Bad news: I ended up missing the deadling for this month’s Smackdown and didn’t submit my ballot on time. Good news: My favorite performance won! and I decided to reverse my decision not to limit myself to 94 words in mt write-ups. Shit was getting way too bloated. Next month in 1943, and I’ve decided to just stick to the nominees to do more Where Were They Then? instead. Below are the five nominated women and six choices that could’ve easily taken some of the slots belonging to Helen Mirren. Shout out to Brigette Lin and Faye Wong of Chunking Express, who I loved but saw as co-leads in their segments, and to Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies, who I remembered loving but couldn’t even get through the opening sequence on rewatch. And to all the women whose movies I didn’t get to, but I’m sure I’ll see Nobody’s Fool and rewatch Forrest Gump eventually.
Rosemary Harris, Tom & Viv – Within her film, Harris stands alone in being able to judge how much is necessary for her character’s interiority to register. She subdues but maintains nobility, denying upper-class affectations that someone else might’ve mistaken for a personality. Harris telegraphs worry about her daughter’s future with this new man, later surprised and disappointed by them both. This is startlingly realized in her last sequence, horrified by Viv’s actions but more upset that Tom betrayed the family locking Viv up. Harris proves an fascinating, sincere, and economic performer in a film less stable than its leads. (Four Hearts)
Helen Mirren, The Madness of King George – Let’s get this out of the way: her accent work is absolutely awful. Aside from that, it’s not clear how much she does with her material or how much there really is for her to play. Charlotte seems less aware of King’s mental disintegration than the menfolk. Or is she catering to it? Or denying it? Mirren out of sync with the raggedy tone her castmates are plugged into, and so uncomplicated in her responses to pretty drastic changes of fortune that she barely plays a note that isn’t already in the role. Feh. (One Heart)
Uma Thurman, Pulp Fiction – Thurman is a game accomplice to Tarantino’s stylization and pretty good company with Travolta, exactly what she needs to be. She’s a hoot after powdering her nose, dancing with ease and tossing off her wonderfully bad pun with real charm. Her physicality is loose, she’s funny, and she’s a good cokehead, but there’s a nervousness that reads more like Thurman’s personas and anxieties than Mia’s. Against all odds, Uma feels like she’s having less fun than Bruce Willis. It’s an egaging performance, but lacking the creativity and verve that defines Pulp Fiction’s greatest achievements. (Three Hearts)
Jennifer Tilly, Bullets Over Broadway – In some ways it’s silly to call Jennifer Tilly the secret weapon of her film, given what an unmissable, bratty character and ridiculous voice she has. But hers is the part more frequently attached to ensemble, interacting deliciously with her costars. Tilly’s is a florid act of creativity, finding comedic vocal cadences and postures for Olive The Actress and Olive The Performer, playing a joke without turning on Olive, letting her claims of bad writing stand even if she doesn’t grasp her own bad acting. Olive grasps almost nothing but Tilly nails it fine. (Four Hearts)
Dianne Wiest, Bullets Over Broadway – The absolute miracle of Wiest’s performance is how she’s able to illustrate the ways that Helen Sinclair performs the great role of Helen Sinclair without showing her own seams. She’s a skilled ham, not just in her line readings and physical maneuvers but in her equally noticeable silences, focusing more on what she’ll say next than what David’s telling her. There’s real modulation between her diva tantrums and subtler seduction scenes, rather than just pitching her character at one abrasive note. Sure, Allen hands Wiest the film on a platter, but she earns it. (Four Hearts)
Kirsten Dunst, Interview with the Vampire – As incredibly accomplished as the aesthetics of Interview with a Vampire are, Dunst stands out not just because of how skilled her performance is but because most of Interview’s actors are barely able to syncopate with the tone and milieu. Dunst connects just as vibrantly to her era as Harris, with specific challenges of playing a sweet, angry, highly intelligent immortal who’s still processing everything like a demanding, lovable child. Arch without sacrificing earnest emotion, heightened without the self-defeating camp of other performers, she’s the best blend of opulence and coherence in her film.
Roma Maffia, Disclosure – In a film that too often tackles its workplace gender politics like an even more keyed-up episode of Law & Order: SVU, Maffia injects some low key, quick-talking, quick-witted Jack McCoy realness into Disclosure that it badly needs. Maffia’s charisma, humor, and lack of histrionics are about the only thing granting the proceedings any sense of legitimacy, and she and her film are never better than in the deposition room trying to suss out what really happened that fateful night. A welcome, well-textured fulfillment of a functional role that makes us take her film seriously.
Sarah Peirse, Heavenly Creatures – Bless this poor woman, deserving of a much better fate than the hand she’s dealt even before she’s cruelly and foolishly slain by her daughter and the girl’s best friend. Peirse and Jackson find room for her to play a genuinely good-hearted person and loving but conflicted mother, who’s put upon by an antic daughter and winds up being framed as the bad cop by Juilet’s shitty parents. She earns sympathy for her situation, especially in her last scene happily eating pastries, without overplaying her hand. Delicately sad and sweet at Heavenly Creatures’ edges.
Brooke Smith, Vanya on 42nd Street – The youngest and greenest of Vanya’s characters, Smith presents Sonya as a woman whose hopes and melancholy are informed by a much less deluded perspective than the adults around her. She’s able to confide a deep romantic crush in Dr. Astrov to Yelena, make it noticeable in earlier scenes without being too obvious, and ultimately be aware that he will never look at her that way. As dexterous with Chekov’s dialogue and smart with her expressions as her brilliant costars, Smith earns her sadness, her hope, her humor, and her resilience against poor odds.
Alberta Watson, Spanking the Monkey – The first of two indelible mothers, Watson’s greatest contribution to her film is the ability to forcefully project a concentrated persona and mood. Even before getting Oedipally intimate with her son, Watson conveys how this woman is looking out for David’s best interest more than her husband is while still limiting him in her own way. Watson keeps subsequent scenes tense by refusing to over-dramatize how this affair has impacted her relationship with her son, even as different implications reverberate off her actions. Smartly shows us a POV while remaining impossible to truly know.
Alfre Woodard, Crooklyn – Where Watson best serves her film by creating a distinct idea of Mom, Woodard achieves stunning heights by specifying her character at every turn. We see Carolyn truly loves her family, and has real, distinct expectations for everyone without playing favorites. She’s not an infallible reader of her kids, pushing one very nauseous son too far about finishing his beans. More than anyone – and in Crooklyn, that’s saying a lot – Woodard displays a full partnership with Lee’s direction, creating a vibrant, lovely, intelligent woman making ends meet. She and Laurie Metcalf deserve some answers.