Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Best Actress, 2004

You may or may not have noticed that I've been watching and profiling the films that had Best Actress nominees back in 2004 over the past week or so. In my reading about this year's Oscar contenders, I've come across a number of people who feel that not one, but BOTH of Hilary Swank's Oscar wins have been undeserved.

As someone who thinks she does great work given the right material, I was a little surprised. So I decided to revisit her most recent win and decide for myself, after watching all the nominated performances, whether or not she deserved to take the Academy Award home that year. Here are my thoughts.

Annette Bening in Being Julia
This was the only performance of the five that I had not seen when I started this project last week. Annette Bening is always a wonder to watch, and this is no exception. She plays Julia Lambert, an actress who becomes bored with stardom and looks to fill the void in her life with an affair. Bening is terrifically funny in a rather boring film, and has a joyful presence that helps her handily outclass the rest of the cast. She plays a few characters here, in a sense, as an actor playing an actor always does, but I don't feel like the part asked much of her. It's a light film, and I think her performance is less effective because the material doesn't require a true showcase of her enormous range. It's a great and entertaining performance, but it doesn't speak to me on an emotional level. ***/4

Catalina Sandino Moreno in Maria Full of Grace
Catalina Sandino Moreno was one of the last actresses director Joshua Marston came across while casting his film about a Colombian teen who gets involved in drug traficking in the hopes of forming a better life for herself. What a find. Moreno has some beautiful moments here. Her performance rings painfully true, and I found myself wondering about the actress' background. Are there echoes of her real life in the script? I don't know. She is eerily focused during every moment of her performance. Moreno is also fantastic at thinking onscreen. Watch this movie and notice that there is always something going on in her expression. Even in silent scenes she shows an intelligence that is essential in understanding how and why Maria does what she does. I would have expected bigger things to have happened in Moreno's career after this shocking and phenomenal first performance. Hopefully there are more great roles on the way for her. ****/4

Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake
Imelda Staunton is one of my favorite British actresses. Before Mike Leigh's terrific Vera Drake, I'd only seen her in small (yet enormously entertaining) roles. Mrs. Jennings' daughter in Sense and Sensibility. Lady Viola's nurse in Shakespeare in Love. Here, though, she gets the chance to really show off her talent. Vera Drake is a wife and mother in 1950s England. She's a big-hearted woman who helps everyone she can in any way she knows how, including helping women terminate unwanted pregnancies. Staunton plays Vera Drake splendidly. She's a cheerful, happy woman, who we immediately love and support, despite the fact that she performs criminal acts every week. The story and the rest of the characters fall into place specifically because of her performance, which conveys love and heartbreak effortlessly and powerfully. It's the role of a lifetime, and Staunton adds an unsettling dose of humanity to the controversial subject of abortion. ****/4

Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby
Hilary Swank plays Maggie Fitzgerald, a poor waitress from southern Missouri whose dream is to become a prize fighter. She's the only smart and driven member of her hillbilly family, and she won't rest until she makes something of herself with the help of trainer Frankie Dunn. Hilary Swank is perfect. She nails every moment on screen, from Maggie's earnest pursuit of Frankie's help, to her determination in her training, to her heartache as she seeks the love and acceptance of her mother. We feel every bit of hurt and triumph with Maggie, and it's so heartbreaking when the light inside her gets snuffed out that I break into sobs during the third act. Swank's performance packs an emotional blow to rival any knockout punch she throws as Maggie. ****/4

Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Kate Winslet is my favorite actress ever. I mean that. She's been #1 on my list since I was ten years old and no one has ever come close to unseating her. Her role here as Clementine, an unstable woman who erases her boyfriend Joel from her mind, happens to be my favorite of her performances. When Joel decides to have Clementine erased as well, we follow the procedure through his memories of their tumultuous relationship, and Winslet's performance is key. A less capable actress would have been lost not only in the brilliant maze of a screenplay, but in the character's frequent and severe ups and downs. Not Winslet. She's the sole reason the journey through Joel Barish's mind works. We identify with his frustration with the compulsive and exuberant Clementine, and ten minutes later we understand why he fell in love with her in the first place. ****/4

Final thoughts: Though this was an extraordinarily strong year for actresses, this is an easy call for Swank. I think the main reason people are upset about this win is that it makes two times she (deservedly) beat Annette Bening for the Oscar glory. While I agree that Bening is overdue, I don't think Julia Lambert was an Academy Award-worthy role.

Here's how I'd rank them:
1. Swank in Million Dollar Baby
2. Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
3. Staunton in Vera Drake
4. Moreno in Maria Full of Grace
5. Bening in Being Julia


Danny King said...

Great article. I didn't realize that Swank beat out Bening both times, but, yes, she did deserve it. I've just added Maria Full of Grace to my Netflix, I haven't seen it yet, but it sounds captivating. This was a very strong year for this category, but Swank was just unbelievable.

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