Sunday, August 2, 2015

Best Supporting Actress Smackdown 1995: My Ballot

Over at The Film Experience there's a monthly feature called The Best Supporting Actress Smackdown. Originally began by Stinkylulu over at their website, it was brought back to life by Nathaniel at TFE and has to be one of my favorite things on the entire internet. The concept is simple: a year is chosen and a rotating panel of pundits re-examinze all 5 of the nominees in that category with a grade of 1 to 5 hearts depending on how effective/good they find the performance all these years later. The year chosen for July was 1995 (and to give the year context, I wrote a piece on Nicole Kidman's breakout year). 1995 is a year that has a special place in my heart because it was the first one that launched my obsession with all things Oscar. I blame Kate Winslet in Sense & Sensibility. (Oh, spoiler alert, I guess you know who I chose already...) The last member of the panelists is actually readers who submit their own takes on the performances and weigh-in on who should've gone home with the golden guy that year. Below are my own thoughts on the 5 women nominated for Best Supporting Actress that year. Before this year of films, I had always watched the Oscars and rooted for whatever Disney film was up for Best Song and Music and loved any period piece that was nominated for costume design. But this was the year that I became more than just a casual viewer and took my interest in the awards to the level where I now write about the annual event year round. I remember seeing Sense & Sensibility with my mother and just falling in love with Kate Winslet's performance. It was my first introduction to her as I was a little too young for Heavenly Creatures the year before, but it made me a devoted fan. Her performance in that film is one of my all-time favorites and I used to watch it once a week in high school. (I even told her when I eventually met her years later.) So looking back on 1995, it was a little hard for me to be biased when it came to judging her performance. But let's look at how I felt about her competition that year, Joan Allen, Kathleen Quinlan, eventual winner Mira Sorvino, and Mare Winningham, and see if any of these actresses came close to dethroning Winslet for me.

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Joan Allen Nixon

The Role: In her first of two back-to-back Supporting Actress nominations, the Tony winner took on Pat Nixon, the wife of one of the most controversial American presidents that ever served office.

My Take: Trying to infuse some life and humanity into a woman that was known in real life as "Plastic Pat" is a daunting task for even the most skilled actress. Luckily with Joan Allen at the helm, an actress whose gravitas and intelligence make even the most underwritten part feel fully-formed and bursting with interior life, there's already an assurance of meticulous care and craft. Because without Allen's natural abilities to draw in the audience, Pat Nixon, as written in Oliver Stone's meandering mess of an opus, remains just as impenetrable and artificial as she was perceived. Asked to play only one of two actions throughout the film: steadfast supporter or privacy-seeking reluctant (sometimes inexplicably within the same scene), Allen's Pat seems like an afterthought in Nixon's hazy structure. That Allen remains unscathed by Anthony Hopkins' histrionic devouring of not just the scenery but everything in his wake is a testament to her strength and fortitude as an actress to command attention even when the film is content to keep her as an unknown. 

Kathleen Quinlan Apollo 13

The Role: Quinlan received her sole Oscar nomination for playing Marilyn Lovell, the wife of stranded astronaut Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), in Ron Howard's Best Picture nominated take on this true-life story.

My Take: With misty eyes fixed on her television, Quinlan's Marilyn is intended to be our emotional connection to the loved ones patiently waiting back home while the "brave" men drift in space. But every time the film unnecessarily cuts away from the action of the men's survival it feels more like a chore or a narrative necessity without bringing any substantial catharsis to justify it. (It's telling that we aren't even granted a reunion scene at the end, the film having no use for Marilyn once the men are safe.) And Quinlan is given not so much scenes to play but brief flashes in which the camera focuses on her silently observing, fearful yet hopeful. Even when she's given a little more to play, like telling her son or mother-in-law about what has happened to Jim, it's reduced to a single sentence and Quinlan, ever the dutiful wife and not wanting to draw too much attention to herself, seems to think that less is more in those moments. However when given nothing to begin with, her modestly played character disappears from the screen entirely, swallowed up by the major events surrounding her. 

Mira Sorvino Mighty Aphrodite

The Role: For her Oscar-winning performance, Sorvino (the daughter of actor Paul Sorvino) played a ditzy prostitute named Linda Ash, the biological mother of Lenny (Woody Allen)'s adopted son.

My Take: Aiming for Judy Holliday levels of brilliance, but feeling more like Victoria Jackson in an SNL sketch that airs right before the host says good-night, Sorvino's whiny-voiced dimwit is a one-joke creation that hasn't been fleshed out enough (by the actress or Allen's screenplay) to sustain an entire film. And Sorvino seems to think that having made the choice to give her Linda a nasally monotone is enough to build a whole character, playing every scene with a sameness that starts to grate depending on how funny you found her initially. (Apparently even Woody started to get irritated with her asking Sorvino to change her voice after they had been filming for a couple of days already.) But there's still something endearing about the sweet dopiness Sorvino bring's to her simple sex worker, especially when she reveals her dreams (to be a hairdresser) and shares stories of regret about the son that she gave up for adoption. Giving us glimpses of genuine substance behind the dumb blonde jokes. 

Mare Winningham Georgia

The Role: Winningham (who won the Independent Spirit Award for this performance) plays the title character, a musician whose life is constantly uprooted by her troubled younger sister (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in a role written for her by her mother). 

My Take: Anyone with siblings knows that it's always a fight to compete for attention and with Jennifer Jason Leigh's manic Sadie demanding we notice her, it's amazing that the Academy chose to ignore her cry for attention and instead focus their efforts on the less showy sister, Georgia, played with subtlety and deceptive effortlessness by Winningham. As the sister that has it all together, (successful music career, stable relationship with a loving husband) the normalcy of Georgia and her life could very easily become dull, her character in danger of being nothing but the caring, support system for her troubled younger sibling. But Winningham's Georgia isn't some saintly bore, but a woman capable of anger and resentment. She sees her sister as a burden, tied to her through familial obligation. And instead of reluctantly bearing it, she calls Sadie out for her destructive ways in confrontations that Winningham wins with calm and composure. It's a performance reminiscent of the folk music Georgia sings, unassuming and simplistic, but embedded within its framework, complexity and soulfulness. 

Kate Winslet Sense & Sensibility

The Role: The impulsive romantic to her older sister Elinor (Emma Thompson)'s heady reason. Winslet, in the first of her six Oscar nominations, is Marianne Dashwood in the film adaptation of Jane Austen's first published novel.

My Take: In a society where women are meant to be seen and not heard, Winslet uses these imposed silences to covey all of Marianne's emotions through her expressive face and body. She doesn't even speak a word in her first scene in the film, but we learn so much about her already (her strained relationship to her sister, her indulgence in melancholy, and her cheeky sense of self-interest). But hardly one to strictly follow the rules of propriety, Winslet's Marianne is certainly not afraid of being heard as well as seen if the moment demands it. Like when she shouts Willoughby's name across a crowded dance floor (scandal!) or schools Edward in the proper way to "feel despair" in a poetry reading. Winslet indulges every passionate impulse that defines Marianne's romanticism, which is all the more heart-breaking when that openness forces her to gain newfound maturity. But it's in those later scenes that Winslet brings a greater depth and understanding to the character, allowing the change to not crush our heroine's spirits but make her cautiously optimistic when it comes to matters of the heart. 

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In a surprise to absolutely no one, Kate Winslet still remains my winner with Mare Winningham giving an impressive showing. I'm most surprised about how much Mira Sorvino just doesn't work for me seeing the film 20 years later. I remember at the time thinking that she was very funny in the role and even if I didn't want her to win, I could see how she did. Now I'm just confused as to how she had such an easy road to victory. Maybe because she hasn't really done anything of note since. Or maybe I'm just bitter that I had to buy a DVD copy of Mighty Aphrodite just to re-watch it. Certainly not a good sign for an Oscar-winning role only 20 years old...Be sure to head on over to The Film Experience to read everyone else's take on this year and tell me all about how much you love Kate Winslet in this role in the comments!  


  1. Kate Winslet delivers one of the best Supporting Actress Performances of all time here.


    Her Oscar loss is just absolutely disgusting.

    1. i know! although when i stop to think about it, i am little torn. i completely agree she should have won for this, but not sure she would have the career she does and so many subsequent nominations had she won so early on. we all see what winning did for sorvino that year...

    2. Er...Sorvino's talent pales in comparison to Goddess Winslet.

  2. "Aiming for Judy Holliday levels of brilliance, but feeling more like Victoria Jackson in an SNL sketch that airs right before the host says good-night"

    That is as perfect a summation of Sorvino's performance as anyone could ever come up with. The affect she puts on isn't a bad choice, and she gets more mileage out of it than you might expect, but the part cries out for someone more kookily inspired... Lisa Kudrow, say, or (if the film were being made today) Anna Faris. I love cheering comic wins in ANY category at ANY awards show, but this win doesn't make me squeal with glee the way Marisa Tomei's or Whoopi Goldberg's still do.

    1. it's true - the academy usually seems so allergic to comedy that when they nominate and actually win it does seem like a victory. but this performance just doesn't match the comedic genius that whoopi, marisa, and dianne achieved in their wins that same decade.

      but i like the idea of kudrow as linda and now i have a sudden urge to watch ROMY & MICHELE right now...