Best Actress, 2000
(Click on the linked film titles for reviews of those movies.)

Joan Allen
The Contender


In a year when both movies and politics hit what felt like all-time lows, Allen and her performance looked that much better: a classy, flawless actress giving life to the tailor-made role of an embattled political appointee who refused to bend on principle or sacrifice her integrity to partisan exigencies. Like Ed Harris, Allen is a performer, for once liberated from supporting parts and cipherish characters, about whom everyone feels respectful and enthusiastic. A trophy for her would make the Academy look and feel good, even if they didn't actually see her movie.

Not seeing the movie might actually be a help, since many who have viewed The Contender, depending on their politics, find it either hypocritical or condescending, self-betraying or self-important. (In fact, the film must set some kind of record for offending everyone, of every persuasion, virtually at the same time and with little premeditated intent.) Despite her popularity among critics, Allen didn't garner any awards for this role, and the film itself was another of those early buzz recipients whose prestige drifted to near-silence after a box-office disappointment, variable word of mouth, and the neglect of critics on their Top Ten lists.
Juliette Binoche

A popular enough, congenial performer in a picture that prides itself on populism and congeniality. Scored the decade's biggest upset when she beat Lauren Bacall for the 1996 Best Supporting Actress Oscar, so why not come from behind again?
All that Binoche or, for that matter, Chocolat have going for them are populism, congeniality, and a massive marketing machine of which the integrity is more and more dubious all the time. Against Allen's and Linney's firmer reputations, Burstyn's comeback, and Roberts' supernova, a vote for Binoche is a ballot tossed into a black hole.
Ellen Burstyn
Requiem for a Dream

In a remarkable year for an actress we haven't heard much from for two decades, Burstyn showed her early self to advantage in The Exorcist, acquitted herself beautifully in a thin role in The Yards, and made the biggest, most burning impression as an elderly New York City shut-in who succumbs to diet pills, television, nostalgia, and false hope (of which everything else was just a symptom.) Has pilfered some awards away, such as the Golden Satellite and the Boston Society of Film Critics, from her younger challengers, and outranks everyone on this list for career longevity and onscreen risk-taking.
In this case, Burstyn's previous Oscar (for 1974's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) won't be as much a hindrance as for Hanks, McDormand, and others, because it was so long ago. Still, the Share The Wealth imperative may apply. More serious prohibitions are the extremity of the material—not all Oscar voters will manage to sit through the excoriating hour and 45 minutes of Burstyn's demise—and the divided reactions to her work. She has plenty of fans and supporters, but mine is but the tiniest of many voices suggesting that her performance was nearly as bloated as Sara Goldfarb herself.
Laura Linney
You Can Count on Me

A critical darling with the New York Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics prizes to her name, Linney finally capitalized on a decade's worth of buzz with her warm but sharp-edged underplaying of Sammy Prescott, You Can Count on Me's distracted but well-meaning single mother. Magazines and newspapers have been citing her as Julia's most serious threat long enough that it might actually be true, especially for voters who resist the predictability of a Roberts win and prefer to honor a less recognized new talent. Film plays equally well to virtually all age and experience demographics, and perfectly on the small screen.
Sammy Prescott, written so delicately and played so precisely, is a perfect avenue into critic's hearts but a less certain vehicle for winning over the Academy. Oscar tends to like bigger gestures, stranger idiosyncrasies, or a more recognizable face than Linney can offer here. She's filling the spot in this year's race that Julianne Moore, Julie Christie, and Diane Keaton have in recent derbies: quiet elegance, exquisitely crafted, but too low-profile to snag attention, especially outside the Actors Branch.
Julia Roberts
Erin Brockovich

As if Roberts' near-universal likability and professional clout weren't enough—she's a friend to many people, and she provides the livelihood of more than a few of them—her accomplishments in Erin Brockovich have garnered legitimate critical enthusiasm, climaxing with the Golden Globe, the Los Angeles Film Critics award, and the National Board of Review citation. After two previous losses, she's waited patiently for a win (she hasn't even been nominated for a decade), and she made of a legal semi-thriller with traces of TV melodrama a $100 million blockbuster with a Best Picture nomination to boot.
Naysayers still exist who think Roberts is only a star instead of an actress, though the nearly equal splitting of votes among Allen, Burstyn, and Linney among these Acting Prizes for the Actors "purists," it's hard to imagine a rival consensus movement big enough to topple Roberts. Having the dismal Mexican currently in theaters doesn't necessarily help, though it proves she's willing to work for less than she might ask, so that's a plus. The most serious threat is maybe the Saving Private Ryan factor—if enough people assume you've got it in the bag, they may find it more tempting to vote somewhere else—but again, for whom, exactly?

WHO WILL WIN: Roberts, the obviosu front-runner, might be more vulnerable to an upset if any of her fellow nominees had a groundswell of unified support. Given that they don't, it would be astonishing for Julia not to be Oscar's runaway bride.

WHO SHOULD WIN: I'm a fan of all the actresses eligible, and Allen and Linney crafted particularly sturdy, affecting portraits, but Roberts pulled off something harder only because it looks easier. Yes, it's a star performance, but those are awfully difficult to pull off as gloriously as she did: using her wattage in the service of a character, playing up the rough edges and refusing to squeak by on established appeal, characterizing Erin with such striking intelligence and personal force that once-disparaging critics got to pretend they'd been honoring those qualities in Roberts' work from Day One. Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible 2 is a star turn. Roberts in Erin Brockovich redefines what a star can do.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: I'd have voted for Julia either way, but Björk, in mostly different ways, was as indispensably committed to the overall success of Dancer in the Dark that any acting race lacking her fierce, eccentric contributions seems lacking indeed. And while I'm not as ready as others to consecrate Gillian Anderson on the strength of The House of Mirth alone, she certainly worked harder than Binoche did and without the gaga mannerisms of Ellen Burstyn.

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