Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Oscars Hindsight Project: 1990

The Oscars are a silly thing. I know this. I love them anyway. And one of the reasons why I, and many others, give such a silly thing any credence at all is that, for good or ill, it's a historical document. Amy Poehler put it completely right while presenting a SAG award last weekend: at this moment, in this year, this group of people liked this movie/performance/achievement at least a little better than the others. Another, more oft-mentioned statement is also true: it's an honor just to be nominated. A nomination means, at the very least, that when Roommate Mark and I are challenging each other to name the 1987 Best Actress slate, we'll remember your name (...Sally Kirkland).

So Mark and I decided to team up, cross blogs, and judge some past Oscar slates based on how well they've aged. Not so much how great the performances were (though greatness certainly tends to endure better than mediocrity), but more how well they stand up in the glare of history. Are these Katharine Hepburns or Glenda Jacksons?

Here's how it'll work: We'll be looking back five, ten, fifteen, and twenty years covering the acting categories from 1990, 1995, 2000, and 2005. We'll re-rank the nominees in terms of how well they hold up to historical scrutiny, and we'll grade the category as a whole. Who are we to judge these performances? We're BLOGGERS, FOOL!

This week: the crazy, mob-infused, wolf-scented year that was 1990.

1 - Jeremy Irons -- Reversal of Fortune (WON OSCAR)
2 -Robert De Niro -- Awakenings
3 - Kevin Costner -- Dances with Wolves
4 -Richard Harris -- The Field
5 -Gérard Depardieu -- Cyrano de Bergerac

Joe: This is a really weak field, looking back 20 years later. Look no further than Costner's place at #3 here for confirmation of that. It's not that history has made it any better of a performance -- as with most times when Costner travels into history, he sticks out like a sore, California-accented thumb. But it's not like razor-sharp acting instincts were why he was nominated in the first place either. And at the very least, this is still one of the roles we remember him for. And Dances with Wolves itself has clung onto history's memory strands. Remember how last year all of Avatar's detractors were comparing it to Dances? Hey, remembered un-fondly is still remembered. Which is more than I can say for movies like The Field and Cyrano de Bergerac. Richard Harris was already a beloved Hollywood oldster when this nomination came around, and much like subsequent nods like Peter O'Toole for Venus in 2006 and Richard Farnsworth for The Straight Story, the performance has its admirers, but it's not like anybody remembers the theater they were at when The Field came crashing into their lives.

Depardieu's nod seems perfunctory in the way the Tony Awards sometimes are ("Oh, someone did a production of Cyrano? Toss 'em a nomination!"). Though I do recall Hollywood going through a brief (and spectacularly ill-advised) love affair with the Frenchman for a few years there. And then there's Bobby DeNiro, looking awfully out of place at #2 for a medical drama that few people think of today. But he did give it a shout-out at the Globes as one of his favorite roles, so that counts for ... something.

So Jeremy Irons kind of wins this by default, huh? Well ... I suppose technically. But his Claus Von Bulow remains something of a standard for rich, mercurial, murderer-or-just-really-unlikeable characters even 20 years later. The role (and the Oscar win) came to define Irons as an all-time great screen creep (and one who should get more and better roles these days). He may not possess the genuine class of an Alec Guinness, but Jeremy's iron as far as I'm concerned. Overall Oscar Grade in Retrospect: C-minus

Mark's Rebuttal: Jeremy's iron? You know what, Joe ... I have a ball. Perhaps you'd like to bounce it. ZING! All kidding aside, Joe's rankings are basically in sync with mine, and like him, I'm underwhelmed by the category. Am I the only one who always assumes Depardieu's nomination was for Green Card? If your Oscar-nominated performance isn't even memorable enough to eclipse your work alongside Andie MacDowell then I sentence you to the basement.

1. Julia Roberts -- Pretty Woman
2. Kathy Bates -- Misery (WON OSCAR)
3. Anjelica Huston -- The Grifters
4. Meryl Streep -- Postcards from the Edge
5. Joanne Woodward -- Mr. and Mrs. Bridge

Mark: This category delivers a pair of lasting, iconic performances. First, there's Joanne Woodward, whose work as Mrs. Bridge is remembered as a sensitive portrait of an Italian immigrant falling for a National Geographic photographer.

... What's that? Different bridges? Then I've got nothing for this movie, which has vanished into the mists of time. At least "Ma Newman" has all those fancy cookies. Meryl Streep, meanwhile, has Miranda Priestley, a character so memorable that she's obliterated the actress's other comedic roles, even those as winning and well-played as Suzanne Vale. However, there's no denying Lily Dillon, the icy con woman that proved Anjelica Huston could take the pizzazz of Prizzi's Honor and push it even further. She's never had a meatier role, and even with Morticia Addams on her resume, she's never done anything more memorable.

Huston's third on this list, however, because 1990's race is really about two heavyweight champions. In this corner, wearing a spandex dress, you've got Julia Roberts as Vivan Ward, refusing to kiss us on the lips. Over here, stuffed in a denim jumper, you've got Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, shoving us in the cockadoody car. Both actresses can thank these roles for their entire careers, and both characters are evergreen. Julia gets the edge, however, because even though Bates' turn is classic, it doesn't still define her. Vivian Ward, meanwhile, is the vessel through which we discovered the "Julia" in Julia Roberts. The smile, the laugh, the hair, the glow... it's all right there when that jewelry box snaps on her hand. There's probably a grooming class at Walt Disney Studios where Miley Cyrus and Miranda Cosgrove are forced to watch that performance on an endless loop until they start mumbling about Rodeo Drive. Overall Oscar Grade in Retrospect: A-

Joe's Rebuttal: I actually don't have much of a rebuttal, as I'd rank these performances in the exact same order. I'd probably give Streep a little more credit for her non-Miranda comedy roles (that she was never nominated for Death Becomes Her is both not surprising and yet TOTALLY unacceptable), but not enough to nudge her above Anjelica Huston. And I think you'd be hard pressed to find any Best Actress categories in the last 20 years with two more iconic characters than Annie and Vivian. (Actually, the very next year we got Clarice Starling and both Thelma and Louise; but that's a whole other conversation...)

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For the Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress categories, pop on over to The Critical Condition! Then be back here next week for 1995, where we get to ignore Braveheart entirely, because: no acting nominations!


InfoMofo said...

Hmm, I'm struggling to understand the rules to this game, but if you're talking about performances being a cultural touchstone, I would think Kevin Costner's role in Dances with Wolves is much more likely to be #1.

My litmus test is this. If next week Family Guy or Robot Chicken wanted to throw out a Dances with Wolves spoof, they could do that. I don't think they could do the same with Reversal of Fortune.

Joe Reid said...

That's not quite what we're going for, though. I mean, it's part of it -- that Dances with Wolves is still wedged into the national consciousness makes it memorable. But Irons in "Reversal of Fortune" is still memorable (to film fans, the only people that matter) while also being quite good.

Mark Blankenship said...

Hey InfoMofo... From the way I read your comment, I think you understand the rules and just happen to disagree with Joe and me. Which, while heartbreaking, is totally fine.

The point is to look at the performances and declare which ones you think are the most historically relevant given the actor's career, lasting impact, etc. I could see making a case for Costner.

par3182 said...

i saw the field in a theatre in dublin

i remember clearly.....walking out about halfway through

Faye said...

Aw, I love Cyrano de Bergerac, it's really poetic and lovely. Though I agree with the above choices.

NicksFlickPicks said...

I, of course, love this. And I love the 1990 Oscars, because it was the first one I managed to tape after my family finally bought a VCR, so I've seen the ceremony..... many, many times.

I might argue for Depardieu > Harris, and even Costner > De Niro by the logic of this game. Given some of the roles De Niro wasn't nominated for, the fact that he was for Awakenings is always a little bit staggering - and even he seems to think the nod should have gone to Williams. But this was all a delicious read.

Joe Reid said...

I suspect, with Costner, there was an invisible threshold which I could not allow him to cross, due to my lack of affection for the performance, no matter the rules of my own game.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Yeah, I would think in terms of impact and career, Costner's turn in Dances with Wolves would rank at least above De Niro. And, haha, I've never even HEARD of The Field!

Agree on the Actresses, though. I'm already in like with this series. Off to the other blog to read about Whoopi!

John T said...

I'd probably throw, by the rules of the game, Streep above Huston (though if we're ranking the best of that year, Huston would be perched at a lofty Numero Uno).

The other fun thing about this is learning just who showed up-it's weird to imagine that de Niro, Woodward, Streep (of all people), and Depardieu all skipped the ceremony.

And like everyone else, I'm in love with this series.