Best Actress, 1999

Annette Bening
American Beauty


Too long celebrated more for her marriage than for her talent, Bening definitively proved her credibility as an actress with her crisp, fierce performance as Carolyn Burnham, a woman who really doesn't seek identification with her husband. Bening's victory at the SAG Awards, after being passed over by the Golden Globes and other critics societies, suggests that momentum for the picture has reached such a pitch that she could be swept along as part of a landslide. Already winning good-sport plaudits for agreeing to attend and present at the Oscars despite being in her ninth month of pregnancy. Votes for her would prevent her from being overshadowed again by her hubby, the recipient of this year's Irving Thalberg award.

Bening's role not only looks smallish compared to those of her fellow nominees, but the film's treatment of Carolyn occasionally borders on cruelty. (Didn't those hotel scenes with Peter Gallagher strike you as a little crass?) Despite showy scenes like the self-beratement in the house Carolyn fails to sell, we do not feel we understand her by the picture's end as well as we do the film's other characters, which is probably the screenwriter's fault but may be held against the actress playing her.
Janet McTeer

Winner of the National Board of Review award as well as the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, the last two winners of which have gone on to win the Oscar. McTeer carries Tumbleweeds along on the strength of her own performance, a particularly remarkable feat for an actress all but new to the screen, and in so doing she showed up Hollywood star Susan Sarandon in the comparable project Anywhere But Here. If Fine Line can get enough Academy voters to watch this film, I suspect many will be moved by McTeer's exceedingly warm, confident, and colorful performance—richer than Bening's and less depressing to watch than Swank's demise.
Fine Line may not have promoted Tumbleweeds enough to ensure that voters have seen the film, which was not a financial success even on its own modest standards. Many people seem still not to know who McTeer is, and as in the case of Russell Crowe, her anonymity may preclude recognition of her astonishing physical and vocal transformation for the part. Brief, businesslike speech at the Golden Globes left the impression that a McTeer victory would not exactly provide a sensational live-TV moment. McTeer herself has announced her support for Hilary Swank.
Julianne Moore
The End of the Affair

Moore turned in more performances than any other major actor in 1999, and all of them—in Cookie's Fortune, An Ideal Husband, Magnolia, and A Map of the World—were celebrated by critics and by the small audiences who saw them. Everyone in Hollywood is clamoring to work with her, and her profile continues to rise with the news that she will revive Jodie Foster's role in the upcoming sequel to The Silence of the Lambs.
Moore's movies are often less highly regarded than she is herself, and The End of the Affair was a case in point, an ambitious but ultimately stifled tale of love and war that was too sentimental for Graham Greene purists and too muted for audiences. The Hannibal script has elicited such negative reactions from other actresses who have read it that Moore's acceptance of the role may redefine her tremendous prolificity as a dubious selection of material. Everyone expects her to win an Oscar some time, but this film is probably not the vehicle to carry her there.
Meryl Streep
Music of the Heart

If Julianne Moore and Annette Bening are respected, Meryl Streep is idolized. The magnitude of her professional community's respect for her work could not be stated more clearly than by a nomination for a film that few people saw and did not exactly seem like Oscar material to many who did. All the media rah-rah about Streep's 12th nomination could excite voters to give her a third win, especially those who realize she hasn't been handed a trophy since 1982.
Why give Meryl Streep an award when two well-liked members of the A-list and two extraordinarily promising neophytes are eligible for consideration? Streep will lose for the same reason she has done so since Sophie's Choice, and for the same reasons that Bette Davis and Spencer Tracy went Oscar-less for the last thirty years of their careers: voters like to spread the wealth.
Hilary Swank
Boys Don't Cry

A true out-of-nowhere sensation, Swank's career might never have shoved off the 90210 stigma if not for her stunning, fearless work in a picture that would have foundered with a star of less courage or skill. The Golden Globe, Golden Satellite, New York Film Critics, and National Society of Film Critics awards offer only a partial list of the accolades she has already collected. To a voting body who never shies away from exhibiting their political awareness, Swank's role and her film bear timely social import far in excess of the performances against which she is competing.
Unknown actresses who tackle provocative roles with such extreme emotional force and physical commitment—I am thinking here of Jessica Lange in Frances and Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves—often cede Oscars to more established talents, and have a hard time getting older or more conservative voters to watch their movies. Bening's SAG victory may be an indication that enough people have not seen Boys Don't Cry, or that too many people are scared off by its content.

WHO WILL WIN: Bening's chances have never seemed greater than they do now, but I am counting on enough people to have watched Boys Don't Cry between the announcement of the nominees and the balloting for the Oscars to carry Swank to victory.

WHO SHOULD WIN: I am an intense admirer of all five actresses in this contest; none of these roles are easy and none of the work phoned in. Nevertheless, Swank's journey into the sharpest and most wounding parts of the story exceeds what any of her competitors was asked to do; by the same token, her courtship and love scenes with ChloŽ Sevigny were as poignant as any of the moments in McTeer or Streep's more obviously heart-warming pictures.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: If Miramax had rallied around last spring's affecting family drama A Walk on the Moon with half the fervor they showered on certain apple-picking films I could name, Diane Lane might have scored the nomination she so richly warranted. Also, though her role straddled the leading/supporting division, Nicole Kidman should have been honored somewhere for her galvanizing moments in Stanley Kubrick's egregiously overlooked and misunderstood Eyes Wide Shut.

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