Tuesday, October 24, 2023

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1998: Best Actress

Best Actress 1998 is a heated one. The winner was Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love:

And it's a win that's gone through all the phases of backlash, backlash-to-the-backlash, mild "not a bad performance but shouldn't have won" criticism, etc. And to be fair, even at the time there was no guarantee that Paltrow would triumph. Yes, she won the Screen Actors Guild Award and the Musical/Comedy Globe, but Elizabeth's Cate Blanchett won the BAFTA and the Drama Globe and had genuine "a star is born" notices, while Central Station's Fernanda Montenegro was lauded by the National Board of Review and the LA Film Critics (the New York Critics went for...Cameron Diaz in There's Something About Mary). 

Even today, the conversation continues: when Fritz And The Oscars polled "Film Twitter," Montenegro was the overwhelming favorite, and just three years ago Glenn Close brought it all up, concurring with the chorus of Montenegro support. Still others (including the Guest GMs on the 1998 Mini-Mega episode of Screen Drafts) rhapsodize over Blanchett's "a star is born!" performance. Few stick up for Paltrow, and has essentially become a much-debated, three-way race.

Which side do I fall on? I was surprised...

Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I
first of eight nominations; BAFTA Award winner for Best Actress, Golden Globe winner for Best Actress - Drama; SAG Awards nominee for Best Actress

Blanchett is given the clearest arc of all the nominees. She succeeds. She is girlish and fun at the beginning, playing in the fields with handmaidens, flirty with Joseph Fiennes; the idea of this girl as a threat to anyone's power is laughable. When she does become queen, Blanchett (with the screenplay and director, of course), crafts her journey to a confident ruler so fluidly you don't see the transformation take place...nor does it feel too quick. A performance given by someone who's already a star, and we finally caught up.

Fernanda Montenegro as Dora
Central Station
first and only nomination; LAFCA Award winner for Best Actress, National Board of Review's Best Actress of 1998; Golden Globe nominee for Best Actress - Drama, NYFCC Awards runner-up for Best Actress

She writes letters for others for a living, taking the money and deciding who gets mailed and who doesn't. She's ornery, leery of others, not obviously warm. The life-changing journey she takes with an orphan boy reveals all the cracks in her otherwise tough veneer, the regrets of missed chances, the losses she's accumulated. It's a solid performance. I get why people like it, I don't get why people love it.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola De Lesseps
Shakespeare in Love
first and only nomination; Golden Globe winner for Best Actress - Musical/Comedy, SAG Award winner for Best Actress; BAFTA Award nominee for Best Actress

The film completely fails if she doesn't nail the independent thinker and romantic daughter of nouveau riche parents who wants to be an artist, can easily play Romeo and Juliet, and spark such creativity, lust, and genuine love in Shakespeare. There is some awkwardness in her performance in the beginning, and I'm not sure that she ever completely convinces as Thomas Kent, her male alter ego, but she doesn't have to. Does she make Shakespeare's words sound so transcendent that you believe he's never truly heard his own words before? No. But you believe that she can inspire his most memorable work, and she feels real, no mere muse.

Meryl Streep as Kate Gulden
One True Thing
past two-time winner, eleventh of twenty-one nominations; Golden Globe nominee for Best Actress - Drama, SAG Award nominee for Best Actress

She's nervous about pleasing the people in her life, she can feel her daughter's condescension, she puts on a good face, but it feels less like a front that's hiding something than that she genuinely doesn't see the point in doing otherwise. Of course, there are cracks, she knows that, but why wallow in them? There is little catharsis when she does let it all out, it's just part of the pain, part of the cancer. Streep lets Kate be Kate. She is not here for your pity, but, you know, show some respect. She is all the unsung mothers.

Emily Watson as Jacqueline du Pré
Hilary and Jackie
second of two nominations; BAFTA Award nominee for Best Actress, Golden Globe nominee for Best Actress - Drama, SAG Award nominee for Best Actress

She's flighty! She's depressed! She's dying! Watson, bless her, does not fall into the easy traps this kind of role sets for actors: no matter how successful Jackie becomes, there's always this hint of panic under the surface, like she's afraid of losing or missing out on some vital part of life. I don't think it's enough to rescue this sketch of a character.


Through the years, this has become a three-way race between the Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow, the star we all love Cate Blanchett, and the cinephiles' choice Fernanda Montenegro. And I surprised myself with my pick:


Tomorrow, all ten of the Writing nominees. For Best Original Screenplay: Bulworth, Life is BeautifulSaving Private Ryan, Shakespeare in Love, and The Truman Show. For Best Adapted Screenplay: Gods and MonstersOut of Sight, Primary Colors, A Simple Plan, and The Thin Red Line.

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