Best Actress 1997
Winner: Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets
Nominees: Helena Bonham Carter, The Wings of the Dove
Julie Christie, Afterglow
Judi Dench, Mrs. Brown
Kate Winslet, Titanic

The Field: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I've been all over the place with this category, possibly because anything after 1996's banner year would have been a comedown, partially because Hunt's win has remained such an unpopular one, though her victory was only conceivable in the first place because no excited consensus built itself around any of the other four nominees. I loved Bonham Carter and still like Hunt very much, and though they're my favorites in the bunch, the other three help just as much to keep this race compulsively re-visitable. Dench, whom I largely rejected the first two times I saw Mrs. Brown, grows on me over the years, while my slightly mystified admiration for whatever Christie is up to in the maddening Afterglow grows duller and duller, despite four successive tries. And Winslet, largely treated as an unworthy inevitability at the time, always deserved more of the credit for Titanic's success than Leo did, partially because she watched and reacted to and reflected Leo so compellingly. Almost all of these performances are easy to overvalue or to undervalue, and they're shape-shifters: I never react the same way twice to any of them, which has made this race an unexpectedly durable pleasure. I do, however, wish that AMPAS, who seemed quite bored with their options at the time, had noticed how much other superior, nommable work was out there from Allen, Foster, Grier, Thompson, Weaver having the time of her life, and (especially) the deliciously nasty Roberts. And that's not even counting the indie queens and 4-year-old Thivisol. Even Entertainment Weekly couldn't get it together to suggest a "dark horse" possibility in their annual stump-speech issue that year. So why were these other performances so invisible, or so dismissed?

Ranking Oscar's Ballot
My Pick:
Helena Bonham Carter, The Wings of the Dove ★ ★ ★ ★
"There's nothing corrupt about Kate," opines turbaned and Titian-haired Milly Theale (Alison Elliott), with a blithe and characteristic surfeit of confidence. "Mmmm, of course there is," replies soused but clear-sighted Lord Mark (Alex Jennings), a sort of Addison DeWitt of the London social set, lacking only the underlying steel to coerce everyone's behavior to his wishes. "It's in her eyes, can't you see? There's far too much going on behind those pretty lashes." Bonham Carter, as Kate Croy, shoots Lord Mark a look that works, typically and wondrously, on two opposed registers. On one of them, she is as plain as the surface of a pond: "You twit," she seems to say. But she also, unable to hide her admiration for Mark's frank and true perception, wonders whether she really desires her new friend to know or even guess the depths of her own still waters. Kate blinks and smiles at Mark, then has some unspoken, serious thought while looking out into the middle distance, then a visible shift to some other thought, and then she ends with another long look at Mark: her nearest equal (in some ways, still her superior and guide) in this social set, this moment, on this settee. Calibrations of power, internal ambivalences, peaks and dips of desire, shades of malignity, generosity, hypocrisy, and accusation—Bonham Carter captures all of it in her most watchful, most knowing film performance, full of the kind of pooling stares and undisclosed reflections that make Henry James work on film. Kate knows and feels quite a lot, though knowledge, more than feeling, becomes her habitat and addiction. She rarely looks when or where the camera or the other characters tell her to; she's absorbed in her own contemplations, schemes, rationalizations. Her intelligence and (funny word for such a willful liar) her discretion make Kate surprisingly empathetic, as do a few key, early moments when the severity of her straits and the denials of her own desire seem to shock her with paralyzing force. Bonham Carter has a full-bodied presence on screen here like nothing she'd demonstrated in earlier roles, coaxed along by the exquisite lighting and costumes but also making her own expert use of both. She fades a little in the end of the film, partly because it keeps cutting away from her and abstracting more of what Kate actually knows or feels. But the impression of braininess and also of stark moral compromise are constant, and indelible.

From There:
Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
From my full review: "Praise God for Helen Hunt, who shows up soon as Carol Connelly, the harried, sad-eyed waitress at Melvin's favorite café. Carol is the only person on the premises (on any premises, we might infer) who can handle Melvin's mercurial habits and viperish temper, so she has already won the decidedly dubious honor of being the only waitress from whom he will order. Hunt is the saving grace of the movie, delivering a warm, lived-in, inclusive performance that not only hits all the right notes, but operates from such a rich, fertile core of humanity that all of her wide-ranging speeches and impulsive actions seem to spring credibly from the same woman. She alone triumphs fully over the movie's tendencies toward artifice and disconnectedness, and she carries everyone else in the film to their best work in their scenes with her." I'd add now that the Brooklyn accent gives her some regrettable trouble, and she sometimes pinches up when confronting big emotional scenes. Still, her ingrained comic timing and her guarded wit usually help her recover. She, the actress more than the character, looks and sounds stressed as she reams her mom (Shirley Knight) for hectoring her with questions about her unhappy life, but then she saves the scene in its final stroke: the right, flummoxed reading of the single word "Okay." Hunt is officious enough that she sometimes tries too hard, but she's natural enough that she finds her way back home, and at least in this strange and troubled film, she leads the script and the audience with her.

Judi Dench, Mrs. Brown ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
What I admire most about this performance is also what makes me tetchy about it, but let's accentuate the positive: Dench navigates a script (not a very great one, in fact) about standard Victorian oppositions between duty and emotion, attachment and repression, and she does so without indulging obvious facial and gestural slides between these registers, at least not more than once or twice. What I mean is, we don't watch her "unloosen" or refortify in the hugely telegraphed ways we have seen in countless other performances in other movies—and not just because she's playing a formidable queen, I suspect, but because she doesn't believe in reducing a character or a past era into the two-dimensional contours of familiar homilies. I admire Dench's commitment to Victoria's hardness and her disillusionment. She's not always as dour as I tend to remember her, and when she erupts from behind a piano to lash out against George Disraeli (Antony Sher) on the question of Irish secession, or when, in a somewhat panderingly written scene, she implores friendly consort John Brown (Billy Connolly, tremendous) not to leave her side when her cohort turns violently against their controversial friendship, Dench shows herself adept at theatrical gusto but facile, too, with tacit work in close-ups. But at other times, she is a bit dour and inaccessible, her relationship to the camera a bit plain and ungiving, not just in the style of a regal woman locked up in mourning and resentment but of a theatrically expressive actor working studiously, perhaps with too much muscle cramping, not to give a stage performance. The screenplay hustles past its best opportunities to enable a great performance—she acquiesces so quickly to John's overtures of friendship, and with so little screentime reserved for her awareness of political and familial cost, that dramatic nuance and carefully shaded acting fall casualty. Dench is a very worthy nominee, and I've been overly stingy, I think, in comments I've made about her work in the past. Still, her reserve isn't as transfixing or as cinematically keen as Bonham Carter's, and while she and Connolly elevate the film from its small-screen script and direction to big-screen reverberatons, nor, despite her superiority in pure control and technique, does she recuperate the lapses of her material as often and as fully as Hunt does hers.

Julie Christie, Afterglow ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
What do you do if you're trapped in a low-grade Alan Rudolph movie, a chamber comedy among four characters that seeks out jokes and ironies in stoopid screenwriting conceits like naming Nick Nolte's philandering plumber-protagonist Lucky Mann? If you're Nick Nolte, you scale back your performance from the customary standard of angst, poke a little fun at your "Sexiest Man Alive" history, and come off looking pretty good. If you're Lara Flynn Boyle or Jonny Lee Miller, you soldier ahead with personality over technique, even if Lara sometimes overplays the farce and Jonny sometimes forgets to let the audience into his head. At all. If you're Christie, you parse up the script into a series of arch responses, wistful bon mots, and unpredictable rhythms, jazz-riffing against the flow of the screenplay and experimenting with the idea of creating a character as an assembly of gestures and moods. Sadly, the experiment still doesn't fly: she's clearly a sly performer, eager for an adventure and simpatico with Nolte, but rather than connect the dots of Phyllis, she just strews around her own series of dots. It's pleasant to get reacquainted with Christie on-screen, but her character remains utterly remote, and blithely unrelated to the script's backstory about Z-grade movies and a runaway child. Christie as Phyllis constitutes the kind of honorable failure in light-touch improv that only a fabled and capable actress would be able, and allowed, to put over as a performance, and for which only a still-ravishing beauty would collect a New York Film Critics prize and an Oscar nod. A more than respectable try...but afterglow, indeed.

Kate Winslet, Titanic ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
From my full review: "Laura Dern proved in Jurassic Park that standing agape is quite enough to get you through a special-effects picture. Cameron's ambition demands more than that, however, and the mission he lays out to DiCaprio and Winslet is that they can a) occupy the screen in the personal scenes and not make us miss the more extravagant spectacles of the ship and its appointments, and b) mute themselves in the action sequences only to the extent that they don't get missed, since a sinking ship isn't too dramatic if we've forgotten about the living, imperiled people onboard. DiCaprio and Winslet, both impeccably cast, fill these tricky double-binds very well, and while no one had me thinking 'Oscar,' Winslet's nomination is not the total travesty that Gene Siskel, for one, made it out to be." I still believe that Winslet, like DiCaprio, strikes a helpful balance between an archetype and a free-standing character, personalizing the story without intruding too much into the spectacular and technical priorities of the film. This balance is most weakly struck in her early scenes. Stepping out of her car, suffering her fiancé, defending her Picassos, reprimanding Jack for his audacity in speaking to her so familiarly: these moments often suggest a stiff and inexperienced actress giving a blind approximation of a social caste and a historical era that she doesn't know much about. But under the duress of freezing waters, a terrified crew, a collapsing structure, and a disintegrating future, Winslet grows surer about who Rose is, and construes the second half of the film as not just a struggle to keep alive but a coltish, defiant, middle-finger insistence on staying alive. Plus, as someone who never got the appeal of Leo in this movie, I depended on Winslet's evocation of a growing and palpable passion (green and superficial though it is) to keep me enmeshed in the movie's emotional world. She roundly trumped this performance before and since, and it's not much on which to stake on Oscar nomination, but the Academy has been guilty of much sillier nominations than this one.

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

My Favorites from 1997:
As determined by years of Oscar eligibility
(Favorites in Major Categories)

My Pick: Tilda Swinton, Female Perversions
Nominees: Helena Bonham Carter, The Wings of the Dove
Nominees: Judy Davis, Children of the Revolution
Nominees: Julia Roberts, My Best Friend's Wedding
Nominees: Victoire Thivisol, Ponette

Honorable Mentions (ranked): Michelle Pfeiffer, A Thousand Acres; Joan Allen, The Ice Storm; Maggie Cheung, Irma Vep; Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets; Judi Dench, Mrs. Brown; Jodie Foster, Contact; Emma Thompson, The Winter Guest; Pam Grier, Jackie Brown; Sigourney Weaver, Alien: Resurrection; Alison Folland, All Over Me; Christina Ricci, The Ice Storm; Deborah Kara Unger, Crash; Jennifer Jason Leigh, Washington Square; Glenn Close, Paradise Road; Helena Bonham Carter, Margaret's Museum

Also-Rans (alpha): Joey Lauren Adams, Chasing Amy; Juliette Binoche, A Couch in New York; Cate Blanchett, Oscar and Lucinda; Neve Campbell, Scream 2; Katrin Cartlidge, Career Girls; Julie Christie, Afterglow; Cheryl Dunye, The Watermelon Woman; Francesca Faridany, Conceiving Ada; Jennifer Love Hewitt, I Know What You Did Last Summer; Nastassja Kinski, One Night Stand; Lisa Kudrow, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion; Jessica Lange, A Thousand Acres; Sheryl Lee, Bliss; Nia Long, love jones; Susanne Lothar, Funny Games; Julia Ormond, Smilla's Sense of Snow; Molly Parker, Kissed; Robin Wright Penn, She's So Lovely; Martha Plimpton, Eye of God; Parker Posey, The House of Yes; Joely Richardson, Hollow Reed; Julia Roberts, Conspiracy Theory; Meg Ryan, Addicted to Love; Jurnee Smollett, Eve's Bayou; Mira Sorvino, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion; Lynda Steadman, Career Girls; Tilda Swinton, Conceiving Ada; Emily Watson, The Boxer; Emily Watson, The Mill on the Floss; Lynn Whitfield, Eve's Bayou; Kate Winslet, Titanic; Vivian Wu, The Pillow Book

Further Research: Hope Davis, The Daytrippers; Chloe Ferguson, The Quiet Room; Jennifer Lopez, Selena; Miranda Otto, Love Serenade; Miranda Richardson, The Designated Mourner

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