Best Actress, 1995
• Academy Award: Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking
Dead Man Walking is an actor’s dream—no surprise, given that it was directed by an actor, Tim Robbins (essentially Susan Sarandon’s husband at the time, though they never actually married, and have since split up). Much of it consists of lengthy, highly emotional dialogue scenes between Sarandon’s Sister Helen Prejean and Sean Penn’s death-row killer, Matthew Poncelet, and Robbins knows all he has to do, having cast two powerhouses in these juicy roles, is point the camera in their direction and let them do their thing. Still, there was always the danger that Sister Helen might come across as tediously noble. Sarandon’s impassioned performance deftly avoids that pitfall; she makes it abundantly clear that unconditional love is hard work, and he’s at her best when railing at Poncelet for his refusal to take full responsibility for his actions. This was one of those ideal instances when the sense that a veteran was long overdue—Sarandon was almost 50, and had been working for 25 years—coincided with genuinely great work. It may not be her finest hour (I’d argue that either Bull Durham or Thelma & Louise deserves that honor), but it’s certainly in the running. My favorite moment doesn’t involve tears or harsh words: Poncelet remarks that he’s cold, and Sister Helen turns her head to ask if someone at the jail can bring him a jacket, then turns back to look at him. That’s all… but the way Sarandon turns back, as if she regrets having looked away from Poncelet even for a split second (he’s due to be executed in a matter of moments), demonstrates the sort of precise body language that’s often so much more important than line readings.
• New York Film Critics Circle: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Georgia
Here’s a movie constructed entirely around a tour de force by its lead actress, which is why it’s rarely mentioned two decades later, except in the context of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s career. There’s a sense in which awarding a performance like this one feels redundant, as it seems to exist primarily to collect awards. At the same time, though, Leigh truly is amazing as self-destructive singer Sadie Flood, and it’s not her fault that there isn’t much of a film surrounding her tempestuous virtuosity. (The screenplay was written by Leigh’s mother, Barbara Turner—another case, like Dead Man Walking, of a project shaped for an actress by a loved one.) Georgia’s legendary setpiece is Leigh’s blistering eight-minute rendition of Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back,” which is almost physically painful to endure; in her effort to replicate Morrison’s vocal mannerisms (particularly his incantatory repetition), Sadie only succeeds in coming across as monstrously needy, and director Ulu Grosbard prolongs the mortification until it goes past embarrassment and starts to seem weirdly heroic. It’s the sort of gutsy, unflattering choice for which Leigh was justly famous in her heyday, and Georgia is chock-full of such moments, functioning primarily as a character study of a woman crippled by having a famous sister (Georgia, played by Mare Winningham). Watching Sadie lash out in anger and drown in self-pity for two solid hours could have become wearisome, but Leigh expertly modulates the highs and lows, keeping the character fresh and vital from start to finish. All that’s missing is a context worthy of such fierce commitment.
• Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas
One of the most gratifying behind-the-scenes narratives is the actor who, after years of being perceived as a lightweight, suddenly startles audiences with a previously unimagined depth of talent. Elisabeth Shue was known primarily for such fluff as The Karate Kid, Cocktail, and Adventures In Babysitting, plus taking over as Marty McFly’s girlfriend in the Back To The Future sequels; she was a likable screen presence, but had done nothing to suggest that an Oscar nomination or critics’ awards might be in her future. As Sera, the hooker who accompanies Nicolas Cage’s suicidal drunk on his final journey in Leaving Las Vegas, however, Shue dug deep into a reserve of pain and empathy that had been completely untapped, and managed to hold her own opposite one of the defining performances of the 1990s. Cage arguably couldn’t have pulled off his high-wire act without Shue serving as his ballast; Sera’s acceptance and lack of judgment “completes” Cage’s Ben, and ennobles what would otherwise seem like a purely pathetic display. To be honest, it now comes across that way to me anyway, to some degree—I loved Leaving Las Vegas at the time of its release, but now I kind of hate it, having come to recognize the extent to which it’s just the same old garishly romanticized bullshit director Mike Figgis always serves up.
Its central performances still dazzle, though, and while Cage (who won the Oscar) has the showier role, Shue provides the movie with a semblance of a soul, mostly by underplaying Sera’s emotional vulnerability (except in the interview segments interspersed throughout) and letting another actor use her sad serenity as a conduit. Alas, the offscreen narrative didn’t have an especially happy ending: Shue got no A-list work following her breakthrough, and quickly faded back into semi-obscurity, as if her shining moment had never even happened. Apparently it’s not so easy to overcome a frivolous image.
• National Society of Film Critics: Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas
The NSFC also gave its prize to Shue, though the fact that she went two-for-three among the big critics’ groups made little difference as far as Oscar predictions were concerned—Sarandon was widely expected to win, and did. Usually, when there’s a repeat victor, I use the space to discuss the year’s other Oscar nominees; in this case, though, I don’t have a lot to say about the remaining three performances (Sharon Stone in Casino, Meryl Streep in The Bridges Of Madison County, and Emma Thompson in Sense And Sensibility), all of which strike me as “solid.” Stone’s nomination is the most interesting, since she, even more than Shue, was seen as more of a star than a proper actress; it’s also my least favorite of the three, as the character’s frequent screaming fits in Casino’s third act inject a degree of melodrama that works against the film’s pseudo-documentary depiction of its gaudy milieu. Instead, I’d like to put in a good word for my Most Overlooked runner-up, who starred in a film very few people have seen. Mark Rappaport’s From The Journals Of Jean Seberg is a radically unconventional essay film disguised as a biopic, juxtaposing clips of the real Seberg with direct-to-camera monologues performed by Mary Beth Hurt as the late actress (who died in 1979 at age 40), delivered with the dispassionate tone of an academic. It’s a role with very little range, but its brilliance lies in what Hurt doesn’t do: She doesn’t attempt to mimic Seberg in any way, apart from wearing her hair in the pixie cut Seberg favored. Her stoic performance trusts the material, and is far more poignant than conventional emoting would have been; she’s not playing Seberg so much as she’s playing an intellectual construct of Seberg’s hypothetical consciousness a decade and a half after her death. It’s a heady achievement, in just about every possible sense of that adjective.
• Performance Review’s Most Overlooked: Julianne Moore, Safe
That’s right. She didn’t win anything. Got nominated for Best Actress in that year’s Independent Spirit awards. Otherwise, zilch. Does anybody now dare to deny that this is one of the most astonishing performances of the 1990s? (I’m on record stating that Moore is even greater in Louis Malle’s Vanya On 42nd Street, but then, I consider that one of the most astonishing performances in the history of both cinema and theater.) As Carol White, the vapid housewife whose life is turned upside-down when she appears to develop some sort of vaguely diagnosed allergy to ordinary chemicals, Moore empties herself of virtually every characteristic that defines an individual, leaving only a brittle, uncomprehending shell. Her vocal choices alone, which suggest someone uncertain that she’s been properly cleared to exist in three dimensions, are so singular that they almost defy description. (I had to think long and hard to come up with that one.) Writer-director Todd Haynes has given Moore a nearly impossible task in Safe: She has to embody a woman who undergoes a crisis of conscience and completely redefines herself, yet doesn’t actually change at all, merely substituting one blinkered, self-abnegating worldview for another. In other words, she has to project radical change and complete stasis simultaneously, starting from a character who’s essentially a hollow porcelain doll. Degree of difficulty: insane. With all due respect to Sarandon, Leigh, and Shue, it’s simply ludicrous that Moore was completely ignored by the tastemakers of the day; if critics voted next week on the best performances of 1995, I have no doubt that she would win in a landslide. Sometimes, it just takes some distance before people can see what true magnificence looks like. They’re not ready yet.