Simone Signoret, Room at the Top — Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine — Marie Dressler, Min and Bill — Janet Gaynor, 7th Heaven — Liza Minnelli, Cabaret — Emma Thompson, Howards End — Anna Magnani, The Rose Tattoo

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Meryl Streep, in The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
Claudette Colbert, in It Happened One Night (1934)
they got a man
Cate Blanchett
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Jennifer Lawrence
Next: Natalie Portman
Emma Thompson
Barbara Stanwyck, in Double Indemnity (1944)
Renée Zellweger, in Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
Angela Bassett, in What's Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Sally Kirkland, in Anna (1987)
Gong Li, in Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
Judi Dench, in Notes on a Scandal (2006)
Janet McTeer, in Tumbleweeds (1999)

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Best Actress: Champs Emma Thompson
3 Nominations (92, 93, 95)
1 Win (92)
1 Supporting Nomination (93)

click boldfaced years for profiles of those races

If Katharine Hepburn furnished the driving current of my early actress love, albeit via VHS and cable TV, Emma Thompson's phosphorescent years in the early 1990s marked the first big wave I caught in cinemas, right as it was happening, along with the rest of the world. She had me at Howards End (reviewed here and here), and the ride from there, up through Primary Colors (reviewed here), was just a superlative thing to witness: exquisite drama and mirthful comedy, witty and transcendently articulate interviews, and a triumphant foray into writing, which proved that she really was the Nerd Made Good that I so wanted her to be. I idolized the teacher of the creative writing course I took in high school, where I wrote my very first film review, of The Remains of the Day. When I tipped my hand that I was infatuated with Thompson, Ms. Portwood answered, "I love her so much, I can't even believe she exists." An accomplished, hilarious, beautiful, and proudly bookish actress who served a common cause to me and to my most beloved mentors. What, pray, could be better?

No actor ever got better reviews than Thompson did from The New Republic's vaunted critic Stanley Kauffmann, who could not get enough of how sexy Thompson's intelligence was, and how intelligent her sexiness. In other words, what Fred and Ginger allegedly gave each other, Emma gave to herself, and to nearly everyone who worked with her. She brought out the slow-burn romance in Anthony Hopkins and Alan Rickman and something comparable in Jonathan Pryce. She briefly and charmingly cleared Hugh Grant of his most flippant tics. She set an example of impetuous charm and incisive playing for a young Kate Winslet, and of course she worked onscreen wonders for her then-husband Kenneth Branagh, whose stock with the public never rebounded after their divorce. More to the point, Branagh never found another co-star who so capably tempered his hard-charging egotism so that it played more palatably as gusto, ambition, and ardor. Just watching Thompson, I felt included in this luminous parlay of seductive, principled, insouciant smarts. Evidently, so did all of the other people filing out of the theater when I went to see one of her movies. It was an exhilarating circuit in which to participate. She inspired the kind of effusive, jocular devotion—an adoring, kid-sister feeling from audiences who loved her even as they felt they became better, more elevated people by spending time with her—that these days is the exclusive provenance of Meryl Streep.

In some ways, this feels like anything but a coincidence. Thompson scored all of her Oscar nominations during the five years when Meryl experienced her longest drought from AMPAS. 1995, when Thompson was nominated for acting in Sense and Sensibility and became the only trophied thespian in Academy history to reap a screenplay Oscar as well, was the year Meryl returned to the ball with The Bridges of Madison County, and maybe some kind of magical baton got re-passed. Streep's latter-day recipe for being cherished not despite but through one's educational pedigree and refined tastes, her knack for talking politics even in the fluffiest interviews in ways that drive neither writers nor readers away, her capacity for earning instant allegiance from stars as disparate as Vanessa Redgrave and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and her gift for making major splashes in highbrow dramas despite an equal, barely concealed zeal for showing everyone a silly good time... even Marvelous Meryl struggled to hit some of these bull's-eyes with her public and journalistic personas until Emma showed us all how it was done. I'm not saying Thompson blazed all these trails herself, but she did it with startlingly few precedents and without seeming to work all that hard at it.

How, though, does one avoid a retrospective orientation, even a kind of valedictory tone in writing about Thompson from the standpoint of 2010? I have the strong feeling that most of my students have no idea who she is, much less do they associate her with the kind of blooming excitement that to me is synonymous with her legacy. In large part, they know her as the woman who single-handedly supplied to Love Actually—a movie they've seen as many times as I've seen Howards End—a plaintive and much-needed chord of recognizable human feeling. A few of them have seen her in her twin HBO triumphs of the early 00s, Wit and Angels in America. I love how fully she articulated her butch version of Nurse Emily in Angels, and Wit is a handsome, moving transposition of a strong, Thompson-friendly play. Still, neither of these projects showcases that energetic irony, the bouncing and well-schooled irreverence that drew me to her so quickly and fully. I suspect she's a hard one to translate to later generations of fans, and without meaning to sound churlish, if what you've got in front of you are the pristinely played but smallish roles in Love Actually and An Education, the two outings as Nanny McPhee and the two as Sybil Trelawney, the one half-memorable turn in the insufferable Stranger Than Fiction, and the frankly wobbly performance in Brideshead Revisited (where Thompson's unmistakably secular persona clashes badly with Lady Marchmain's unforgiving religiosity), you'd be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. At the very least, you might yearn for someone with more fire beneath her adeptness, prepared to fill bigger canvases, and emanating a more robust aura of truly loving her work. All plaudits to Thompson for devoting more of the last decade to serious activism and philanthropy and to the raising of two chlidren than to building the sort of screen portfolio that her 90s career led us all to expect. But surely it's also fair to say that I miss her, and that the cinema feels diminsihed when she appears so furtively. I regret the lost chance to learn about women in their 40s in the ways we all surely would have if Thompson had been a more frequent guide and chaperone in those investigations.

I concede that a return to the timbre of the Forster and Austen years is unlikely. Moreover, it's not necessarily what I want. Even if the divorce had not happened, had her pace of work not slowed, had the world not hailed her into responsibilities that felt greater or more urgent than acting in films (and it's obviously not for me to say how much these factors did or did not affect each other), I remember thinking in the mid 90s that I was ready for some changes from Thompson. We knew her charisma and joy, her perspicacity. She implicitly revealed through her incandescent, agile Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing—her best performance in 1993, and the one that didn't win an Oscar nomination—that the cinema remains starved for a top-drawer Rosalind or a Viola. I hoped, though, that someone else would play them. Further from her comfort zone, I admired her work as hard-driving barrister Gareth Peirce in In the Name of the Father, largely because she looked so wan and self-contained so much of the time, exposing the human tolls of righteous indignation, of a career sunk in the slow, bureaucratic process of doing the right thing. This was a different Thompson: I adored it less, and it bespoke a few gaps and limits, but I wanted to see more of it. Her lusty but astringent and idiosyncratic turn in Carrington augured promisingly for a Thompson freed from being charming, focused on her body at least as much as on her mind.

Alan Rickman's The Winter Guest, a moving mother-daughter drama that nobody saw, showcases by far the angriest and chilliest performance I've ever seen Thompson give, with no histrionics. I'm always keen to see someone so lovable successfully navigate such an about-face into remoteness and despondency, just as I was thrilled in Primary Colors to watch how someone as smart as Hillary Clinton Emma Thompson Susan Stanton balances a lucid, warts-and-all grasp of their life partner but can still be shaken to the core by abrupt "revelations" of what she seems already to know. And to still be funny, while tracing that kind of conflict? And to cede so many scenes to wonderful Adrian Lester, even as John Travolta shows us in the same movie how it looks when big stars are only thinking of their own performances? All of these signs pointed to the same Thompson I knew and loved as Miss Kenton, as Elinor Dashwood, as Margaret Schlegel—another woman who, like Susan Stanton, prides herself on sagacity but betrays some key convictions, suppressing much of what she wishes not to now. At the same time, these turns all served to underscore how many sides of this performer, this scholar-entertainer, had not yet been divulged.

Let's hope we see more of those sides. 2008's Last Chance Harvey, a movie ignored by almost everyone except the Hollywood Foreign Press, found Thompson in spectacular form. You could argue that Kate Walker is a modern Elinor Dashwood who never did find her Edward Ferrars. You could draw different lines to other Thompson roles, but Kate also felt, wonderfully, like a ground-up creation, a lovely and sad and patient and disappointed woman who discovers just how ready she is to open herself up again. She also discovers, amidst the very same day, how profoundly she desires not to desire, to put anything new on the line. Later that season, Thompson got nice notices from bloggers for how she sat in the audience, coaxing an overcome Sally Hawkins through a breathless, weepy, halting speech at the Golden Globes; she was simultaneously friendly and maternal, with just enough comic zest to distract from the younger woman's touching, almost embarrassing vulnerability. Thompson knows everything about the spotlight and how to handle it. She's a veteran, in ways almost anyone could stand to emulate: a veteran of how to lead newer talents through the public eye, and a veteran of learning to live outside it. I wonder if, like Julie Christie, she's going to spend the rest of her working years offering one or two major performances per decade while she attends more often to more serious work—reminding everyone of just how much we miss her and how we've never fallen out of love with her, while making it clear how small and spoiled we are for grousing that she doesn't come around more often. But I do wish that she would. I love her so much, I can't even believe she exists, and until Harvey came along, I had started to doubt that she did. She was a major teacher and role model during my adolescence, and all these years later, I'm still not ready to graduate. FAQs / Leave a Comment

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