Tuesday, March 28, 2017

          My vote - Best Actress 1999

For years I had stayed away from Boys Don’t Cry, fearing that the drama level is gonna make it really uncomfortable to watch. As I was contemplating what year from the 1990s to select, this felt attractive, as I hadn’t seen any of the films in a long time. I knew it wasn’t gonna be an excellent year, but that it had easy films to go through (other than Boys).

So the mostly unknown Hilary Swank won for a very independent film, beating out what would’ve been the safe choice: Annette Bening, the more experienced, Hollywood based actress, pregnant while campaigning, married to Warren Beatty and acting in the Best Picture winner. I think I also chose ’99 to prove that my love for Meryl Streep is objective enough in order to call her out for her worst Oscar-nominated performance.

Here is how I would have voted:

1. Hilary Swank, in Boys Don’t Cry

The role: Hilary plays Brandon Teena, a female-born transgender trying to find love as a man and risking his life by hanging around with the wrong kind of people.

The film: It’s important, but selective in what it decides to show, heavily dramatized and a bit exploitive.

The performance: People have been building up this performance as being something amazing and a game changer for this category. I don’t know if it came down to expectations, but I found it to be great and strong, yet not mind-blowing. While you can’t deny Hilary’s commitment and dedication to the role, my first problem was the believability: to me there was no way Brandon would’ve passed as a man. Putting this technical issue aside, I didn’t always connect with the character or understand his actions. It wasn’t until the more dramatic scenes that I found the richness of the performance: the police interrogation scene is strong and Hilary’s acting in the medical checkup scene is heartbreaking. While the performance has difficulty in finding a balance between trying too hard and unconvincing moments, it’s impossible to deny A) the extreme difficulty level and B) that she mostly pulls it out. A performance I can respect and support, but not love.

2. Julianne Moore, in The End of the Affair

The role: Julianne plays Sarah Miles, a married woman who has a passionate affair with a possessive writer, but chooses to suddenly end the romance.

The film: It takes itself a bit too seriously. It’s very watchable and I loved the subtle twist, but not a film I could care too much about.

The performance: I am not objective enough as to not give bonus points for the coolness of the performance. Never had Julianne looked better on screen: she is sensual, sexual and eventually a tragic figure. There are scenes where she just looks away silently and I am mesmerized and a bit fascinated, just like the jealous lover. The emotional scenes are properly played and sold to the viewers, but as I hinted it’s mostly about the mood her acting and her presence create. The performance is believable despite the lack of a real backstory and she is the only touch of interesting in quite of a boring film. I approved.

3. Annette Bening, in American Beauty

The role: Annette plays Carolyn Burnham, a highly ambitious real-estate agent with professional problems and an unhappy marriage.

The film: I was a bit doubtful about watching it again after 15+ years, but I enjoyed it quite a lot. The screenplay does the job and it’s beautifully directed.

The performance: It’s no easy task playing the bad cop in a relationship, especially when the film is focused on your male co-star. Adding to the problem, the character is quite uncool, uptight and not very likeable. So while I can’t love the performance, I like the comedic route that Annette is going for – sure, there are dramatic facts and scenes to care about, and they’re played quite well, but what I appreciated the most were the unintentional comedic tones she chose for the character, that it all fits the film’s requirements and that it’s quite the solid work. But this is not a scene-stealing performance and her co-star steals the spotlight.

4. Janet McTeer, in Tumbleweeds

The role: Janet plays Mary Jo Walker, a woman going from one town and bad relationship to another, bringing her teenage daughter along the way.

The film: Very simple, very basic, kind of forgettable. Not much to it beyond the leading performance.

The performance: There’s at least half a star bonus for the fact that Janet, an English actress, is playing the most distinctive type of American: a Southern woman; who’s also a bit trashy – so as far from Shakespeare as it gets. I had no problem in finding the performance to be convincing, but was put off a bit by the quality of the film and the lack of too many meaningful scenes. Specifically, there is just one scene (when the daughter runs away) that justifies the ranking, which happens to be one of the least loud of the character’s, but it’s one where I could find an emotional connection to Mary Jo. The overall loudness of the character didn’t bother me, it’s just something that I expected. An almost 3.

5. Meryl Streep, in Music of the Heart

The role: Meryl plays Roberta Guaspari, a single mother who starts teaching violin to children from a rough neighborhood.

The film: It’s totally boring and predictable. You’d think that if Wes Craven finally directed a family film, it would have some edge to it.

The performance: It’s one of the few situations where one could say I am sorry they cast Meryl Streep in this, and not Madonna, as originally intended. No one is immune to my critique, not even Meryl, who is quite bad in this. First, there’s the questionable casting, with 49 year old Meryl playing an early 30s Roberta for half of the film. Even beyond the age, it truly feels like a bad call – Meryl is too pompous, too precious, too loud here for the part. And it ends up with a fake feel to it. It’s where Meryl’s overacting doesn’t work the right way – every reaction, every look she gives is SO dramatic, so obvious, so overcooked. The intention of youthful energy translates as the edge of hysterical. Sad to report it’s one of the worst 2’s I’ve ever given. We can’t hand out nominations for just learning the violin.

Conclusion: The race for my #1 was closer than I expected, but I tried to stay objective. I thought Hilary would win by a landslide, but hard not to get lost in Julianne’s looks and sensibility. From then on, it was quite clear.

How the voting went: I am sure Annette gave Hilary quite a run for it. I am also convinced that the two of them gathered about 80% of the votes and there was no real chance for any of the other three to win.
Funny enough, the only actress who stole some critics’ awards from Hilary was Reese Witherspoon, whose performance in Election must’ve been too young-ish in tone for the Academy to nominate. But undoubtedly she was 6th.

What’s next: Not fully decided yet. Maybe 2004. I haven’t seen Maria Full of Cocaine… I mean Grace.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

          My vote - Best Actress 1962

Following my take on the rather dull 2016 Best Actress race, there was a real need to sink my teeth into a juicier Best Actress lineup, so I went for one that tends to be considered among the all-time best, with some urban legends and colorful roles.

Anne Bancroft won for recreating her Tony-winning stage role. Bette Davis later claimed that Joan Crawford sabotaged her potential win, but I suspect the race was closer than imagined with any of the 5 ladies having a decent shot.

Here is how I would have voted:

1. Katharine Hepburn, in Long Day’s Journey into Night

The role: Katharine plays Mary Tyrone, a drug addicted matriarch who over the course of a day relives the dark moments of her life.

The film: Eugene O'Neill’s semi-autobiographical (and most acclaimed) play is adapted in a very stagey fashion. It works at times; at other times it really needs some editing. Mostly excellent acting.

The performance: I went into this race having already seen this performance many years ago, but I was surprised to discover I didn’t remember this level of excellence. As far as I can say, this is a career best for Hepburn, which means a lot, and one of the best performances to ever grace the screen. It’s to be seen to be believed – the role offers a lot, but Kate surprised me with her complete dedication to the character’s vulnerability and mental state. The grandeur Kate sometimes carries to her performances is completely gone here – she perfectly captures the tragedy of the character, the struggle with addiction, the frustration of her clinical depression, in such a manner that completely dominates the screen without it feeling intentional. It’s acting magic and Top 5 best performances I’ve ever reviewed here. The camera is fascinated with her.

2. Bette Davis, in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

The role: Bette plays Baby Jane Hudson, a former child star with deep emotional issues, who now takes care of (and tortures) her invalid sister.

The film: For the first half it feels like a juicy B-movie, but Bette’s acting just keeps getting better and the film makes some bold choices. Hard not to like.

The performance: Just like Kate’s performance, this one’s also about dropping the vanity. This performance goes beyond the crazy makeup and the loud line-readings. As the last chapter of the film proves, Bette digs deep into finding the character and providing humanity beyond the big laughter and the cruelty. Sure, the superficial stuff is delicious and very few American actresses of that age and from that era would’ve had such fun with the role, without any intention of taking themselves seriously. But the fact that she also brings emotion and vulnerability and sells the backstory is a wonderful bonus and takes the performance to the next level. They’ll be talking about I’ve written a letter to daddy even 50 years from now.

3. Anne Bancroft, in The Miracle Worker

The role: Anne plays Annie Sullivan, the real-life miracle worker who teaches a girl who is deaf and blind to communicate.

The film: It was the first time I saw this film and I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s aged well and there’s something really special about the direction. Patty Duke rules. The ending made me cry.

The performance: There are a couple of key elements that make this a great performance. The emotion, the empathy and the passion are there, as you’d expect. But there is also wonderful charisma and Anne brings plenty of likeability to a character that can sometimes act a bit edgy. It’s easy to cheer for her and her journey, because Anne makes it believable and you do get caught in the character’s life and mission. It’s an intelligent performance, but subtly so, and also very energetic. Which takes me to the final but essential element of success: the physicality of the role. I was more than impressed with the interaction of the two leads, and there is a lot of sign communication, but also fighting, pushing, attacking that must’ve required a special choreography that both actresses perfectly deliver. It’s a dynamic and convincing performance.

4. Geraldine Page, in Sweet Bird of Youth

The role: Geraldine plays Alexandra Del Lago, a movie star whose career is on the rocks who ends up entangled in the personal and career ambitions of a young hustler.

The film: I am not its biggest fan because it doesn’t always land as interesting. Some performances are good, some ideas too familiar.

The performance: How does such a delicious, playful performance end up only as my #4?! Speaks a lot about the level of this field. In a way, I have an instinctive unjustified love for this performance. Just listen to that name: Alexandra Del Lago. What could be cooler? And she’s drunk and smokes pot and acts like a horny cat. And she’s theatrical and excellent at it. The personal struggles of the character fade by comparison to the others’, but there are two aspects to look out for: the movie star worried about ageing – and Geraldine nails this so-called worry – and the fun she is having with the performance. Nobody plays hysteria the way Geraldine does: the big reveal towards the end and the amused, vulnerable, playful reactions over the phone are played with great precision and even a comedic timing. It’s a juicy diva role done really well.

5. Lee Remick, in Days of Wine and Roses

The role: Lee plays Kirsten, a woman who marries an alcoholic and who starts losing control of her life as he pressures her to join his drinking habits.

The film: It’s a real drama, hard to enjoy because I found Lemmon’s character to be kind of disgusting, so sitting through the film was not a pleasant experience.

The performance: I feel like I am being somewhat unjust with this rating, but I guess it’s impossible not to compare it a bit with what the actresses ranked higher here got. Lee is good, but not distinctively good, meaning the potential stands in the role and the scenes (the big drunk scene in the hotel, the character’s last scene, etc), with opportunities coming from the page - and that she delivers. Her acting in such important scenes is good to great – especially the hotel scene, which is the Oscar one, but you don’t necessarily feel it’s something that another good actress from her generation couldn’t have delivered. It’s a solid, dependable performance that wins a lot even through its silent scenes. She brings some likeability to the film, but I feel there could’ve been even more. A very strong 3.

Conclusion: My #1 was easy to choose, also my #2. Anne and Geraldine feel on the same level to me, with Anne getting the edge for the difficulty factor of the role.

How the voting went: Maybe the 1st time I am avoiding to assume a ranking here. I really do think it was close, and that even Remick was a contender. There are arguments both for and against each one’s chances of winning. So I have no idea, anyone’s game.

What’s next: 1999 I guess, since I’ve already watched again 4 of the 5 films. I’ll finally see Boys Don’t Cry for the first time. J