Best Actress 2002
Winner: Nicole Kidman, The Hours
Nominees: Salma Hayek, Frida
Diane Lane, Unfaithful
Julianne Moore, Far from Heaven
Renée Zellweger, Chicago

The Field: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
An exciting field of actresses, though only Moore's work ranks with her best. (I suppose Hayek's might, too, but for a sorrier reason.) Big points to all five actors for taking major risks, and to the Academy for embracing a pulpy thriller, a musical, a highwire exercise in period semiotics, and an unusual biopic with splashy surrealist flourishes. The most "Oscary" movie still won (and not even for its strongest performance), and lots of superlative work got ignored on the way to finalizing this list, but the field nonetheless measures well against usual Academy standards.

Ranking Oscar's Ballot
My Pick:
Julianne Moore, Far from Heaven ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
From my full review: "Is there another working actress besides Julianne Moore who could match Cathy's blend of bravery and stillness, her distrust of high drama in a world of production design? Moore is far from reprising her role in Haynes' Safe, even if the homology in the names Carol White and Cathy Whitaker suggest at least a proximate connection. What links the parts is Moore's astonishing craft at telegraphing a character whose reflex, whose job, is to submerge herself into a uniquely overpowering domestic landscape. Moore has played volcanoes (in Magnolia) and near-mutes (in Cookie's Fortune), and throughout that range she has maintained an unparalleled knack for subliminal communication, as though she's acting with her irises. Her voice is a surprisingly pliable instrument—Carol and Cathy don't sound anything alike, even when calling their housekeepers—and she has mastered the predilection for non sequiturs and stiff or broken utterance that defines Haynes' screenwriting."

From There:
Renée Zellweger, Chicago ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
A great singer Renée Zellweger isn't. A dancer, of any caliber, she'll never be. But her Roxie Hart somehow emerges as the shining star of the film, much more so than the cold, steely proficiency of Catherine Zeta-Jones in her Oscar-winning role as Velma Kelly. Zeta-Jones gives Chicago credibility as a musical, but Zellweger authenticates it as fun, as wish-fulfillment. One doesn't wish to romanticize her insufficiency to the demands of the score and the choreography, not with so many deft hoofers and belters sitting out on the Hollywood sidelines, but Chicago works whether or not Roxie has a whit of real talent. Much more important is her zeal, her competitive edge, her tackiness, her self-glorifying chutzpah, and her key homonym: her moxie. All of this Zellweger manufactures with real zest, from the first euphoric moments as she gawks at Velma onstage and hops in the sack with snaky Dominic West. Her girlish daffiness, underlined as in no other role by cynicism and cunning, allows us to believe that Roxie could pull focus away from Velma, despite her advantages of years and skill, and she conveys both the giddiness of Roxie's blooming fame and the genuine disbelief of a dim, untalented woman who doesn't know where all of her admirers went. Extra points for being such a great ventriloquist's dummy, which in this case is a compliment.

Nicole Kidman, The Hours ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Nicole Kidman cuts through The Hours like a shark's fin, her limp and flowery housedresses doing nothing to disguise her stern and bony shoulders, her wiry hair, the drill-tips of her eyes. Her voice is as weighed down as her coat pockets. For sheer intensity, Kidman has never achieved anything like this, although it's an open question whether such straightforward intensity marks this actress' truest calling. The Hours doesn't allow her to pull one emotion out from beneath another, as is her remarkable wont: the despair beneath her frivolity in Moulin Rouge!, the recklessness beneath her hunger for life in The Portrait of a Lady, the iron beneath her compliance in Dogville. Kidman thrives amidst paradoxes like these; they complicate the milkiness on her surface, and they scare her into exceeding herself. Here, beneath Woolf's restive genius, she finds an even more restive genius, and though I blame Stephen Daldry for the stagy excesses of her howling away at the train station, she hardens the character instead of expanding or deepening her. Still, it's stirring to see how much she has sparked to the fire and clarity that are Woolf's legacy, and without the strong foundation she provides, the bold self-unravelings of Meryl Streep and the barreling darkness of the score might seem to come from nowhere. And her reading of Woolf's suicide note is haunting, from the start.

Diane Lane, Unfaithful ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Unfaithful upset me so much as a piece of ideological treachery that I didn't get around to saying much about Lane in my full review of the film. Unfaithful finally made Lane a significant star but, for my money, it wasn't a thesping breakthrough for her; for that, you need to watch 1999's A Walk on the Moon. Instead, her work as Constance in Unfaithful marks a piece of compelling casting that dignifies the movie without quite obligating or, finally, inspiring Lane to excel at her craft. She gets one very showy moment on a commuter train, returning from an extra-marital liaison, and her face sifts through a sandstorm of emotions: guilt, glee, worry, self-mockery, furtiveness. The problem with this moment is that the emotions themselves didn't convince me. Lane indicates what the filmmakers want—a desirable woman at sea amidst her own feelings—but she doesn't credibly create that woman. She looks like an actress wringing her way through the Big Scene in the script. I always prefer Lane on screen when she is working the least hard; her innate gravity and lack of pretense are more compelling than her feints at technique, which usually involve a comma-shaped furl of an eyebrow and a slightly open-mouthed frown. If you've ever seen a Lane performance, you know that look, and you'll know it here, particularly across the second hour. She's a classy but limited actress, and glassy filmmaking like Adrian Lyne's (as opposed to Tony Goldwyn's loose, observant warmth in Walk) tends to freeze her up.

Salma Hayek, Frida ★ ★ ★ ★
Oscar junkies will remember that despite the abundance of astonishing actressing on American screens in 2002, the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild and other notable precursors had essentially narrowed the Best Actress field down to six viable nominees, with Hayek and Meryl Streep duking it out for that last slot. Meryl's Supporting nod for Adaptation kept her in play even if her Hours performance gave way to Hayek's impersonation of the iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, a performance that also profited from positive feeling toward the movie and toward Hayek's redoubtable efforts toward producing it. Whatever my qualms about Frida, I admire how staunchly its creators stuck to the guns of their florid, eccentric, occasionally macabre inspirations. Even when the film isn't working, it's fierce and distinctive—except, unfortunately, in Hayek's performance, clearly devoted to the Kahlo legacy but disappointingly immune to spontaneity, paradox, or interiority. She hits one note per scene, often at the expense of major omissions, as when she forgets Frida's chronic physical pain and addled walk for entire sequences in a row. Obedient to Julie Taymor's outlandish visions, but unequipped with her own, Hayek is unequal to playing Frida's many paradoxes. She is dutiful where she needs to be brave, tentative instead of iconoclastic, ordinary when the script needs her to be anything but.

Who gets your vote in this field, and on my dream ballot below? VOTE HERE!

My Favorites from 2002:
(Favorites in Major Categories)
(Favorites in All Categories)

My Pick: Isabelle Huppert, The Piano Teacher
Nominees: Emmanuelle Devos, Read My Lips
Nominees: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary
Nominees: Julianne Moore, Far from Heaven
Nominees: Samantha Morton, Morvern Callar

Honorable Mentions: Meryl Streep, The Hours; Maribel Verdú, Y tu mamá también; Ronit Elkabetz, Late Marriage; Franka Potente, The Bourne Identity; Renée Zellweger, Chicago; Nicole Kidman, The Hours; Edie Falco, Sunshine State; Laura Morante, The Son's Room; Parker Posey, Personal Velocity; Jacqueline Bisset, The Sleepy-Time Gal

Further Research: Emmanuelle Béart, Les Destinées; Anna Friel, Me Without You; Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki, Rain; Isabelle Huppert, Merci pour le chocolat; Hayato Ichihara, All About Lily Chou-Chou; Sandrine Kilberlain, Alias Betty; Summer Phoenix, Esther Kahn; Lucy Russell, The Lady and the Duke; Sylvie Testud, Murderous Maids; Paz Vega, Sex and Lucia; Michelle Williams, Me Without You

Trackbacks: Permalink Year Files Best Actress Home Blog E-Mail