Forman's "brave gamble". Love
brings her character, Althea Flynt, to vibrant life, investing her with sexiness, courage, vulnerability, and
an unquenchable spirit. During the latter half of the film, as Althea begins her drug-induced downward
spiral, Love offers a heartbreakingly real portrayal of a once-vital woman whose personality is being
- Natalie Portman, Beautiful Girls: Portman,
in just a handful of roles, has shown herself to be one of today's most promising young actresses. Luc
Besson's thriller, The Professional, was
infinitely better because of her, and she has managed to shine in nearly-invisible roles in Mars Attacks! and Everyone Says I Love You. Her crowning
achievement, however, is her work in Beautiful Girls, a rather insipid and uninspired angst-fest.
Her performance as a surprisingly mature teenager with a crush on an older man is arguably the only
reason to see this film. What's exciting about Portman is that she's likely to get better in the future as
she's offered larger and more challenging parts.
- Marisa Tomei, Unhook the Stars: This role is a real
departure for Tomei, who has made a name for herself by playing high-profile roles in comedies. And,
while Unhook the Stars has its share of funny moments, it's a drama, and there's definitely
nothing to laugh about regarding Tomei's hyperkinetic character, a single mom teetering on the brink of
desperation. This is an energetic, almost manic performance that somehow manages to bring out many
facets of a complex personality. Incidentally, this is a far better (not to mention more complete)
performance than the one in My Cousin Vinny, which garnered Tomei a Best Supporting Actress
- Renee Zellweger, Jerry Maguire: An argument could be
made that Zellweger's role as Dorothy belongs in the Lead Actress category, but I'm placing her here
because Jerry Maguire was Tom Cruise's movie all the way. He was the only lead; everyone else
functioned as support. While this wasn't the actresses' debut (she has been in a number of independent
features), it was her "coming out". Her part in Jerry Maguire is a star making turn -- she plays
Dorothy with an enchanting, unaffected sweetness and strength of spirit that's impossible to resist.
Zellweger, who has an expressive face and large, luminous eyes, seems equally at home doing comedy or
drama, both of which were required of her in this film.
Other noteworthy Supporting Actress performances: Karron Graves, The Crucible; Queen Latifa, Set It Off; Kate Winslet, Hamlet, Irma B. Hall, A Family Thing.
ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE:
ACTRESS IN A LEAD ROLE:
- Brenda Blethyn, Secrets & Lies: Some critics believe
that the whole reason for Secrets & Lies' success lies in Blethyn's remarkable performance.
While I'm willing to give some of the credit to director Mike Leigh, there's no downplaying the
importance of Blethyn's role. Words don't do justice to what she brings to this role. She's powerful,
passionate, and, most importantly, completely, irrefutably real. Often in films, no matter how
good a actor is, there's a sense that it's still just a performance. That's never the case here. As far as the
viewer is concerned, Blethyn has transformed herself into her character.
- Helen Mirren, Some Mother's Son: Mirren,
who somehow managed to get nominated for one of her least-impressive performances a few years ago
(The Madness of King George), is in fine form
here. Her role -- a mother caught in an ethical vise where her son is concerned -- is fraught with pitfalls.
It would have been all-too-easy to make Kathleen weepy, irresolute, or, worse still, a political mouthpiece.
She is none of these, because Mirren finds the woman's humanity and constantly brings it to the fore.
Without the actress, the film might have teetered on the brink of being pro-IRA propaganda. With
Mirren, it has become a finely-tuned examination of love and sacrifice.
- Lili Taylor, I Shot Andy Warhol: Every time I turned
around in 1996, Taylor seemed to be in another movie. In everything from Girls Town to Ransom, she is fast becoming a very recognizable face.
Arguably, her best work this year came in I Shot Andy Warhol, where she effectively re-creates
Valerie Solanas, the author of the SCUM Manifesto and would-be assassin of Warhol. Like
Blethyn and Watson, Taylor brings a quality of raw urgency to her performance, and that's the reason why
it's easy to recall her name at the end of a year that has been unexpectedly rich in female roles.
- Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves: Every once in
a while, an actress bares herself so completely to the camera (both physically and emotionally) that it's
impossible not to notice. Such is the case with Emily Watson in Lars Von Trier's Breaking the
Waves. The actress' raw courage has made this a memorable performance. She seems willing to do
whatever is necessary to convey the director's message, and, in the process, develops Bess into one of
1996's most unforgettable characters. Breaking the Waves has the power to disturb mainly
because of the strength of Watson's portrayal.
- Kate Winslet, Jude: After her Best Supporting Actress
nomination last year for Sense and Sensibility, Winslet
is no longer an obscure British performer. Nevertheless, despite the adulation she received for playing
Marianne Dashwood, better performances were just around the corner. As Sue Brideshead, the
independent-minded heroine of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, Winslet brings sprit, beauty,
and vitality to a character that makes the tragic denouement all the more crushing. This is a wonderful,
luminous performance that allows Jude to be a touch less grim that it might otherwise have been.
Other noteworthy Lead Actress performances: Kristin Scott-Thomas, The English Patient; Catherine Deneuve, Ma Saison Preferee; Meryl Streep, Marvin's Room; Debbie Reynolds, Mother; Gena Rowlands, Unhook the Stars.
ACTOR IN A LEAD ROLE:
- Kenneth Branagh, Hamlet: The glue that holds this
four hour film together and keeps the audience stuck to their seats, Branagh's performance as the title
character defines the term "bravura". Emoting with a passion that sears the screen, Branagh refuses to
take a back seat to anyone. There's nothing subtle or low-key about this Hamlet, but this performance is
just what's needed to grab and hold the audience's attention and keep things moving.
- Chris Cooper, Lone Star: Quite the opposite of
Branagh, Cooper is quiet and low-key in Lone Star, yet no less effective for it. In fact, Cooper
stands out precisely because he doesn't do anything to call attention to himself. His performance is
tightly-controlled and masterful because it gets all the details (technical and emotional) right. Cooper
probably won't get a thought at Oscar time, which is a shame, because Lone Star wouldn't have
been the same movie without him.
- Geoffrey Rush, Shine: With his rapid-fire speech and
twitchy mannerisms, Geoffrey Rush's David Helfgott is at first irritating, then endearing. This amazing
assessment of Helfgott stands as one of the year's most astounding pieces of cinematic expression, far
outstripping the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio in What's
Eating Gilbert Grape or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Helfgott is a virtuoso playing
the piano; Rush, a veteran stage actor, is a virtuoso at playing Helfgott.
- Noah Taylor, Shine: Taylor, who some viewers might
remember from Flirting, plays David Helfgott before he grows old enough to be played by
Geoffrey Rush. Taylor's Helfgott is the pre-breakdown version, but it's still a top performance. We can
see how tightly wound the pianist is; how mentally unready he is to withstand the emotional release that
will accompany his playing of the Rach 3. Taylor, through mannerisms and speech tics, foreshadows the
character that Helfgott will become when Geoffrey Rush takes over the role.
- Pruitt Taylor Vince, Heavy: Pruitt Taylor Vince may
not be a household name, but his heartbreaking performance as the shy, insecure Victor is worthy of far
more notice than it ever got. In my review of Heavy, I called Vince's performance "gargantuan",
and that has far less to do with his physical size than with the dimensions of character that he brings to
the fore. This is one of the few performances all year that provoked a heartfelt emotional reaction in me.
Other noteworthy lead actor performances: Tom Cruise, Jerry
Maguire; Liam Neeson, Michael
Collins; William H. Macy, Fargo; Nick Nolte,
- Kenneth Branagh, Hamlet: As a director, Branagh is
directly responsible for this film's amazing success. Aside from the obvious difficulty of making a four-
hour movie, Branagh had to cope with a diverse cast (some of whom probably had monstrous egos) and a
difficult shooting schedule.
- Cameron Crowe, Jerry Maguire: While Crowe's project
wasn't as awe-inspiring as Hamlet, as emotionally-rich as Shine or Secrets &
Lies, or as daring as Breaking the Waves, it was still an achievement in its own right.
Crowe steered around a plethora of potential mines and delivered one of the best and most enjoyable
Hollywood products of the year. It's easy to denigrate the movie because it comes out of the industry --
until, that is, you sit down and experience its brand of magic.
- Scott Hicks, Shine: Shine was made only
because of Hicks' perseverance and dedication, and, for that alone, we should be thankful. Hicks'
importance is much less obvious to a smaller film like Shine that it would be to a larger film like
Hamlet, but, when a movie does as many things right as Shine does, it's impossible not to
credit the director.
- Mike Leigh, Secrets & Lies: Leigh is always more
than ready to share credit with his actors, but, when all is said and done, the ultimate responsibility for his
projects lies with him. Secrets & Lies is another triumph, and, although the film features a
number of superlative performances, Leigh's hand is very much evident in every scene.
- Lars von Trier, Breaking the Waves: It takes guts
and determination to make this kind of film. Regardless of what has been said and written about von
Trier's ego and attitudes, Breaking the Waves is an imposing effort, and it's clear that the director
was in complete control for the entire movie. There aren't many directors out there today who could
attempt, let alone succeed at, something this disturbing and ambitious.
Other noteworthy directors: Ken Loach, Land and
Freedom; Anthony Minghella, The English
Patient; Russ Hexter, Dadetown.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM:
MOST MEMORABLE SCENES OF THE YEAR
(in no particular order, and, yes, I know it's not an Oscar category):
Now, let's see if the Academy agrees with even a handful of these choices...
- The First Throne Room Scene in Hamlet:
This scene, which introduces Claudius, Gertrude, and Hamlet, is presented in a manner that is both emotionally stirring and visually stunning. The colors, the music, and the pageantry all make this a standout sequence in a movie that is ripe with memorable scenes and images.
- The "Rach 3", Shine: Passionate, powerful, and out-of-control, this scene gets us further into David Helfgott's mind and experience than any other moment of the
film. The dizzying, unconventional camerawork and Noah Taylor's performance make this a moment to
- Mother Meets Daughter, Secrets & Lies: Director
Mike Leigh chose to film this in one take when the actors were meeting each other for (almost) the first
time. It's a perfect choice. This is Brenda Blethyn's singlemost impressive scene in the film, and perhaps
the most believable display of heartfelt emotion delivered by any actor in 1996.
- "Show Me the Money!", Jerry Maguire: Not every
memorable scene has to be artistically vital, and this is a case in point. Nevertheless, the scene where
Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr. shout "Show me the money!" and "I love the black man!" at each other
over the phone will linger as one of 1996's most enduring moments.
- The Truth Comes Out, The Birdcage: A hilarious
moment, made all the more funny by Gene Hackman's wonderfully dumbstruck expression when he
finally realizes that Nathan Lane isn't the ideal, conservative mother he thought "she" was. Runner up
from this film is Hackman in drag.
- Shopping, Mother: Some of the most sharply-
observed lines of the year come in this extended scene, which has Debbie Reynolds and Albert Brooks
"enjoying" a trip to the store. Their exchanges, especially when they meet a few neighbors, are priceless.
- Alien Attack, Independence Day: Not a great movie, but
the scenes where the aliens finally let loose with their all-out assault on Earth's cities were pretty cool.
They were also the most hyped sequences of the year, appearing ad nauseum in TV promos and theatrical
trailers. If you hadn't seen them before the movie, where were you? Sci-fi runner up: the attack on the
Borg cube near the beginning of Star Trek: First Contact.
- Tornadoes, Twister: Pick any one. Flying cows.
Flying tanker truck. Flying houses. Sitting through Twister was an experience in its own right,
due primarily to about five tornado scenes that may eventually be copied, but will never quite be
duplicated. (As they say, there's nothing quite like the first time.)
- Wood Chips, Fargo: Some might argue that this was
the sickest scene of the year, but it was both memorable and darkly funny. I don't think Fargo
belongs in the Top 10, but this particular scene is definitely one that sticks in the mind.
Next: "The 1997 Academy Award Nominations: Comments, Gripes, and Assorted Musings"
© 1997 James Berardinelli