20 Years of Streep: 1999 ("Music of the Heart")

In 1977, while Meryl Streep was making her big screen debut with a small role in Fred Zinnemann's Oscar-winning Julia, young filmmaker Wes Craven was scaring the pants off moviegoers with his X-rated horror flick The Hills Have Eyes.

Seven years later, in 1984, Streep already had two Oscars under her belt, yet was putting fans to sleep with the tedious Robert De Niro romance Falling in Love. Meanwhile, Craven was at last breaking down the door into mainstream cinema, with his A Nightmare on Elm Street proving a sleeper hit and making burnt serial killer Freddy Krueger a household name.

Craven's success proved more tepid over the coming decade, with few of his horror offerings leaving a real dent until Scream and Scream 2, in 1996 and 1997 respectively, not only revived the filmmaker's career but arguably the entire horror genre as a whole.

The paths of Craven, a master of horror, and Streep, one of the few actresses of her generation, could never possibly cross, right?

Well, on the heels of the ginormous success of Scream, Bob and Harvey Weinstein of Miramax offered Craven a three-picture deal. In response, the director said he'd happily do a Scream 3...if they would allow him to make one of their kind of pictures, more along the lines of Shakespeare in Love and Life Is Beautiful, the Miramax productions that steamrolled the Oscars in 1998.

Craven's proposal - a feature film based on Small Wonders, the 1995 documentary on East Harlem music teacher Roberta Guaspari that won Miramax an Oscar nomination a few years earlier. The Weinsteins gave the green light and initially, it was Madonna who'd take on the role of Guaspari. After the director and star clashed over the picture's screenplay, however, Madonna bolted and none other than an 11-time Oscar nominee hopped on board to collaborate with the director who gave birth to Freddy Krueger.

The 1999 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actress were...

Annette Bening, American Beauty

Bening portrays Carolyn Burnham, real estate broker, wife of Lester (Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey) and mother of Jane (Thora Birch). Carolyn strives to project an image of suburban perfection, spending heaps of time meticulously tending to her red roses in the front lawn, surrounded by the quintessential white picket fence. Beneath the surface, however, Carolyn is a deeply insecure woman, whose marital misery drives her into the arms of business rival Buddy (Peter Gallagher). This performance, which won her a BAFTA Award and Screen Actors Guild Award, marked Bening's second Oscar nomination.

Julianne Moore, The End of the Affair

Moore portrays Sarah Miles, wife of lifeless civil servant Henry (Stephen Rea) and lover of Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes), an up-and-coming writer in World War II-era London. The affair is tested by Bendrix's frustrations over Sarah's refusal to abandon her husband and WWII itself, as a bomb explosion nearly ends Bendrix's life. This performance marked Moore's second Oscar nomination.

Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds

McTeer portrays Mary Jo Walker, single mom to Ava (the wonderful Kimberly J. Brown). Anytime Mary Jo encounters a problem, her solution is to pack the duo up and move to a new city - a routine Ava is hardly fond of. The two settle down in San Diego, where Ava finds immense success in school and Mary Jo takes up with trucker Jack (Gavin O'Connor). When her relationship with Jack sours, Mary Jo prepares to bolt yet again but getting Ava to agree will be one tall order. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe and Best Lead Actress honors from the National Board of Review, marked McTeer's first Oscar nomination.

Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart

Streep portrays Roberta Guaspari, a violinist who, following the departure of her husband, lands a job teaching music to underprivileged children in Harlem. Guaspari overcomes skepticism from students, parents and faculty alike to establish an immensely successful string program. A decade later, however, budget cuts trample over Guaspari and her curriculum, inspiring the teacher to organize a "Fiddlefest" to raise money to save the program. This performance marked Streep's 12th Oscar nomination.

Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry

Swank portrays Brandon Teena, a young trans man who, under physical threat following the discovery that he is biologically female, leaves home to settle down in a small Nebraska town. There, he falls in love with Lana (Oscar-nominee Chloe Sevigny) and it's not long before the two begin planning their future together. Tragic complications arise, however, when two of Lana's friends learn Brandon's secret. This performance, which won her a Golden Globe and Best Lead Actress honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and New York Film Critics Circle, marked Swank's first Oscar nomination and win.

Overlooked: Diane Lane, A Walk on the Moon; Cecilia Roth, All About My Mother; Winona Ryder, Girl, Interrupted; Sigourney Weaver, A Map of the World; Reese Witherspoon, Election

Won: Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry

Should've won: Julianne Moore, The End of the Affair

Not unlike the year prior, 1999 was not exactly one for the ages in terms of a vast plethora of extraordinary female lead performances.

The Academy's five are a respectable bunch, thankfully lacking a sore spot like Gwyneth Paltrow but also devoid of a contender to rank among the all-time great turns to grace the category. It's a shame Ryder was missing in action all awards season for her career-best work in Girl, Interrupted (I remain perplexed by the adoration for Angelina Jolie's Oscar-winning turn, which isn't even the best supporting performance in that film) and also stinks that Witherspoon couldn't muster a debut Oscar nod for her side-splitting (and now indisputably iconic) turn as Tracy Flick.

Alas, members of the Academy simply couldn't resist the opportunity to bestow a 12th Oscar nomination upon Queen Streep, even for a picture that garnered a middling reception at the box office and from critics.

That said, I think Music of the Heart - so often cited by Oscar buffs as her worst nomination - gets a bit of a bad rap. There may not be an inspired bone in the film's body - and, when it comes to this genre, I'd probably rather sit down and watch Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit instead - but it's most certainly a watchable picture at least, which is more than I can say for the unspeakably dreary The French Lieutenant's Woman. That the film pairs Streep with the amazing likes of Angela Bassett, Gloria Estefan and Cloris Leachman makes the proceedings all the more agreeable, even if there isn't a smidgen of suspense to be felt.

So yes, while it stinks she kept the likes of Ryder and Witherspoon (and a few others) from nomination glory, I wouldn't quite label Music of the Heart her least deserving appearance at the Oscars. I also, frankly, do get kind of a kick out of a Wes Craven picture garnering not one but two Oscar nominations (the other in Best Original Song).

Beyond Streep at the bottom, I see this category as two tiers - McTeer and Bening and then Moore and Swank. Of course, going into Oscar night, this race was the mother of all barn burners, with Globe winner and critics' favorite Swank in a dead heat with SAG honoree Bening. (Lead Actor and Supporting Actor were comparably tough to project.)

McTeer is an actress I'm immensely fond of and I may have even given her the victory for Albert Nobbs in Best Supporting Actress a few years down the road. Tumbleweeds, however, is a picture I find awfully tough to get excited about. Both she and Brown are a delight and I like the concept but it's an exceedingly modest affair all-around, not without its insights but beyond the performances, a rather static endeavor. I don't have a whole lot to say about Tumbleweeds, a film that fills me with indifference, other than I'm pleased it catapulted McTeer onto the map in a big way.

A picture that decidedly does not leave me shrugging my shoulders is Sam Mendes' riveting and provocative American Beauty. While I'm not sure I would've awarded the picture to the same extent the Academy did (I prefer The Insider or The Sixth Sense for the top prize and Richard Farnsworth over Spacey), the film holds up remarkably well and, alongside the likes of The Ice Storm, Ordinary People and Pleasantville, is among the definitive pieces of the anti-suburbia film canon.

Bening, much as I love her in so many films (where on earth was that Oscar nod for 20th Century Women?), is actually one of my least favorite parts of American Beauty, which is to say she's still quite good but just not on the same level as Spacey, Chris Cooper or even Thora Birch and Mena Suvari. (Even what Allison Janney does here, limited as her screen time is, floors me in a way Bening never pulls off.)

If Bening's task is to make Carolyn the most insufferable and shrill sight possible, she hits a grand slam on that count. The thing is, the performance, perhaps purposely so to some degree, comes off as caricature to me, lacking the humanity that makes the rest of the cast of characters so compelling. Bening has a field day with Alan Ball's brilliant dialogue and gets several great scenes here (I especially love Lester's misfire seduction of Carolyn on the couch) but never seems as grounded in reality as the rest of the ensemble and the constant shrieking, sobbing and scenery-chewing don't leave me considering this among her strongest screen turns.

On the other hand, turning in a career-best performance for sure (to date, at least) is Swank, dead-on convincing and heartbreaking in her breakthrough turn as Brandon Teena.

Celebrated an actress as she is today, it's easy to forget that, prior to Boys Don't Cry, Swank was best-known for her turns in negligibly notable pictures like The Next Karate Kid and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Swank held her own in both of those films but did not exactly offer hints at grand abilities as an actress. Credit filmmaker Kimberly Peirce (who unfortunately never followed up Boys Don't Cry with much to speak of) for seeing in Swank the potential to absolutely ace the part.

In a year in which saccharine dreck like The Cider House Rules was garnering heaps of awards love, I think it's a real shame Boys Don't Cry didn't much catch on, beyond Swank and Sevigny. The proceedings look and feel all too real, like a documentary, with not a false note struck in the writing or acting. Swank is sublime here, disappearing into a tricky role, but it's not like she carries the picture on her shoulders - it's a remarkable effort all-around.

Much as I marvel at Swank's work here, my heart is with Moore.

Moore had one gangbusters 1999. Not only was there a leading turn in The End of the Affair but four memorable supporting performances - in Magnolia, An Ideal Husband, A Map of the World and Cookie's Fortune - to boot. Moore really deserved some sort of honorary Oscar for hopping aboard so many worthwhile projects at the decade's end. While a Supporting Actress nomination would've been wholeheartedly deserved (especially for An Ideal Husband), at least the Academy had the good sense to recognize her best of the five turns.

Second only to Far from Heaven (one of the greatest performances to ever grace Best Lead Actress), The End of the Affair is my favorite Moore vehicle. The picture, despite Moore's nomination (and another nod for Roger Pratt's breathtaking cinematography), was actually very much a financial flop during its U.S. release, never reaching any higher than 16th place at the box office. Even film critics weren't terribly enthused, with most praising Moore, Fiennes and the look of the picture but also drawing unfavorable comparisons with the much-celebrated 1951 Graham Greene novel. (The film proved more of a success in the U.K., mustering a hefty 10 BAFTA nominations, including a win for Neil Jordan's screenplay adaptation.)

I happen to find the aversion to The End of the Affair a tad baffling. This is a picture I consider one of the all-time great, idiosyncratic romances to grace the silver screen. It has the grace and sophistication of a Merchant Ivory production, the sumptuous look of a Douglas Sirk film and boundless chemistry between its two leads. It is also vastly superior to the first film adaptation of the novel in 1955, a plodding exercise that not even leading lady Deborah Kerr can save.

Moore is absolutely exquisite here. Sarah Miles is not quite as meaty a role as Cathy Whitaker (Far from Heaven) but it's still a beautifully restrained, heartrending turn and it sure helps that Jordan and the camera seem head-over-heels in love with her. Is this a powerhouse mind-blower of a performance? Not quite. What it is, however, is the most underappreciated turn from one of the finest actresses of the past quarter century.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jessica Lange, Frances
  2. Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple
  3. Meryl Streep, The Bridges of Madison County
  4. Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
  5. Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
  6. Meryl Streep, Silkwood
  7. Jane Alexander, Testament
  8. Sally Kirkland, Anna
  9. Maureen Stapleton, Interiors
  10. Glenn Close, Dangerous Liaisons
  11. Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
  12. Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction
  13. Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas in the Mist
  14. Cher, Moonstruck
  15. Marsha Mason, Only When I Laugh
  16. Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas
  17. Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
  18. Kathy Bates, Misery
  19. Anjelica Huston, The Grifters
  20. Julianne Moore, The End of the Affair
  21. Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station
  22. Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking
  23. Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie
  24. Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry
  25. Sharon Stone, Casino
  26. Diane Keaton, Reds
  27. Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
  28. Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter
  29. Julie Andrews, Victor/Victoria
  30. Meryl Streep, A Cry in the Dark
  31. Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
  32. Meryl Streep, Postcards from the Edge
  33. Jessica Lange, Sweet Dreams
  34. Sissy Spacek, Missing
  35. Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth
  36. Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
  37. Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
  38. Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer
  39. Meryl Streep, One True Thing
  40. Jodie Foster, The Accused
  41. Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
  42. Annette Bening, American Beauty
  43. Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
  44. Meryl Streep, Out of Africa
  45. Holly Hunter, Broadcast News
  46. Julie Walters, Educating Rita
  47. Candice Bergen, Starting Over
  48. Maggie Smith, California Suite
  49. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
  50. Meryl Streep, Ironweed
  51. Anne Bancroft, Agnes of God
  52. Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
  53. Meryl Streep, Music of the Heart
  54. Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility
  55. Meryl Streep, The French Lieutenant's Woman
  56. Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait
  57. Penelope Milford, Coming Home
  58. Barbara Barrie, Breaking Away
  59. Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman
  60. Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love