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

Judi Dench


An actress whose reputation is so strong it's an offense or an embarrassment not to say you admire her. Often, when the Academy can't distinguish a winner by any standard of quality or enthusiasm, they rely instead on expressing Good Taste: everyone agrees Dench is a great actress, so a vote her way is safe. Chocolat supporters, if they require that the film wins something, have their best shot here. And it's a silly, almost vulgar miscalculation, but Oscar voters sometimes try to reward nominees who have undergone personal tragedies with professional successes; the recent death of Dench's husband has been well-publicized, and the awards are Hollywood's crudest (and therefore most reliable) means of expressing condolence.

Dench would be a shoo-in not only if she hadn't won just two years for Shakespeare in Love, but if it weren't so commonly believed that that Oscar was a consolation prize for losing Best Actress in 1997. One only wishes to continue the cycles of recompensation so long before one actually looks at the work: Dench's due has already been paid her, and her work in Chocolat, viewed only as a piece of acting, is hardly demanding of a second statuette, of any statuette.
Marcia Gay Harden

Going out on a limb for Harden has worked well for me this year—I'm one of the few people who predicted her nomination. I'm willing now to make an even bigger gamble by calling her a front-runner: up against the token vet status of not just Walters but the already-Oscared Dench and McDormand, or the equally token ingenue status of Kate Hudson, Harden is the only nominee included on the strength of her acting. Everyone who's looking at this category is noticing the thinness of real technical achievement, and Harden may reap all the votes that aren't directed because of extraneous, irrelevant criteria to other nominees. If enough people see Pollock, and the hype around its two "surprise" nominations will help, she's got a great shot.
Nonetheless, Harden is not a Screen Actors Guild nominee, was not on the Golden Globes roster, and her only accolade this far was that of the New York Film Critics Circle—an august prize to be sure, but they haven't correctly forecast this race since 1995. (Many recent winners haven't even been nominated by Oscar.) It is hard to make up so much momentum this late in the game, and the question of how many voters will see Pollock, especially voters in the technical branches, remains open and important.
Kate Hudson
Almost Famous

Like Harden, Hudson is assisted in this bid by sheer distinctness from her competitors: she's younger and prettier. (At least that's the buzz—but can we acknowledge for a moment how handsome Judi Dench and Frances McDormand really are? Anyway...) Scoring the Golden Globe over her vaunted co-star was a huge boost for Hudson, and being the daughter of Goldie Hawn is a significant asset, too, as Mira Sorvino, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie can all testify. Penny Lane seems to have won the hearts of many Almost Famous viewers, as Hudson has won those of magazine editors and publicists, so there's a lot of good karma heading her direction.
Her wedding to a grungy rockstar and her permissive statements about marijuana use might once have raised questions if Jolie's win last year hadn't definitively conferred that you can be iconoclastic as hell and still win an Oscar. More to the point is the question of Hudson's acting ability—even Sorvino's charmingly mannered bimbo, Jolie's hellcat, and Paltrow's Bardic verse and makeup/accent shenanigans seemed more like performances than Hudson's embodiment of all that is pretty and innocent. Wouldn't a vote for her transparently turn the Oscar into a fashion plate award, especially with McDormand, Dench & Co. raising the specter of genuine thespian craft?
Frances McDormand
Almost Famous

McDormand's is the only name that has been a foregone conclusion on this ballot since the date her movie opened. In fact, the likelihood of her nomination was high when her first movie of 2000 opened. The fact that she has both Almost Famous and Wonder Boys to show for herself this year makes her doubly impressive, and doubly delicious to the neglected-feeling supporters of two films with strong niche appeal. The telephone scene with Billy Crudup was the biggest recommendation for the status of Almost Famous as an almost-classic, and McDormand herself could hardly be more respected, even by people who call her mannered. Won the Broadcast Film Critics and Los Angeles Film Critics awards.
That Best Actress trophy for Fargo in 1996 is again the real stumbling block here. As in Dench's case, if McDormand had never won anything she would be a sure thing to win here. However, much more often than not, especially if your name isn't Jack Nicholson or Tom Hanks, the voters prefer to spread the wealth rather than consolidate it. This principle holds especially true, again unless your name is Tom Hanks, if your first victory was less than a decade earlier. But certainly weirder things have happened.
Julie Walters
Billy Elliot

The British Academy Award finally makes Walters, a perennial bridesmaid in the recent Awards season, an actual bride. Besides, a perception seems to have set in that she is a legendary British actress of Redgrave or at least Thompson-scale proportions who has long been owed. Billy Elliot itself has managed to transform into a film one believes to have been owed, and hers is the nomination that Billy Elliot fans are most likely to rally around. The Academy loves spunky/grumpy but affectionate types—in this decade alone, see Goldberg, Ruehl, Tomei, Wiest, Dench, and Helen Hunt.
As a trumpeted British talent, Walters has nothing on Dench, whose SAG trophy cemented her status as Prestige Nominee (though Walters at least doesn't have an earlier Oscar to introduce the Spread the Wealth caveat). Besides, and I'm hoping I ain't alone, I must profess to be utterly flummoxed as to the appeal of this performance. Like Lynn Redgrave's and Brenda Blethyn's nominated work in 1998, Walters' turn as Billy's dance instructor seems overly calculated, with an air of slumming, and she disappears almost totally from the picture once Billy's Human Spirit has, inevitably, risen. Actors playing teachers win leading awards more often than supporting ones.

WHO WILL WIN: The closest major race all night, which makes Dench's SAG victory, only two weeks before the Academy ceremony, all the more striking and tempting a signal—though, again, Harden wasn't a player in that derby, and I'm convinced she might well be by the time Oscar ballots are being cast. Since apparently no one can resist a starlet, I'm giving the edge to Hudson, but I'm reserving my right to alter allegiances before the night arrives.

WHO SHOULD WIN: Harden, with absolutely no question. Lee Krasner is ten times more demanding and interesting a character than the wispy, lazy "concepts" of women (the tough broad and the dewy dreamer) played by Dench, Walters, and Hudson. Even McDormand, whose fierce style was perfect ballast for the pudgy Almost Famous, didn't come anywhere near the stark contradictions that Harden illuminated in Lee: a caretaker who understood the limits of her giving, even as she exceeded them, a woman devoted enough to her art to suffer a companion who did it even better. Harden excels at making all these paradoxes more than playable: she makes them profound.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: Two words that many have uttered with post-nomination outrage: Zhang Ziyi. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's far and away most crucial role, Zhang not only connected with the film's emotional currents but gorgeously enacted all the kicking and jumping acrobatics that the choreographers could dream up. (Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix is no match for this woman.) Two more words that could only have been uttered in self-deluded optimism: Catherine Deneuve, who not only made for a sweltering incestuous temptation in the ineligible Pola X but injected unbelievable emotional force into her tricky, muted role in Dancer in the Dark.

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