Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Oscars of the Aughts: Best Supporting Actress, 2000

The Best Supporting Actress race of 2000 is an interesting crop of actresses. For one, it contains the only two actors to receive their only career nominations (so far) this year: British film veteran Julie Walters and then-relative newcomer Kate Hudson. Yes, there was a time when Hudson's name was synonymous with something other than terrible romantic comedies. It also featured two recent winners - Frances McDormand, who won Best Actress in 1996, and Judi Dench, who won Best Supporting Actress in 1998 - and the breakout of Marcia Gay Harden, who ended up taking home the prize that night. There's a lot of talent here, which makes it surprising that the nominated performances are rather uneven. But three of them are so good, it was hard to choose one over the others.

Here are your nominees:

Frances McDormand, Almost Famous

This is a role that could have very easily been a cliche: the worried mother of the film's teenage protagonist. But in the very capable hands of Frances McDormand, Elaine Miller becomes so much more. The brilliance of McDormand's performance is that we see Elaine losing grip on her family, worrying endlessly about protecting them from the world, only to slowly - begrudgingly - accept that she cannot and has to let them make their own mistakes. That she does this very subtly, often conveying her inner struggle through only the inflection of her voice, is what makes her work so quietly devastating and ultimately rewarding. It's not an easy role, but she makes every moment of it count. And over a year after I first watched the film, it's the performance that still clings to my memory the most.

*Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock

There's no question that Marcia Gay Harden is talented: she's been proving that for decades, splitting her work between comedy and drama and often being one of the most watchable performers in whatever she's in. And she tackles the role of Lee Krasner, wife of painter Jackson Pollock (Ed Harris) and fellow artist herself, with aplomb. The problem that I have with this performance, though, is that she's never really given all that much to work with. Pollock is a messy film to begin with, but Krasner is never presented as much beyond the long-suffering wife, and though Harden plays her very well, there's just not enough depth here to invest in. It's a fine performance, but not a particularly great one.

Judi Dench, Chocolat

Similarly to Harden, there's no question that Judi Dench is a phenomenal actress with a number of incredible performances. However, her nomination for Chocolat is, without a doubt, more of a "default" choice (favorite actress in a major contender) than a reward for a great performance. There's no denying that Dench is good at what she does, and she is fun in the role of Armande Voizin, frequent patron of Vianne's (Juliette Binoche) chocolate shop. However, she's mostly just hanging out, with sparse emotional beats to play and, honestly, not much to do within the narrative. There's just not much to this performance that suggests it's one of the best of the year.

Kate Hudson, Almost Famous

When Cameron Crowe made Elizabethtown in 2005, Kirsten Dunst's character in that movie was the inspiration for the term "manic pixie dream girl," that evergreen trope of the whimsical, ideal girl that insecure guys romantically yearn for and hope will bring their lives meaning. Kate Hudson's Penny Lane in Almost Famous could, at first glance, be a prototype. She's the "groupie" who's more than that, an invisible additional member of Stillwater - the film's fictional band - who seems perfectly fit for the rock-star lifestyle. What makes Hudson's performance so remarkable, though, is how she finds the rough edges to this character that prevent her from being a dream girl. In her hands, Penny becomes a tragic figure, hiding untold wells of sadness behind the carefree facade, and instead of being a romantic partner for young William (Patrick Fugit), she becomes his cautionary tale. Hudson's never been better than she was here. And it's a shame, too, since she shows enormous potential.

Julie Walters, Billy Elliot

As Mrs. Wilkinson, Julie Walters plays the ballet instructor who notices the talent within Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell), and helps him learn to be a better dancer. Walters is absolutely terrific, too, giving her a hard edge that belies the genuine fondness that she feels for her young charge. "Genuine" is perhaps the best word to describe her work: never once does it feel forced or actorly, as she allows Mrs. Wilkinson to become a real person with real struggles and real thoughts. It's revelatory work that put Walters on the radar, and a very deserving nomination.

My ballot:

1. Frances McDormand, Almost Famous
2. Julie Walters, Billy Elliot
3. Kate Hudson, Almost Famous
4. Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock
5. Judi Dench, Chocolat

No comments: