Monday, March 17, 2008

Best Actress 1997: In Semi-Defense of Helen Hunt

I can't think of another recent Oscar winner who is held in the kind of opprobrium that Helen Hunt is for scooping the 1997 Best Actress prize. I think a lot of people would give Gwyneth Paltrow and Roberto Benigni three trophies apiece if it meant they could subtract Hunt's, and it's true that her subsequent film career hasn't done much (i.e., anything) to quell the naysayers who wondered how the Oscars had just turned into the Emmys. But I thought she was pretty terrific at the time, and I still do, even though I would have voted for another actress ahead of her. Taking Jack's Oscar away for that strange, discombobulated film would suit me just fine, but that's a different discussion for a different site. (N.B. I goofed and forgot to upload the revised version of my overall 1997 ballot, linked from the actress page, before I posted last night. Apologies to Billy Connolly and James Cameron.)

For now, read on... and don't forget to vote in the poll, halfway down the page! (Yep, there are polls for every year from 1998 to 2007, too, and for 1931-32, for those of you who missed 'em last time you visited the Best Actress Archive.)

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21 Comments:

Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i'm glad to see the love for HBC... easily the winner here of the nominees for me. In fact, one of only 2 nominees that survives for my own ballot which reads

BONHAM-CARTER -wings of the dove
CHRISTIE -afterglow
FOSTER -contact
ROBERTS -My Best Friend's Wedding
THIVISOL -Ponette

though i tend to think i overestimated Foster at the time... should probably revisit.

but YES to your shout out to ROBERTS. imho it's easily her second best performance --full of sly wicked scene shaping, and everything that people hate about her offered up bravely for consumption/attack -- after ERIN B. my only qualm about it is the weird decision to have her character tear up endlessly when we keep hearing that the character never cries.

7:54 AM, March 17, 2008  
Blogger Yaseen Ali said...

I also thought Hunt was great in As Good as it Gets, and am perfectly fine with her Oscar win. That uncomfortable scene at the diner in which she confronts Jack ("If you ever mention my son again...") is my favourite in the whole film.

STILL haven't seen Wings of the Dove or Afterglow. Better get on that.

9:20 AM, March 17, 2008  
Blogger J.J. said...

VERY interesting. I've always bristled when confronted with Hunt (I think Mad about You is mankind's lowest creative achievement). Perhaps her performance in AGAIG floats in comparison to Nicholson's unfortunate mugging (God, I wish he would've won his third for About Schmidt instead), but I have trouble accepting her character's place in the picture to begin with. The story just doesn't make sense to me. I remember seeing it in theaters when I was 14 and, even then, I was thinking, "This is horseshit."

10:50 AM, March 17, 2008  
OpenID xcountryskier452 said...

Julie Christie gave the freshest performance of the 90's and easily deserved the win. Helena comes close behind, followed by La Dench who gave a good barking bitch performance before it became her stale meal ticket. In fourth place is Glenn Close for her performance in Paradise Road, an underrated gem that's so much better than the film itself.

And in fifth, for one of the most wrongly belittled performances ever, Lisa Kudrow's comic genius earns a spot for Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion.

Of all the Roberts romcoms, My Best Friend's Wedding is by far my least favorite Julia performance because she was painfully outacted by her supporting cast and Hogan's screenplay was such a disappointing follow-up to her phenomenal work in Muriel's Wedding.

12:41 PM, March 17, 2008  
Blogger John T said...

I am remarkably lacking in this year, and I'm not even going to mention one of the actors that I'm missing (hint:it's based on one of my all-time favorite books). I do, however, think that Hunt didn't deserve her Oscar that year, though I'd start giving my trophies to Benigni and Paltrow over a less-worthy winner (Swank Part Deux or Russell Crowe, for example).

Also, Nick, how long will the polls run-I want to wait and see all of the nominees before I vote, but if they're only lasting a week, I don't think Netflix goes that fast!

1:00 PM, March 17, 2008  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

Kate Winslet and Julie Christie would be on my '97 ballot with a probable Winslet victory. I'd also include Joey Lauren Smith ("Chasing Amy") and Saffron Burrows ("Love Life"). Fifth place might come down to a sci-fi showdown between Dina Meyer("Starship Troopers") and Milla Jovovich ("The Fifth Element"), both much more enjoyable than Foster in the solemn full-of-baloney "Contact". Bonham Carter didn't do much for me in "Wings of the Dove". But, boy, was Charlotte Rampling electrifying in her one and only scene!

11:37 PM, March 17, 2008  
Blogger Brooke Cloudbuster said...

My ballot reads similar to yours, Nick!

Helena Bonham-Carter in The Wings of The Dove
Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep
Julie Christie in Afterglow
Julia Roberts in My Best Friend's Wedding
Tilda Swinton in Female Perversions

For me, this is a perfect field. It contains four of my five actress crushes and another one I respect a lot in a movie that I've loved since I was a good. I think Bonham-Carter would edge Swinton out for the win, though.

I'm not so opposed to Hunt's win as many others are. At least based on the performance itself. When you set it against the nominees, it's absolutely floored. But the performance itself is decent.

Love these things. Keep 'em coming!

12:22 AM, March 18, 2008  
Blogger Kamikaze Camel said...

I too quite like Hunt. She wouldn't be in my five nominees (Allen, Foster, Grier, O'Connor, Williams is my apparent lineup, although it's probably not accurate. Frances O'Connor and Vanessa Williams could do with a reappraisal and maybe replaced by Roberts - and I haven't seen many of the actual nominees. bad me) but I can handle he win well enough - although maybe it is because I haven't seen Dench, Christie or Carter that I am not filled with hate at the thought of her winning.

2:02 AM, March 18, 2008  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@Nat: You're really reining it in about Hunt, right? But I'm glad we agree so heartily about Roberts. I didn't believe for a second that she's a food critic, but yes I love that she trots out all of her most controversial traits (her brittleness, her sharpness, her inelegance) and makes them work for the character, and complicated our relationship to the movie.

@Yaseen Ali: By all means, catch up with Wings. Gorgeous to look at, and a smart, disciplined adaptation.

@J.J.: I'm totally with you about the insane script. Totally with you. But I believed the woman she created, and I even (mostly) enjoyed her. She actually seemed excited to go on a roadtrip, and also like someone who hadn't been on a roadtrip.

@XCountrySkier: I love a dissenter! Given how much you liked the Christie perf, you must have hated what I wrote. I'd love to hear a defense here, since I don't really "get" the performance, and a lot of the mainstream reviews read to me like mash-notes to Christie and her beauty and her jazziness instead of appraisals of the perf. But I'd love to see more here, because I do like her. I can go with you a long way on Kudrow, too; I always adore her, and she was by a zillion miles the best thing in Romy & Michele, which, her and Garofalo aside, I couldn't handle. At all.

@John: Is that because you disliked her in AGAIG or because you liked one of the other nominees better? (And would that you could take the Henry James and Film course I'm teaching this quarter...)

@Ken: Always with the unexpected! I love it, though I cannot stand Joey Lauren Adams in Chasing Amy, and I think Weaver belongs in your sassy, kickass trio of sci-fi gals. Never even heard of Love Life. You always give me more films to investigate!

@Brooke: So glad to see some Tilda love, though on revisiting, I am less and less sure that she'd eke out this victory. Still, Female Perversions wouldn't work at all with anyone else I don't think, and now it plays as a pretty bang-on dress rehearsal for ideas she'd draw out in a more realist mode in Michael Clayton. (And you love Christie, too: say why!)

@Kamikaze: But you were supposed to be my backup on Children of the Revolution! Sorry to totally Aussie-pigeonhole you... did you not like the perf, or have you not seen it? Admittedly, it's been a while for me, but it's nutty and inspired stuff. Could slip out if I see it again and find that it hasn't aged well on the vine (and I love Pfeiffer and Allen, a lot). Which movies are you suggesting O'Connor and Williams for? I'm assuming Kiss or Kill and Dance with Me, but I leave it to you to say.

2:24 AM, March 18, 2008  
Blogger Cal said...

As much as I liked As Good As It Gets I found Helen Hunt's performance incredibly annoying and quite false actually. She seems to have the same bemused face all the way through... like she's surprised she's even in the film at all. Maybe she's just perplexed at the host of awful frumpy outfits she has to pull on.

My tally for '97 is pretty lame. Are all these films/actresses worth seeing? I'm definitely gonna rent My Best Friend's Wedding if you guys are rating Julia so highly. Seems like a must-see for a Roberts fan.

3:55 AM, March 18, 2008  
Blogger tim r said...

You've watched Afterglow FOUR times? You are a Best Actress martyr, is what you are.

Sorry to get all nationalistic over here, but we did bristle a bit this side of the Atlantic when Hunt won -- not because it's a bad performance at all, but because... c'mon, 4 Brits in the category, and they still give it to the American! HBC is easily my winner in both your ballots.

Mine would be:

HBC
Weaver
Roberts
Susanne Lothar (Funny Games)
Kathy Burke (Nil By Mouth)

With honourable mentions to Grier, Cate Blanchett (Oscar and Lucinda), Lisa Harrow in the terrific Sunday, and Swinton, who I think is utterly fascinating in Female Perversions, but slightly too concepty and pose-striking for my money. I think she's worked out some more human dimensions come Michael Clayton, and I actually prefer Madigan in FP.

Weaver wins. She just does.

Incidentally, Absolute Power is tripe, but Judy Davis would get a supporting nod for me. She has a conspiratorial tango scene that's sheer class.

I'm curious -- have you been back to The Sweet Hereafter recently? It's a bit of a fader for me, that's all. But then I always liked The Adjuster more.

4:45 AM, March 18, 2008  
Blogger John T said...

I would have given it to Winslet of the ones that I have seen both because I like her better and because I don't entirely understand what Hunt's doing with her character, aside from perhaps seeing how Jamie Buchman will stack up against Jack on autopilot. (Remember, this is based on an impression on a film I haven't seen in six years) Her character is too outward for a character that seems to be more inward-she has few friends, and yet she opens up to everyone. She's in constant hysterics, and I think she falls a little too easily for a guy who she should know is awful for her (that last one may be James Brooks's fault though).

5:59 AM, March 18, 2008  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Who knew 1997 was still shaking people up! I am to expect the same flood of comments about 1949, right? I'm sure those Come to the Stable fans are sharpening their knives right now...

@Cal: So we're a perfect yin-yang for As Good As It Gets, since you liked the movie but disliked her. But we do agree about her outfits. (Maybe I just love Hunt for saying "Godd**n motherf***ing HMO b**tard pieces of sh*t!")

@Tim: I'm glad you are feeling my AfterAfterAfterAfterglow pain. Somebody oughta. Fair points about Tilda, although Streitfeld seems to want things so concepty that I actually think Swinton enables her vision in that way. I haven't seen Nil by Mouth yet (which was a '98er for us Stateside), or Sunday.

And no, I haven't revisited Sweet Hereafter since I saw it in the theater, and have wondered how it will hold up. I meant to do a whole retrospective on my 1997 Top Ten List last year, as part of the site's 10th anniversary, but like most big plans... (Though I did start alphabetically, which meant I watched Afterglow again. F*&#!)

@John: More good points about Hunt, and strong support for why I haven't bumped her up another star, which I probably would have done right after I saw the movie. And since I forgot to answer your question from before, the polls are open for a whole year from the day they bow. Netflix away!

10:20 AM, March 18, 2008  
Blogger Dave said...

Helena is easily the winner for me of this ballot, and one of my favourite nominees of the entire 1990s... but I really like Hunt too (glad to see another person who feels the same- to me, although she doesn't get every aspect of the character right, she's totally up to anything Jack throws at her- and is just as unfazed as her character at his bullshit- and she really just exudes warmth. But then, I don't hate Helen Hunt. So many do.) and I think Winslet is underrated. (But then she is my own personal goddess, so I can hardly be expected to say anything else.) I'm completely ambivalent towards Dench, which where she's concerned is hardly the expected reaction. That whole film is just like a block of ice, with Connelly chipping away at it as gallantly as possible.

I think my own ballot (which excludes Christie, because Afterglow isn't available on DVD here, and nothing I've heard makes me particularly eager to seek it out in other ways; and Swinton, because I only discovered your hearty recommendation recently) would be Bonham-Carter, Pam Grier, Jennifer Jason Leigh (Washington Square- the underrated James adaptation of the decade), Joan Allen (The Ice Storm), and Roberts.

I'm also desperate to see Thivisol, but, surprise surprise, that's not available either. Can't wait for 1996!

11:42 AM, March 18, 2008  
Blogger Brooke Cloudbuster said...

Nick: Upon reading it, I'm really not sure of my support of the Christie nomination here. I think it's running head to head with Dench in Mrs. Brown; in what I think is her best performance, except maybe Notes on a Scandal.

I just felt that she inhabited this character completely. Not only do her line-readings come off as completely natural to me, but she always underscores them with a little bit of restrained emotion. It's the sort of thing that I love.

It really doesn't compare, in my mind, to her towering work in Away From Her or in Darling. Or even in Doctor Zhivago, but my love of that performance is to a much lesser extent.

I guess it really helps that I genuinely like her as well. She's always come off as a beautiful, intelligent and classy figure to me, no matter what she plays.

I really enjoyed her in the Secret Life of Words too, but I don't think anybody saw that movie, sadly.

11:29 PM, March 18, 2008  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@Dave: I go back and forth about Leigh in Washington Square, though I agree that the movie is much better than it was given credit for. Again, I'm teaching a Henry James and Film course in the Spring quarter, which starts in two weeks, so I'll be revisiting this performance for sure, and she may sneak back into the Also-Rans.

@Brooke: Hey, thanks for piping in with this. I always enjoy hearing what everyone else sees specifically in these performances. I just gave a paper about Julie Christie at a conference this month, so I've been spending a lot of time with her work, and though I frequently want more from her as an actress, I completely agree with you about her wonderful, bright, pleasingly eccentric personal vibe.

11:37 PM, March 18, 2008  
OpenID xcountryskier452 said...

Haha okay, Nick. I love to dissent. Yeah, I disagreed with a lot of what you wrote but I think we should remember that jazz is an artform. But I am eternally biased toward Julie Christie, who is the fabbest woman to ever walk the earth and my favorite actress of all time behind Maggie Smith and Katharine Hepburn. She's the most enchanting individual I've ever beheld onscreen and Marion Cotillard needs to atone for her sins. But that's a different performance for a different year.

Christie gave the ultimate "sexy older woman" performance, in my opinion, and fleshed out a role that was the only good part of Afterglow's script. I do agree that her performance was really mood-oriented, but Christie gave Phyllis a lot of texture as a woman forced to settle for the life she lived. This kind of anxiety is probably what makes some people think it was so disjointed and incoherent, but I saw Phyllis as someone who is restless beneath her cool facade. Christie turns her into a list of paradoxes, a vulnerable aggressor, etc. Phyllis doesn't know where she's going, so Christie's performance takes on a number of directions.

Anyway, Christie is by far the most selfless performer I've watched because she's so unconcerned with whether or not she connects with her audience. She's never trying to build an image of Julie Christie or to praise-bait. She connects with her character and with her fellow actors, and this kind of attention is refreshing compared to the "I am Meryl Streep. Hear me roar!" mentality of some actresses today. And as a sixteen-year-old guy, I'm really glad my generation has been exposed to her work. A win this year would have solifified that notion (grrrrr...) but she's still as sexy and talented as ever.

So this is why, while I can't call it definitively the best female performance of the 90's (which goes to Emma Thompson for The Remains of the Day) it's certainly the freshest, most liberated. Maybe Christie's elusive persona has something to do with it, but it's a bias I love to endure. And poor Helena needs to settle for the win I give her in '96 (for the criminally underrated Twelfth Night). I still need to see Tilda (who I love love love).

3:41 PM, March 19, 2008  
Blogger Brooke Cloudbuster said...

Nick: Despite how much I love Christie, and I do; I completely agree with your sentiment of wanting more from her as an actress. Even in Away From Her, which I felt was my personal choice for Best Actress this year (Edging out Cannes winner Jeon Do-Yeon barely), I always felt a little that it was sort of rewarding her offscreen personality more than anything else. She's such a charming lady that you just want to give her things for existing.

No matter how formidable the performance; on some level there's always some ground that she hasn't covered with the character. It might be intentional, and more often than not she gives a great performance regardless; you just feel like she could be giving more. This may contradict my previous statement, but maybe she inhabits her characters so much that she doesn't cover all emotional ground possible.

I might just be rambling here, but that's what I feel. The only performance where it seems like she's given her all is Darling; in my personal opinion. Which, oddly enough, isn't what I find to be her best performance. Just her most committed.

3:08 AM, March 20, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

but isn't there something to be said for leaving some ground uncovered? I personally like having to fill in a little. Makes me engage with the performance more.

but then I am a big fan of minimalist acting in general. Like, I love Tilda Swinton in Orlando which is so many odd blank stares (if i'm remembering it correctly) that I'm forced to continually project.

I like to participate.

8:06 AM, March 20, 2008  
Blogger Hayden said...

By the way, this is xcountryskier452 on my fledgling Blogger account.

I feel I've already defended her performance in Afterglow sufficiently, so I won't go down that road again, but as far as your comments on Away From Her and general criticism of Christie's style:

Julie Christie is just a charming woman. I don't think she could ever be otherwise--it's not something she can really shake from her onscreen persona. She's just too elusive, too mystical, too fascinating. But I think it's unfair to suggest that it necessarily means she doesn't commit herself to roles. As I said before, her role in Away From Her demanded a kind of selfless removal that most actresses simply aren't capable of. Like Nathaniel said, Christie is more engaging than most actresses--she doesn't force-feed you thundering monologues or ascend into petty histrionics because she really doesn't need to. She brings a kind of melodic complexity to performances with her stare, her facial expressions, her body language, her intonations. She does subtlety better than anyone. She's very visual in that way. So much of what she brings to her characters are blink-and-you-miss-it nuances that make her an incredibly realistic performer.

That's why I feel her "quiet" performances are often misjudged. You're not going to get a ton of attention baiting, because she makes you do some of the work. She presents a person, and you're to judge her the way you judge people in real life. She doesn't give the whole story. But she always leaves us (me, anyway) wanting more in the best way possible.

10:33 AM, March 20, 2008  
Blogger Kamikaze Camel said...

Nick, I quite like Davis in Children of the Revolution. In my notes for that year I have her down as my 6th contender, but it has been such a long time since I saw it - hell, since I even thought about it - that I wouldn't feel comfortable placing her.

O'Connor's place is sort of a duel nom for Kiss or Kill and Thank God He Met Lizzie. That's my Aussie-pidgeonholing for ya! While Williams' is for Soul Food (one my very fave films from that year).

8:39 AM, March 22, 2008  

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