The latter half of the 1990s found Meryl Streep struggling to find a proper follow-up to her sublime, Oscar-nominated turn in The Bridges of Madison County.
First, there was Before and After, a sleepy collaboration with filmmaker Barbet Schroeder (who worked wonders with Faye Dunaway and Glenn Close in Barfly and Reversal of Fortune, respectively) and leading man Liam Neeson (still hot off Schindler's List), deservedly dumped in theaters in February of 1996. The picture, among Streep's worst box office performers to date, was out of theaters within a month.
More successful, albeit to only a modest extent, was Marvin's Room, a family drama that at last paired Streep with Diane Keaton, plus Hume Cronyn, Gwen Verdon and a pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio. The film garnered passable reviews and box office receipts upon opening that December and it was ultimately Keaton, not Streep, who surfaced on Oscar nominations morning.
1997 found Streep altogether missing in action from the big screen, though she did make a negligibly notable return to the small screen in the ABC television movie ...First Do No Harm. While the project barely left a blip of an impact, Streep did garner an Emmy nomination - her first since Holocaust nearly two decades earlier.
The following year, Streep lined up two feature films, both with Oscar-friendly fall release dates. While one of the two, the Irish drama Dancing at Lughnasa, failed to much resonate with critics or audiences, her teaming with hot up-and-comer Renee Zellweger and fellow '80s Oscar mainstay William Hurt was about to land Streep her 11th Oscar nomination.
The 1998 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...
Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth
Blanchett portrays Elizabeth Tudor, once imprisoned on conspiracy charges but soon crowned the Queen of England following the death of half-sister Queen Mary. Perceived as a novice by figures in and outside of her country, Elizabeth must carefully navigate through the hidden agendas determined to bring her down and keep intact an England that is woefully divided, deep in debt and vilified by its neighbors. This performance, which won her a BAFTA Award and Golden Globe, marked Blanchett's first Oscar nomination.
Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station
Montenegro portrays Dora, a sullen former schoolteacher who now makes a living, begrudgingly so, penning letters for illiterate people who pass through Central Station in Rio de Janeiro. Among her clients are Ana and son Josue (Vinicius de Oliveira), who wishes to someday meet the father he's never seen. When a tragic accident leaves Josue orphaned, Dora reluctantly takes the boy in and embarks on a road trip to unite him with his long-lost father. This performance, which won her Best Lead Actress honors from the National Board of Review, marked Montenegro's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.
Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love
Paltrow portrays Viola de Lesseps, a fervent fan of the theater and aspiring actress, which, in 1593 London, is uncommon to say the least, if not outright forbidden. Especially fond of William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), Viola auditions for a part in his new play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter, as a man, donning the name Thomas Kent. It is not long before Shakespeare sees through her act and an impassioned love affair begins. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe, marked Paltrow's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination and victory.
Meryl Streep, One True Thing
Streep portrays Kate, unappreciated matriarch of the Gulden family. After Kate is diagnosed with terminal cancer, estranged daughter Ellen (Renee Zellweger) moves back home to care for her mother. Ellen, who has long been irritated by Kate's simple, domestic lifestyle and vastly more enamored with novelist father George (William Hurt), begins to reevaluate her parents after finally spending quality time with her mother and discovering some unsavory information about her father. This performance marked Streep's 11th Oscar nomination.
Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie
Watson portrays Jacqueline "Jackie" du Pre, a brilliant cellist who achieves monumental international acclaim while comparably gifted flutist sister Hilary (Oscar-nominee Rachel Griffiths) opts to settle down for a simpler life. Physically and emotionally exhausted, Jackie yearns for the quiet family existence Hilary has built for herself until a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis at age 27 threatens to detail her incredible career. This performance marked Watson's second (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.
Overlooked: Angela Bassett, How Stella Got Her Groove Back; Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween: H20; Holly Hunter, Living Out Loud; Jessica Lange, Cousin Bette; Meg Ryan, You've Got Mail; Susan Sarandon, Stepmom; Julia Sweeney, God Said 'Ha!'; Emma Thompson, Primary Colors; Oprah Winfrey, Beloved; Renee Zellweger, One True Thing
Won: Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love
Should've won: Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station
1998 is decidedly not among my favorite years at the Oscars.
My three favorite pictures from '98 - Beloved, Pleasantville and Primary Colors - were barely embraced by the Academy, with members instead going bananas over Harvey Weinstein cheese Life Is Beautiful and Shakespeare in Love. The James Coburn (for Affliction) upset in Best Supporting Actor is all sorts of fabulous but not quite enough for me to overcome the nausea of Roberto Benigni and Gwyneth Paltrow emerging triumphant over the most vastly superior of competition.
The race in Best Lead Actress is not, both Oscar nominees and other contenders considered, a terribly fierce one here. So, while I'm not head-over-heels for the Academy's line-up overall, there aren't many obvious alternatives.
I actually think this may have been the year I'd have given the trophy to Holly Hunter (I prefer Angela Bassett in 1993), if only she'd emerged more of a player in '98 for the underrated Living Out Loud. Emma Thompson in Primary Colors is another fantastic turn, though a borderline-Supporting one (officially, however, she did garner a Lead campaign, no doubt to help Kathy Bates' chances down the ballot). Just not a whole lot to write home about when it came to leading ladies this year (the races in Lead Actor and Supporting Actress were busier).
Paltrow might just be my all-time least favorite Oscar winner in Best Lead Actress. I was going to say it's a close call between she and Elizabeth Taylor (for BUtterfield 8) but at least Taylor's turn has some camp value.
I just don't get the hooplah for Shakespeare in Love at all, sans Sandy Powell's dazzling costumes. Paltrow's bland, stilted performance would barely pass muster for a high school play. She has proven herself capable of fine screen turns (see The Talented Mr. Ripley, Sylvia and Emma) but this isn't one of them. When her Viola transforms into Thomas Kent, I find myself longing for Victoria Grant/Victor/Julie Andrews to knock her off the screen and show her how it's really done. This is a vapid performance in an overbearing film that rivals The Greatest Show on Earth in head-scratching Best Picture winners.
Whew. The good news is this category, even if it is among the weaker Best Lead Actress line-ups, gets significantly more worthwhile beyond its winner.
If and when (and hopefully this never happens) Meryl Streep hangs up her hat as an actress, it is unlikely very many will cite One True Thing as among her most memorable turns. Not that she's bad in the picture - it's actually quite a vivid and affecting performance - but the film is completely owned by Renee Zellweger, in what I would argue is the most striking screen turn of her career, by a country mile. I can't believe I'm saying this about a Zellweger performance (just thinking about her work in Cold Mountain leaves me queasy) but she is absolutely magnificent in One True Thing, riding a roller coaster of emotions as her Ellen at last opens her eyes to her mother's worth and father's woes.
Streep, by comparison, is really more of a Supporting player in the picture, alongside William Hurt, also in terrific form. The film itself, unfortunately, doesn't operate at the high level of a Terms of Endearment (director Carl Franklin, who previously did the stunning crime dramas One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress, doesn't seem at home in this sort of family drama), so the actors seem a bit suppressed from taking the proceedings to a more extraordinary place. I won't throw a tantrum over Streep's nomination but it does baffle that she, not Zellweger, was the one singled out.
I suspect the bulk, if not the vast majority of film buffs today would argue this should have been Cate Blanchett's Oscar and I suppose I would've been down for that, even if Elizabeth itself leaves me a little cold (it is, of course, still leaps and bounds superior to Shakespeare). The starry cast, despairing atmosphere and I guess the presence of John Gielgud somewhat bring to mind The Portrait of a Lady, another picture I find curiously aloof.
My qualms with the film itself aside, Blanchett is quite splendid here. That she commands the screen as overwhelming as she does is especially impressive when you consider this was only her fourth feature film. But I think the picture is ultimately something of a ball and chain with her turn.
Subtlety has never been filmmaker Shekhar Kapur's strongest suit - later pictures of his like The Four Feathers and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (in which Blanchett succumbs to her director's bombast) are exceedingly underwhelming endeavors - and that's more than apparent in his '98 feature. Blanchett is able to save it but if only she had a better director, she really could've created some fireworks. As it stands, it's a strong performance in a subpar film.
Speaking of bravura acting deserving of a better picture, Emily Watson is pretty damn fantastic in Hilary and Jackie. It's not an earth-shattering turn on the level of her also-nominated work in Breaking the Waves (love Frances McDormand but COME ON) but still plenty convincing and ultimately devastating. Both she and Rachel Griffiths are in riveting form as the du Pre sisters, two lives who make for a compelling biopic, except the film looks and feels a little too slick, small and soapy. The surroundings don't drown-out Watson and Griffiths as I believe Elizabeth does Blanchett, I just wish the picture wasn't carried so heavily on the backs of its performances alone.
The one great film of these five, which happens to sport the best performance, is Central Station, egregiously robbed of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar by Benigni's sticky-sweet Life Is Beautiful. In a year stuffed with them, this isn't a flashy motion picture, packed with dazzling sets and costumes. It's a film that achieves its grand success on the merits of a pre-Motorcycle Diaries Walter Salles' pitch-perfect direction and screenwriting and the masterful lead performances from Fernanda Montenegro and Vinicius de Oliveira.
Montenegro, a sublime character actor of the stage and screen who never made much of a dive into American cinema (she remains the only Brazilian performer to garner an Oscar nod), hits all of the right notes in her portrayal of Dora, a plenty challenging character to tackle. Dora is hardly the most pleasant of people as Central Station opens and it's gripping to watch as she slowly but surely opens herself up with the presence of Josue in her life. Montenegro's unaffected turn is not a showy one in the traditional "give me that damn Oscar" sense but sure does leave a lasting impact, in one of the best "road trip" films to ever hit the screen.
The performances ranked (thus far)...
- Jessica Lange, Frances
- Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple
- Meryl Streep, The Bridges of Madison County
- Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
- Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
- Meryl Streep, Silkwood
- Jane Alexander, Testament
- Sally Kirkland, Anna
- Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
- Glenn Close, Dangerous Liaisons
- Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
- Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction
- Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas in the Mist
- Cher, Moonstruck
- Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh
- Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas
- Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
- Kathy Bates, Misery
- Anjelica Huston, The Grifters
- Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station
- Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking
- Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie
- Sharon Stone, Casino
- Diane Keaton, Reds
- Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
- Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
- Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
- Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
- Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
- Meryl Streep, Postcards from the Edge
- Jessica Lange, Sweet Dreams
- Sissy Spacek, Missing
- Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth
- Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
- Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
- Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
- Meryl Streep, One True Thing
- Jodie Foster, The Accused
- Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
- Meryl Streep, Out of Africa
- Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
- Julie Walters, Educating Rita
- Candice Bergen, Starting Over
- Maggie Smith, California Suite
- Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
- Meryl Streep, Ironweed
- Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God
- Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
- Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility
- Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
- Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
- Penelope Milford, Coming Home
- Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
- Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman
- Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love