Wednesday, October 21, 2009

SELLING THE DRAMA (AND COMEDY)

Tis the season to be jolly that the Oscar-hopeful films are finally hitting theaters (at least in the U.S. -- we'll have to wait a few more months for them to cross the Rio Grande and crawl their way into South American theaters), and the predictions are finally getting mildly interesting (see my first batch here).

Of course, every year a solid Oscar contender or two gets left out in the cold: Jack Nicholson for Batman. Glenn Close for Reversal Of Fortune. Juliette Binoche for Blue. Nicole Kidman for To Die For. Gwyneth Paltrow for Emma. Gena Rowlands and Marisa Tomei for Unhook The Stars. Michelle Pfeiffer for What Lies Beneath (this is the kind of stuff actresses like Ingrid Bergman and Barbra Stanwyck snagged nominations for performing in their sleep in the 1940s). Michael Douglas for The Wonder Boys. Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Tilda Swinton for The Deep End. Jodie Foster for The Brave One. Angelina Jolie for A Mighty Heart. Debra Winger for Rachel Getting Married. Clint Eastwood for Gran Torino. Peter Sarsgaard and Jennifer Jason Leigh for everything.

I would mention Meryl Streep for The Hours, but she already gets plenty of love from the Academy, while most of the above, with four exceptions, eventually won Oscars, already had one, or had been multiply nominated in the past.

While we wait until next February to find out who the 2010 shut outs will be, here's my tribute to 16 great Oscar-snubbed performances (by 15 great actors) from the last 20 years.

Samuel L. Jackson Jungle Fever (1991) Best Performance By An Actor In A Supporting Role
The family showdown between Samuel's Gator and his parents (Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee) chills to the core. Though he'd finally get his due three years later for Pulp Fiction (only a nomination, mind you, but it's an honor just to be... well, you know the rest), his strung-out two-step just before dad lets him have it should have gotten him the gold.


Ashley Judd Ruby In Paradise (1993) Best Performance By An Actress In A Leading Role She has more or less spent her career squandering her considerable talent on mainstream genre pics with the occasional indie gem thrown in (Normal Life, Bug). Things might have gone so differently had she received the Oscar recognition she thoroughly deserved for her first starring role. Her costar, Todd Field, went on to direct In The Bedroom and Little Children (featuring Kate Winslet in a nominated role that would have suited Ashley perfectly). Perhaps he can help revive Ashley's apparently long-gone Oscar hopes with a role in his next film.

Noah Taylor Shine (1996) Best Performance By An Actor In A Supporting Role

I never understood why Geoffrey Rush got all of the praise (and a best actor Oscar) for playing the institutionalized pianist David Helfgott when Noah Taylor was equally impressive portraying Helfgott as a teen, had as much screen time, and packed the film's emotional punch in his scenes with the Oscar-nominated Armin Mueller-Stahl (as his tyrannical dad).

Rupert Everett My Best Friend's Wedding (1997) Best Performance By An Actor In A Supporting Role
Mark my words: If Rupert were straight, or in the closet, he would have been a shoo-in nominee. I suppose the standard thinking is that when "straight" actors play gay, they are stretching. Gay actors are merely playing themselves (see Nathan Lane in The Birdcage).

Ally Sheedy/Patricia Clarkson High Art (1998) Best Performance By An Actress In A Leading/Supporting Role
Oscar usually loves a good comeback (see 9 1/2 Weeks costars Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, who scored for The Wrestler and L.A. Confidential, respectively). That should have put both of these ladies in the running. Or maybe the lesbian and drugs combo was just a deadly mix -- onscreen and off. At least Patricia hasn't stopped working since and eventually landed a nomination for Pieces Of April. Ally, sadly, hasn't been so lucky.

Lisa Kudrow The Opposite Of Sex (1999) Best Performance By An Actress In A Supporting Role
Aside from the fact that it was a particularly strong year for supporting actresses (including Judi Dench, whose extended Shakespeare In Love cameo ultimately took the prize), Lisa deglammed before deglamming was really cool. Bitter and brittle, her Opposite Of Sex spinster is the kind of shrew that Phoebe Buffay would hate. At least the New York Film Critics Circle got it right.

Reese Witherspoon Election (1999) Best Performance By An Actress In A Leading Role
I'm not sure what it was about her supporting performance in Walk The Line that compelled the Academy to give her a best actress Oscar. Perhaps it was the fact that Reese, the only actor or actress on the list to eventually win an Oscar (most of them are still waiting for nomination No. 1), had already given the performance of a lifetime six years earlier as an overachieving bitch-on-wheels high school student most likely to do anything to succeed.

Sigourney Weaver The Ice Storm (1997)/A Map Of The World (1999) Best Performance By An Actress In A Supporting/Leading Role
Speaking of bitches on wheels, nobody plays them more fast and furiously than Sigourney Weaver, who, amazingly, hasn't been nominated since the late '80s, despite consistently excellent film work since then. Unlike her '80s Oscar-less contemporary, Glenn Close, she hasn't given up and turned primarily to television, but lately she's been testing the waters (Eli Stone, Prayers For Bobby).

Cameron Diaz Vanilla Sky (2001) Best Performance By An Actress In A Supporting Role
Yet another bitch on wheels. (Do I sense a trend here?) Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Cameron nailed her. She was the only watchable thing in the movie.

Richard Gere Unfaithful (2002) Best Performance By An Actor In A Supporting Role
Poor Richard Gere always gets upstaged by his Oscar-nominated costars. Debra Winter in An Officer And A Gentleman. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Edward Norton in Primal Fear. Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago. And, of course, Diane Lane in Unfaithful. It could happen again in 2010 with the Amelia Earhart biopic, in which he is the husband of the main character, played by Oscar bait incarnate, Hilary Swank. His 2003 Golden Globe-winning Chicago performance hasn't aged so well (neither has the film), but for his pulse-charging elevator scene with a dead corpse alone, Unfaithful should have earned him his first citation that same year.

Dennis Quaid Far From Heaven (2002) Best Performance By An Actor In A Supporting Role
It looks like 2002 wasn't a great year for playing the husband of an Oscar-nominated costar -- unless you were John C. Reilly in Chicago. Everyone was so busy overpraising Julianne Moore for a role she had already played countless times (once that very same year in The Hours), that perhaps the Academy didn't even notice that Dennis Quaid, playing her racist, closeted husband, had matched her scene for scene, and then some.

Jamie Lee Curtis Freaky Friday (2003) Best Performance By An Actress In A Leading Role
Go ahead and laugh, but playing a teenager is a lot harder than it sounds. And the criminally never-nominated Jamie Lee did it more convincingly than her then-adolescent costar, Lindsay Lohan.

Jim Carrey The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004) Best Performance By An Actor In A Leading Role
The Truman Show proved he could act, and Man On The Moon won him a Golden Globe, but this is Jim's truly egregious Oscar snub. Considering that Richard Pryor was never nominated, and Oscar hosts Steve Martin and Billy Crystal are still waiting for their first invitation to the ceremony as acting nominees, I'd say Jim is in pretty good company.

Joan Allen The Upside Of Anger (2005) Best Performance By An Actress In A Leading Role
Playing a woman who hits the bottle and indulges in totally inappropriate behavior after assuming that her husband has left her and their four daughters, Joan did a nice balancing act of funny, infuriating, sexy and downright nasty. In one of the weakest best actress races in recent history (Charlize Theron for North Country? Judi Dench for Mrs. Henderson Presents?), it's such a shame that Joan didn't make the short list for what I think was the female performance of the year. This should have been the thrice-nominated actress's Oscar-winning role, and it's the worst snub of the century so far. For what it's worth, Kevin Costner deserved a supporting nod for making me like him for the first time ever.


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