Best Actress 1998
Winner: Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love
Nominees: Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth
Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station
Meryl Streep, One True Thing
Emily Watson, Hilary & Jackie

The Field: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Even people who don't care about Oscars know that Gwyneth Paltrow beat Cate Blanchett, and that she sported a bright pink dress and a too-tight hairstyle while doing so, and they tend to reproach her on both counts. I've never understood this, because a) Blanchett is not appreciably stronger, and might even be weaker, in her patchy drama than Paltrow is in her frothy romcom, b) Blanchett does not have some enormous fan base, and still less did she have one at the time, and c) all of the other nominees gave slightly more interesting performaces than these two did. That said, I'm about evenly split about Montenegro (the critics' choice), Streep, and Watson, and I'm hard-pressed to imagine bestowing an Academy Award on any of these performances. No stinkers, but no real triumphs, either.

Ranking Oscar's Ballot
My Pick:
Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Lurking at the edge of Emily Watson's work in Hilary and Jackie is the danger that, after this and Breaking the Waves, she will quickly overdose on mad, mercurial, oversexed nymph-types, and indeed there are moments when the quality of sanguine excess she imbues into Jacqueline du Pré seems like a default mode of the actress, illuminating her own crazy-brave singularity more than shedding new light on the character. But that's the worst that can be said of a performance that's still much less histrionic than it could have been, given its bases in the notorious danger-zones of prodigal artistry and celebrated idiosyncrasy and debilitating illness. I lay the credit at Watson's feet that despite the strong support she draws from the script and from Rachel Griffiths, and even further despite the florid photography and direction and sound design, she enables us to relate to Jackie and sympathize with her, even after we've spent an hour with the more overtly sympathetic Hilary. Jackie's spoiled temper and saturnine moods and her blatant, acquisitive manipulations aren't glossed over but they are plausibly articulated as the effects of cumbersome, extraordinary talent and of a frightful need to stay close to her sister, even by the most destructive possible means. Jackie uses Hilary not just as a mirror but as a tablet on which she impresses her life, so that she herself can see her life; Watson shows us that Jackie does and also doesn't recognize these behaviors, and she shades her genius and her narcissism with stray notes of shame and admiration and apology. Still, my favorite moments in the performance are those that capture the weirdness of a truly eccentric person, spouting nonsense approximations of foreign languages, pretending not to notice when she's assuming strange accents, thrilling to the iconoclasm of playing The Kinks on her cello, compulsively seizing a spotlight that is already squarely aimed at her during her final concert. Did she really miss her cue with that single drum-tap, or did she just pretend to, to draw maximum attention to herself? Watson makes both readings credible and interesting, but, largely to her credit, she backs away from settling the question.

From There:
Meryl Streep, One True Thing ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Everything in Streep's performance comes wonderfully together in a fourth-act scene when she, in the last stages of cancer, confronts her daughter (Renée Zellweger) about her growing rift with her father (William Hurt). Streep, perhaps overly made up by the Fatal Disease crew, is as forceful as the scene requires but unexpectedly funny to boot, demanding her right to be heard before she dies while sheepishly admitting that she doesn't have much to say—not, at least, after she's dropped her first bomb or two about the inevitable compromises of longterm marriage. I suspect that people who have seen One True Thing remember this scene better than any other; nearly as indelible is a much earlier sequence when Streep and Hurt share an impromptu dance to a Bette Midler CD in the evening hours. Streep is a sporadic linchpin of this impressive, sometimes dour melodrama, though it's really Zellweger whose growing crabbiness around Dad and reluctant melting toward Mom constitute the strongest stuff in the film. On the minus side, Streep is sometimes too antic, her voice a little high and fruity, in the role of a mother whose daughter thinks she's a simp and a sellout. One occasionally wonders if Streep is guilty of such condescension herself: the clichéd "perk" of her Kate Gulden seems like an awfully trite way to draw out the story's themes, and she could have snuck a lot more of this woman's self-awareness into the first hour of the picture. Still, Streep's mid-level performances more than hold their own against peak achievements by many other actors, and she ably earned this eleventh nod.

Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I fess up that if I spoke any Portuguese at all, I might be a lot more taken with Montenegro's performance as Dora, a cynical former teacher who writes letters for illiterate travelers but never actually mails them. A lot of the work Montenegro invests in her Dora, placing her humor and her hardness in surprising, evolving relations, appears to subsist at the level of her line-readings: I can hear her vocal tones shifting, her energy altering in the middle of her lines, but I can't judge exactly what she's saying, or how. With that caveat in place, I like the performance but I don't see much to love, and though she's never as trite as the movie she inhabits—with its touristic montages of the rural and the poor and its hidebound pairing of an old battle-axe with a dewy-eyed youth—I don't believe she redeems or transcends the movie to nearly the degree that her most loyal fans contend. For every inspired or irascible moment, like her shoplifting in a roadside convenience store or her skipping rocks to impress her young charge, there are plenty of close-ups and character notes (distress, impatience, contempt, embarrassment, rejuvenation) that would be virtually interchangeable with compatible performances in dozens of other films, at least if Montenegro's face weren't so distinctive in itself. Her presence holds our attention even when her actual playing seems predictably generic. Not every actress can pull off a part like this, but the ones who can tend to pull it off in more or less the same way.

Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
From my full review: "Here, Norman and Stoppard get themselves in a little bit of trouble, though, because it is never quite clear that Viola holds any attraction for Shakespeare except the obvious flattery of her own smittenness and the equally obvious allure of Gwyneth Paltrow. The actress beams as brightly as we always knew she could but has rarely been allowed to in oppressive schlock like Great Expectations and A Perfect Murder. After those two films, this is the third in 1998 that offers Paltrow as an artist's unique, irreplaceable muse. While that story structure may soon wear out its welcome—how many paintings, poems, and plays about Gwyneth does the world really need??—she radiates such poise, warmth, and loveliness that no one in the film or watching it can fail to grasp the attraction." Extra points for such an adept and exquisitely memorable Juliet, and for playing Viola's joy and goofiness while preserving her air of learnedness and poise. Many actresses have cut deeper and wrangled with richer characters, but Paltrow's ease and fluency matter a lot, especially because she makes an occasionally antic movie seem as fleet and comely as she is.

Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
From my full review: "Like the film itself, Blanchett's presiding performance is constituted of individually striking moments that fail only to build a consistent momentum. We recognize by the film's conclusion that Elizabeth is a very different and more self-determining figure than the tremulous damsel we beheld at first, and Blanchett's playing of critical events—her discovery that a military campaign has incurred huge loss and discredit for England, her defiant posture of independence before an assembly of bishops—hews closely to the political import of each scene without denying them a credible dose of emotion. At the same time, however, Blanchett's presence remains, as in Gillian Armstrong's extraordinary Oscar and Lucinda, an eccentric and interesting one that lacks much interior thread of personality.... Blanchett remains an actress more of moment-by-moment flair than of sustained, expansive force. I would love to have seen what Tilda Swinton of Orlando and Female Perversions might have done with the part, but Blanchett's work is admirable and smart, savorable also for the hint it gives us of how great she will be in the future."

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

My Favorites from 1998:
(As determined by years of Oscar eligibility)

My Pick: Ally Sheedy, High Art
Nominees: Anne Heche, Psycho
Nominees: Samantha Morton, Under the Skin
Nominees: Christina Ricci, The Opposite of Sex
Nominees: Meg Ryan, You've Got Mail

Honorable Mentions: Jennifer Lopez, Out of Sight; Renée Zellweger, One True Thing; Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie; Vanessa Redgrave, Mrs. Dalloway; Meryl Streep, One True Thing; Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station; Emma Thompson, Primary Colors; Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love; Holly Hunter, Living Out Loud; Jane Horrocks, Little Voice; Parker Posey, Clockwatchers

Gourmet Prospects: Kathy Burke, Nil by Mouth

Further Research: Helena Bonham Carter, The Theory of Flight; Oyanka Cabezas, Carla's Song; Hope Davis, Next Stop, Wonderland; Anna Friel, The Land Girls; Gwyneth Paltrow, Sliding Doors; Leelee Sobieski, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries; Sylvie Testud, Beyond Silence; Alfre Woodard, Down in the Delta

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