Tom Jolliffe on the female acting performances criminally overlooked by the Academy for Oscar recognition…
It’s often said that the men in the acting world, particularly Hollywood, have monopolised the best roles. Most biopics are about great (or heinous) men from history. We see more heroes than we see heroines and so on. Some actresses do their level best to break down the wall that often greets them, such as Meryl Streep. That said there are often some truly memorable performances by the ladies which still get overlooked by the Academy, unless of course you’re Meryl Streep, who can get an Oscar nomination just by getting out of bed in the morning!
Here are a few of the sadly overlooked…
Sissy Spacek – Badlands
Spacek has had a fantastic career, often portraying characters with a quiet complexity that thoroughly transfixes the audience. The film which brought her to attention, before her huge breakout with Carrie, was Badlands. It’s a film that has benefited from time and stayed powerful thanks to the nuance of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek’s performances. So young in her career and fairly young in life at this point, her performance is magnificent, giving her an innocence that belies her imbalance and darker tendencies.
Patricia Arquette – True Romance
Taking some inspiration from Badlands, this Quentin Tarantino penned film is loaded with his usual selection of memorable characters, all ably played by the wonderful cast. Patricia Arquette as the leading lady here is wonderful. She’s strange, likeable, vulnerable, strong and caring. What could have been a fairly one note role is given wonderful complexity due to the writing and Arquette’s captivating performance.
Natalie Portman – Leon
Portman is one of the most interesting and watchable female performers of her generation, who has matured from a fantastic young actress into someone without fear and the courage to take on a range of dark and challenging roles. Portman hit prominence in Leon, as a young woman whose family is killed by gangsters, leading to her befriending and being trained by a hitman in order to get her revenge. It’s a great film with a touching kinship between the strange duo. Portman despite being so young, exudes a real sense of maturity here and a lot of inner turmoil. Leon caused some controversy upon its release, and the subject matter was never likely to be Oscar catnip, but she’s so brilliant here. Raw but very powerful, particularly in some of the moments from the directors cut too. It was clear though, that Portman was destined for stardom.
Linda Hamilton – Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Having bagged Sigourney Weaver some Oscar recognition for her female action icon Ellen Ripley in Aliens, James Cameron would craft once again another tough as nails woman on the edge in Sarah Connor. Again, the arc from the respective first films, to the bigger, more elaborate sequels rang similar regarding the central female characters. Ripley was stronger and more commanding in Aliens. Sarah Connor became a sinewy, war bitten, grizzled and paranoid machine in Terminator 2. The physical transformation was immense enough, but Sarah is pushed to the edge of her own sanity and struggles to deal with what she knows, has done and has to do. Hamilton plays it spot on. Had this not retread some ground from Ellen Ripley, it may have gained Hamilton some more awards recognition, but that said, Connor is a more unbalanced, darker variation and just as interesting. As far as supporting role nominations went that year, Hamilton would not have looked out of place with a nod.
Jessica Chastain – Take Shelter
Chastain is really on the crest of a wave right now. The wave, arguably might have started with this indie film that didn’t particularly get the wide audience that her breakout role in The Help did. She would receive a nomination for that film, but just as warranted would have been her role here as the housewife struggling to cope with her husband’s (equally well played by Michael Shannon) ever stranger behaviour.
Helen Mirren – The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
British icon Helen Mirren is as reliable as the finest Swiss watch. She injects so much character into whichever role she’s playing. Here, as the downtrodden wife of an obnoxious and abusive restaurant owner (Michael Gambon), she is wonderful. Exuding strength, beauty, grace, beneath the vulnerable, tortured surface, Mirren comes across so naturally in what is a challenging role. The arc of Mirren’s character may be difficult to watch at times, as is normally the case with Peter Greenway’s often dark work, but it is rewarding. She may well have one of the greatest lines in cinematic history too, but you’ll have to watch it and guess which one.
Jennifer Connelly – The House of Sand and Fog
Connelly has always been on the periphery of the A-list Hollywood superstar actresses. It’s shame in many regards that she hasn’t the profile of some who have perhaps coasted more in the ordinary whilst she’s been challenging herself in diverse roles. Certainly she would finally get her acceptance, and well deserved for her role in A Beautiful Mind, but she was also superb in Requiem for a Dream too. Her role in The House of Sand and Fog though was also pitch perfectly performed. Playing beautifully off of Ben Kingsley, Connelly delivers a performance that was sadly overlooked.
Uma Thurman – Kill Bill
Uma Thurman was great in Kill Bill. Both episodes took her character in different but equally engrossing directions. Thurman gives her all into the role, and in many ways even surpasses what she did in Pulp Fiction, for which she received an Oscar nomination. For such a stand-out strong female character in a film that saw Tarantino come close to recapturing his best form, it was something of a surprise that she was ignored for both the Kill Bill films.
Michelle Pfeiffer – Batman Returns
One of the many iconic characters of the Batman universe gets arguably her best treatment here, by Michelle Pfeiffer. So sultry, so playful, with a wonderfully wicked streak, Catwoman steals the movie. Pfeiffer’s transformation is amazing, as is the relish in which she plays the purring menace. It’s not necessarily the sort of normal Oscar material, but these sort of roles have some sort of precedent over the years, so a villain in a Batman film getting nominated should shake the Earth’s foundation in surprise and certainly, Pfeiffers interpretation is one of the most interesting female villains of all time.
Sharon Stone – Basic Instinct
As much as the film was a little trashy and certainly controversial, it shouldn’t detract from Sharon Stones iconic femme fatale. Stone’s growler may have made as many headlines as she did but her performance is fantastic. She’s endlessly enigmatic here, so difficult for Michael Douglas’s protagonist to read, but also the audience. She’ll keep you guessing all the way through. A decent level of competition in her category perhaps, but she did get nominated for a Globe. Indeed the film, mostly due to Stone, remains iconic.
Mila Kunis – Black Swan
Kunis really stepped up a level here, holding her own with a very talented cast including Natalie Portman’s mesmerising performance. Her support was excellent as the antagonist of the piece. Kunis can count herself most unlucky not to have received a nomination.
Pam Grier – Jackie Brown
Though this wasn’t Tarantino’s finest work, it was still nonetheless typically enjoyable. Pam Grier’s re-emergence from a decade or so of near obscurity was a stroke of casting genius from QT. In turn for being handed the lead in a project of this note, Grier delivers the performance of her career. She’s wonderful and well worth her headlining this mainstream project. It’s a real shame the performance that could have potentially won the award that year was overlooked entirely by the Academy. It was a strong year of course, even if some of the choices were a little safe.
Jennifer Jason Leigh (Single White Female); Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet); Carrie Fisher (Star Wars); Nicole Kidman (To Die For).
Which performances do you think were unfairly overlooked by the Academy? Let us know in the comments below…