Sunday, May 27, 2012

Why I Love the '90s, Part 2

Lovers live longer, the great country duo the Bellamy Brothers sang on their 1980 No. 3 hit.

So do movie stars. In music, as Chris Rock so succinctly put it when hosting the 1997 MTV Movie Awards, here today, gone today. But the biggest movie stars in any given decade are far more likely to still be movie stars a decade or two later.

Consider the Best Actress nominees from the '90s. Though it's been a long way down for several of them (Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, Sharon Stone), most remain more or less regularly, if not always so gainfully, employed, unless it's by choice (Joanne Woodward, Julie Christie). Even Helen Hunt, the 1997 winner for As Good As It Gets, largely MIA in recent years, might be on the cusp of a potentially major Oscar comeback with the Sundance hit The Surrogate.

Now consider the No. 1 singles of 1992. Of the 14 acts to hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100, only Madonna and Mariah Carey would be considered bankable on the charts today. Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston were long past their best-seller years at the time of their deaths, and Elton John was already a legend when he hit No. 1 as a guest performer on George Michael's cover of his own "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." The majority of the rest -- Color Me Badd, Right Said Fred, Mr. Big, Kris Kross, Sir Mix-a-Lot, The Heights -- really were here today, gone today, and we only care about Vanessa Williams in 2012 because she went on to make it as an Emmy-nominated prime-time TV actress.

It's easy to see why so many pop stars go Hollywood then. It's the best way to ensure longevity and/or immortality, whether it's by being in movies (Academy Award winners Cher and Barbra Streisand, and, possibly, Justin Timberlake), being the subject of movies (Loretta Lynn, Tina Turner, Billie Holliday), or practically dying trying (Madonna). Although the late Whitney Houston was a superstar before The Bodyguard, her 1992 film debut made her forever an icon.

But alas, as Madonna has spent most of her career proving, movie stardom can be so much harder to come by. One-hit wonders in music are not as common you think. If you score once, audience goodwill usually gets you to second base at least once more (see Vanilla Ice, who made it to No. 4, post "Ice Ice Baby," with "Play That Funky Music"). But I once read somewhere that most actors and actresses who are nominated for an Academy Award are never nominated again.

Sadly, that list includes Elisabeth Shue, a 1995 Best Actress nominee for Leaving Las Vegas. No other Oscar nominee from the '90s impressed me more, not even Susan Sarandon, nominated four times that decade and finally winning the year Shue was nominated, for Dead Man Walking.

Though her win was no surprise, Sarandon had a decidedly less Oscar-bait role: a nun counseling a man on death row (Sean Penn, nominated for the first time). For women, it seems, playing a prostitute (Jane Fonda in Klute, Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite) or playing a rape victim (Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda, Jodie Foster in The Accused) is as surefire a route to an Oscar as playing gay is for men, and, like Charlize Theron in Monster (for which she'd win the Oscar eight years later), Shue did both in Vegas.

I only saw the film once, in the theater shortly after its release, and although Nicolas Cage would go on to win Best Actor for one of the most haunting portrayals of alcoholism this side of fellow Oscar winner Ray Milland in 1945's The Lost Weekend (speaking of Oscar bait character characteristics) everything that I remember about the movie involves Elisabeth Shue. Her performance as Sera is quiet and understated, yet so full of passion. It's a shame that Hollywood couldn't find anything better for her to do than The Saint and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, on which she's now a regular. At least she's working.

My favorite Vegas scene comes at the end of the movie, after Ben has drunk himself to death, and Sera is recounting the denouement of their story. More than anything that comes before it, that final minute or so perfectly captures how sad and damaged Sera is. "I loved him.... [Very long, very dramatic pause] I really loved him," she says, as if she's truly realizing it for the very first time. Bravo!

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