Best Actress 1999
Winner: Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry
Nominees: Annette Bening, American Beauty
Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
Julianne Moore, The End of the Affair
Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart

The Field: ★ ★ ★ ★
An unknown winner in a politically dangerous film scoops a Hollywood royal headlining Oscar's favorite movie: from the standpoint of drama, 1999 didn't disappoint. Delve past that famous two-woman showdown and you find Julianne Moore, nominated for the weakest but heftiest of her five perf's that year; Meryl Streep, construed as a category-filler though she's in fact very agile and endearing in Music of the Heart; and Janet McTeer, who, like Swank, wins a very public accolade for a stupendous turn in a fantastic film that no one would have heard of were it not for Oscar's endorsement. A real gamut of performances, from five stars down to one, but a great exemplar of the Academy honoring the established, the edgy, the diligent, and the legendary all at the same time.

Ranking Oscar's Ballot
My Pick:
Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Hilary Swank and Sally Field: both overcame early ingénue efforts to swipe first Oscars for tough, politically minded movies in '79 and '99. Five years later, in '84 and '04, they cut unexpectedly swift paths to second Oscars. Upon thus discovering that everybody liked them, they both woke up to find that almost no one did anymore. Watch mid-'80s Field or mid-'00s Swank in any of their average vehicles, and it's perplexing, if not frustrating, trying to project any spark or any mastery of technique into their rigid bodies, implacable personas, stiff voices, and oft-clenched jaws. But say this for Swank, and say it in a big way: even if she only thrives as an actress when she's working with a top-shelf director with incredibly clear designs, even if all the air seems to go out of her when either of those conditions isn't met, her Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry is a galvanizing mixture of physical agility, plaintive longing, sweet decorum, and rebel spirit. Every self-conscious moment in the performance communicates Brandon's anxiety and his swelling appetite to impress, never Swank's, and despite how indispensable Kimberly Peirce must have been in eliciting and shaping this performance, it's equally true that Swank's dashing, adolescent, moment-to-moment, emotionally lucid, and psychologically torn Brandon helps to tug the movie away from some of Peirce's more hagiographic designs. Director and star are united in relating to Brandon's outlaw energy, but Swank works even harder, and with even greater inspiration, to ensure that Brandon emerges as a modern day martyr but also, to borrow a phrase, as just a kid from a trailer park with a dream.

From There:
Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds ★ ★ ★ ★
From my full review: "Despite the Southern accent and other precise external details required for the British actress to inhabit the part, McTeer still manages to nail Mary Jo's utter unself-consciousness, changing her dress in front of near-strangers young and old, dropping in and out of conversations as her eye or ear is caught by other objects, winning favors from people she barely knows because they cannot resist her wide-eyed, good-humored sincerity. What makes the character even more interesting, however, and what keeps Tumbleweeds from getting too predictable, is that both McTeer and the screenwriters keep in mind that unself-consciousness is not always an admirable trait. Mary Jo has a tendency toward self-absorption, or at least toward failing to grasp or even ask about the sorrows or setbacks of the people around her. She also has a tendency to pass off irresponsibility as whimsy, to rely on habitual caprice as an excuse for not questioning her own motives."

Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Meryl tied Katharine Hepburn's record of 12 nominations with this nod, but despite that feat, the general perception was that Emmy-style voter inertia had carried her in over fresher or underrewarded talents in tougher movies, including Globe nominees Reese Witherspoon in Election and Sigourney Weaver in A Map of the World. In truth, Meryl is quite wonderful in Music of the Heart, delivering a much more relaxed version of a homegrown gal than she quite managed in Marvin's Room or One True Thing, and throwing in plenty of Meryl Moments without bogging herself or her movie down in any ostentatious showmanship. The kids keep Meryl guessing in this movie, yielding plenty for her to react to, but the reverse is also true: her shifts between moods and her full bodily investment in the character keep the young actors alive and vaguely bewildered, so that Music of the Heart becomes a much more credible classroom movie than most recent entries in that genre. She's eminently buyable as an abandoned Navy wife, a heroic teacher who's also a bit of a pain, a basically good parent who nevertheless can't always see her own children or make quite enough time for them. At risk of belaboring an obvious analogy, her own virtuosity supplies its own metaphoric layer of meaning behind this film, but the violins and the Harlem kids and Roberta Guaspari all take precedence. (Favorite moment: her double reactions to an unexpected booking in Carnegie Hall.)

Annette Bening, American Beauty ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
For all the gleam and polish of its surface, American Beauty has so many flaws, structural, logical, and ideological, that the flaws become indistinguishable from the facets. In a single sequence, the film oscillates from cheering Lester Burnham's erotic-fetishistic coup in acquiring a scarlet sports car to indicting his wife, through Lester's suburban-prophetic voice, for erotically fetishizing her couch. Sometimes the movie knows that it's structurally wobbly and perspectivally ambiguous, and sometimes it doesn't, so it's hard to fault any actor for not knowing where to plant her feet in this ever-changing landscape. But with all those caveats in place, it's hard to approve Annette Bening's strategy of hurricaning through the movie at maximum volume, leaving herself prone to all of the film's misogynistic assaults by making her own crude hay with Carolyn's priorities and personality. When she scores, she's great: in the second, more riotous of the Burnham family dinner scenes, in her drunken sidling up to Peter Gallagher's real estate king, in her vitriolic way of spitting out the word "duplex" at her daughter as though the putridity of the concept is self-evident. But just as often, Bening plays the worst biases of Lester and of the movie, making a shrill caricature of herself in motel rooms and drive-thru's and outside basketball games, and she's utterly impenetrable in the character's final moments, when the script needs all the help it can get to resuscitate Carolyn as anything but a crazy, gun-wielding harridan, dangerously phallicized by extramarital sex. It's the best and worst of Bening, fun and memorable, but with a hollow and nasty aftertaste.

Julianne Moore, The End of the Affair ★ ★ ★ ★
After spending a decade as America's most consistently fascinating actress, and traversing the studio/outsider divide with impeccable fluency, Julianne Moore discovers something she just can't do. Sarah Miles is ultimately defined by her single-minded devotion to an idea, whereas Moore has always flourished with characters who can't make up their minds about anything, who are defined by their flits or drifts or collapses from one idea to another. Here, she's diffuse and ambiguous in spite of herself, which is just what Neil Jordan's romanticized and reduced version of Graham Greene's novel doesn't need. Both she and her director aim to make Sarah a creature of carnal rapture at the outset, but Moore's sexiness dissipates when it's rendered so conventionally; her remarkable poise would seem to resonate perfectly with Jordan's take on the parliamentary class, but instead she just feels vague and bloodless; the cataclysmic test of her godlessness, which later becomes a catastrophic test of her godliness, passes without a palpable ripple in this performance. The story demands a gale and Moore barely evokes a breeze as she glides around playing a thin slip of a woman caught in a histrionic liaison. And there it is: Moore's Sarah isn't Greene's Sarah, nor quite even Jordan's bathetic and mall-friendly Sarah. She's just a boring woman, about whom the film makes endless and inexplicable fuss. (I was much softer on this performance and on the film when I first reviewed it, but The End of the Affair decayed in memory, and a return trip, despite the shrewdness of the cinematography and other compensatory distractions, aggravates even more than I had imagined.)

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

My Favorites from 1999:
(As determined by years of Oscar eligibility)

My Pick: Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry
Nominees: Élodie Bouchez, The Dreamlife of Angels
Nominees: Diane Lane, A Walk on the Moon
Nominees: Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
Nominees: Cecilia Roth, All About My Mother

Honorable Mentions: Reese Witherspoon, Election; Kate Winslet, Holy Smoke; Sarah Polley, Guinevere; Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart; Thandie Newton, Besieged; Emilie Dequenne, Rosetta; Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Limbo; Franka Potente, Run Lola Run; Saffron Burrows, Miss Julie; Lara Belmont, The War Zone; Sigourney Weaver, A Map of the World

Future Research: Jeanne Balibar, Late August, Early September; Valéria Bruni-Tedeschi, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train; Saffron Burrows, The Loss of Sexual Innocence; Kirsten Dunst, Dick; Ashley Judd, Double Jeopardy; Virginie Ledoyen, Late August, Early September; Juliette Lewis, The Other Sister; Frances O'Connor, Mansfield Park; Isabelle Renauld, Eternity and a Day; Marie Rivière, An Autumn Tale; Béatrice Romand, An Autumn Tale; Michelle Williams, Dick

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