Presenting the Nominated Supporting Actresses of 1989. Motherhood was the loose theme of the shortlist with a determined mom (Brenda Fricker) facing off against a determined-to-be-a-mom bride (Julia Roberts). Add in 1986's Oscar winner in this category (Dianne Wiest) as a mom so exasperated maybe she wished she hadn't become one in one of 89's top ten box office hits. Rounding out the list was a late breaking pair of women with claims on the same married man. Only one of them is married to him but... well, let's just say it's complicated. It's complicated for all five of these women.
Then-unknown Irish character actress Brenda Fricker, gifted with a screen partner who would go on to become Oscar's most-winning Best Actor, took the gold. But the other four were in-demand hot commodities. Lena Olin who had emerged the year before (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) as a memorably erotic screen presence made good on that breakthrough. Anjelica Huston and Dianne Wiest, both recent Oscar winners, had yet more memorable turns in beloved films around the corner. But it was Julia Roberts who was the true breakout of the season... she went super nova literally three days before the actual ceremony with the release of her follow up Pretty Woman. Had the Oscars been a month later she might've won on in-the-moment global mania; the film was a hit everywhere grossing nearly ½ a billion dollars worldwide in 1990.
THIS MONTH'S PANELISTS
You've already heard 'what 1989 means to them' and now here to talk about these five performances are critics Nick Davis (Nicks Flick Picks), Kevin B Lee (Fandor Keyframe), Tim Robey (The Telegraph), Tasha Robinson (The Dissolve), Todd VanDerWerff (Vox) and your host Nathaniel R (The Film Experience). With a shoutout to StinkyLulu for the original Smackdown inspiration in which we revisit Oscar shortlists of the past without all the campaigning and heat-of-the-moment politics that infect each awards race.
Without further ado, the Smackdown...
SUPPORTING ACTRESS SMACKDOWN
BRENDA FRICKER as "Mrs. Brown" in My Left Foot
Synopsis: A poor Irish mom tries to create the best home she can for her disabled son. But the home sure is crowded and she can't afford a wheelchair.
Stats: 44 yrs old. First and only nomination. 31 minutes of screen time (or 30% of running time).
Nick Davis: The movie’s best visual trick is continually inserting extra bodies into crowded domestic frames, without using boldface dialogues to emphasize Mrs. Brown’s serial childbearing. Fricker exercises similar economy in her performance: she doesn’t telegraph exhaustion, or grief for buried babies, or almost anything. She’s so confident in her understatement, without being bland. She forgoes opportunities to curry audience favor; taking her pregnant daughter’s side against her scurrilous husband could have prompted some righteous showstopping, but she remains even-keeled. Those Allgood and Wycherly roles from 1941’s Smackdown could’ve used her! ♥♥♥♥
Kevin B Lee: Fricker does more than just score easy points off an archetypal “suffering mom” role. Her lines are delivered straight even in melodramatic moments. She never reaches for the histrionic, a contrast to Day Lewis’ characteristic showiness, and I dare say DDL’s performance would suffer if not balanced by Fricker’s. For all of DDL’s tortured bodily contortions, there’s more subtly impressive work in how Fricker heaves her body in a pregnant state or delivers lines while doing housework; like her character, it’s essential work that goes unnoticed. ♥♥♥♥
Tim Robey: Practically a lead, but gives so much selfless graft to the movie it’s hard to begrudge her supporting honours. Could have been Beatific Ma or Long-Suffering Workhorse; dodges both to make Bridget an impressively real-feeling person, with subtle, don’t-mess authority and her own way of doing things. She catches everything Day-Lewis throws, which is a huge amount, and smoothly, unfussily puts it away. Without being shy or maudlin, she’s awfully touching as this sturdy care-giver, and completely non-monumental, which is precisely what the role wants, no more, no less. ♥♥♥♥
Tasha Robinson: This performance is fairly one-note for the Oscars. It’s all warm support, with no histronics or scream-offs. But Fricker really gets across the kind of practical, loving stolidness that would let a woman manage such immense family needs—Christy’s especially, but not exclusively. It’s gratifying how endlessly giving, strong, and confident Mrs. Brown is, and how delightful she seems to find Christy, without pity or weariness. This kind of role doesn’t come up often, because there’s so little drama in someone just being a consistent domestic hero. ♥♥♥♥
Todd VanDerWerff: I had mostly forgotten how much I loved this movie, and how much I loved Jim Sheridan’s work when watching this. So it was easy for me to overlook Fricker, weirdly, even though she was almost always there in the early going. But I thought she was rather a brilliant rock amid the storm of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance. She needs to be someone that we can always gravitate toward if we need a safe haven in any scene. And she is. She’s always there, watching and waiting and steady. ♥♥♥♥
Nathaniel R: A steady foil to the necessarily busy Day-Lewis performance. Neither quite staid nor exciting and she's missing an arc, really. Her quiet strength and authentic humble-stock bearing are moving, though. She’s especially good when reacting to any good news, never familiar enough with joy to not be nervous or uncomfortable in its presence. Her strongest move is surely that double-sided feeling when another woman and speech therapy enter Christy’s life. “I always understood him,” she snaps at her husband, genuine maternal concern touched by petty possessiveness. ♥♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "such an astute performer that she can shine without stealing focus. The looks she gives her family members whenever they discover something new about Christy tells us she already predicted or anticipated or knew. She moved me as much as she got me thinking, and that’s a great accomplishment." - BVR (Reader average: ♥♥♥)
Actress earns 26 ❤s
4 more actresses after the jump
ANJELICA HUSTON as "Tamara Broder" in Enemies: A Love Story
Synopsis: A woman long thought dead seeks out her husband in New York. She isn't surprised to find that he's juggling two new women but she's drawn into his drama.
Stats: 38 yrs old. Second of 3 nominations. 26 minutes of screen time (or 22% of running time).
Nick Davis: Has Huston ever played someone stupid? Could she? Surely her smarts would show if she tried. That palpable intelligence makes a typically instant impression in Enemies, as does her unsettling charisma, linked to her cubist handsomeness. She’s well-cast as someone who makes a series of disconcerting entrances. She has fun with Tamara’s deep exasperation but finds empathy and a peculiar sensuality in the part, too. The accent’s a bit marble-mouthed, though, and you occasionally catch her acting: mourning dead children in bed or playing Grande Dame in Yadwiga’s kitchen. ♥♥♥
Kevin B Lee: This strikes me as the loosest, most relaxed of these performances; even her limp that carries unspeakable wartime suffering feels offhand. Playing someone “not alive, not dead” in the character’s own words, Huston achieves a ghostly presence, with the balance of lightness and gravity of an apparition. She’s a few inches taller than Ron Silver, conveying a literally and symbolically towering presence. And yet Huston counters her imposing stature with softness and unwavering tact. Watching her husband’s absurd love quadrangle play out, her eyes convey limitless reserves of patience. ♥♥♥
Tim Robey: Her entrance, reborn in a corridor, va-vooms some life and magic into this rather musty enterprise. Mazursky flatters Huston with doting camera attention, but she deserves it: there’s forgiving warmth to this performance and plentiful, sidelong humour. You wonder if she’s sold out the character’s sorrow to jolly the movie along with sheer charisma, but then she lets ghosts re-overwhelm her, throwing her head back in genuinely vivid pain, and the role builds. Does wonders just sitting, and a perfect shrug when Yadwiga’s in hysterics. A peak Huston year? ♥♥♥♥
Tasha Robinson: The “protagonist has too many lovers” subgenre is awfully self-indulgent, like watching a millionaire ponder which winter home to sell for a tax break. But Enemies’ Herman comes across as a particular schmuck for not just picking Anjelica Huston, his most chic and funny wife. Huston feels like she’s in a different film from everyone else, one where she gets to play Cruella DeVil. But her breakdown is the most believable, and her high spirits are the most infectious. She’s classy and controlled beyond this sloppy film’s reach. ♥♥♥
Todd VanDerWerff: I love Anjelica Huston’s dry persona in general, so I was all prepped to love her in this, which I had never seen. But I was impressed with the way that she expertly traversed the tonal shifts and emotional rapids of Paul Mazursky’s film, which I found either overwrought or surprisingly compelling, given the scene. The times when I was finding it compelling were usually the times when Huston was onscreen, not just because her storyline is the most immediately moving, but because she handles the wild tonal shifts. ♥♥♥♥
Nathaniel R: Within Anjelica’s frankly incredible run of creations from Maerose (1985) through Morticia (1993), Tamara is the odd woman out. She’s a different woman and wife from scene to scene, uncomfortably stitched together like a mannered Bride of Frankenstein lumbering around the man she doesn’t want but is bound to. (But even her limp comes and goes). Huston is best when she’s playing into the perception of Tamara as ghost, whether that’s for comic (the Yadwiga visit) or dramatic effect. I don’t fully buy it but she’s magnetic and fun. ♥♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "Relying heavily on Huston's own charisma and charm to do the work (there's always been something enigmatic about the star - as if she's holding a secret), she brings shades of color to fill in this outline of a character that's more writer's plot device than a fully formed creation." - Andrew (Reader average: ♥♥♥)
Actress earns 23 ❤s
LENA OLIN as "Masha" in Enemies: A Love Story
Synopsis: A concentration camp survivor drives her indecisive lover crazy... and wild.
Stats: 34 yrs old. First and only nomination. 41 minutes of screen time (or 34% of running time).
Nick Davis: Olin’s citation arrives one year after her surreal omission for Unbearable Lightness of Being but is no mere apology nod. She does less obvious Performing in Enemies than Huston or Stein—a surprising claim given the huge impact she makes as a hot-tempered mistress and dyspeptic daughter, prone to dramatic tantrums. Still, it’s a smartly contained performance, rooted in Masha’s watchful, skeptical silences rather than her fiery outbursts or earthy appeals. Olin privileges Masha’s intelligence and specificity, too. She’s no mere sensual foil for Yadwiga’s naïveté or Tamara’s cleverness. ♥♥♥♥
Kevin B Lee: This performance feels very sexy and contemporary (even today) while invoking classic 40s Hollywood goddesses: the sexual volatility of Hayworth; the deep-voiced, hard-edged worldliness of Bacall. Reconstituted in Olin’s camp survivor, those fantasy personae gain new significance with the concentration camp tattoo on her forearm: they are strategies for building a new self in a new world that doesn’t quite feel real. Olin runs through a stunning repertoire of gestures through the film to convey all this: the look in her eyes during lovemaking being one unforgettable example. ♥♥♥♥♥
Tim Robey: Finds a basenote of husky unsurprisability in her part that takes her clear to the finish line, even when she could have embellished it more or tried out grabbier effects. Her speeches have a habit of feeling like speeches. Does well to let Masha’s instability creep up on you: she has to undermine her own sexy strength, or act insouciant while being otherwise. It’s shrewd playing, in a well-proportioned role, so why isn’t it a knockout? Masha/Olin’s maybe crying out for more point of view than she gets. ♥♥♥
Tasha Robinson: There are only a few roles for women more thankless than the shrewish, calculating, overbearing homewrecker Olin plays here. Most of them have “hooker” in the description. The problem with Olin’s portrayal is that it’s never clear whether Masha loves Herman, or just loves control. Olin seems checked out part of the time, and over-the-top in the clinches. This would have been a stronger film all around if there’d been more sympathetic balance between Herman’s wives, and not just a sense that they’re mostly awful—especially Masha. ♥
Todd VanDerWerff: I have a hunch I’ll be in the minority on this, but I found this performance wildly over-the-top in a way that rarely worked. She’s stunning in smaller moments, like when she looks at herself in the mirror near the movie’s end, but Olin’s interpretation of Masha involves a lot of capital-A Acting of the type I normally don’t like. Plus, there’s an uncomfortable sense that the Academy mostly nominated her because she’s playing “the sexy girl,” a type they love. But she’s almost too goofy to be sexy. ♥♥♥
Nathaniel R: “A little crazy but tremendously interesting”. Olin dances on the edge of Too Much but you’d better to match that description. The actress’s slyest impulse is to suggest, subtly but often, that Masha actually enjoys and feeds off her own despondency and alarming moodswings. More than any other actor she understands the ‘not alive, not dead’ screenplay mandate for these survivors and plays to both consistently; In her body she’s thrillingly present but in her soul there’s just morbidity. “If you hear I’m dead, don’t come to my funeral.” ♥♥♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "Olin is wonderful at showing her coldness, her disaproval or her anger. Her only small missteps happen in her louder scenes" - Gabriel (Reader average: ♥♥♥⅓)
Actress earns 23⅓ ❤s
JULIA ROBERTS as "Shelby" in Steel Magnolias
Synopsis: A diabetic Southern bride eager to be a mother gets pregnant against the doctor's orders. Her own mama is none too pleased about it.
Stats: 22 yrs old. First of 4 nominations. 37 minutes of screen time (or 32% of running time).
Nick Davis: What a huge difference a director makes, either relaxing an intuitive, inexperienced performer, as Garry Marshall managed, or totally unnerving her, as Herbert Ross notoriously did. Hence, Roberts’s wavering accent (and she’s from Georgia!) and indelicate handling of subtext (regarding Jackson’s philandering). She stiffens under copious closeups in Act One, as if hauled into a spotlight and told, “Prove yourself! Be fabulous!” Despite these awkward impressions, though, Roberts makes Shelby’s diabetic attack both harrowing and humanizing, all without getting mawkish. And once Jack Jr.’s born, she nails every beat. ♥♥♥
Kevin B Lee: I’d heard about director Herbert Ross’ intense displeasure with Roberts’ acting in this film, but upon viewing her first scenes any consideration of her performative talent took a back seat to just basking in the sheer radiance of her screen presence. For the first 20 minutes she’s pure human sunshine, bringing disarming charisma to a character who’s really an annoying brat on paper, at least until we learn she’s diabetic. Unfortunately those later scenes depicting her debilitation exposes her weaknesses: she’s just too full of life to play dying. ♥♥♥♥
Tim Robey: Totally fun, promising and head-turning, but not yet a pro at commanding the rhythm of her scenes. Then again, it’s hard to tell: the editing snacks on her from every angle. The close-ups after her salon fit feel like try-hard inserts. You see a star born but not yet quite in charge – it’s embryonic work, an acting job in an incubator. She makes you miss her when she’s gone, but when would that not be true of Roberts in a movie? I think we miss Roberts, not Shelby. ♥♥
Tasha Robinson: I’ve defended America’s Sweetheart #57 for decades against people who find her grating, but in this particular film… well, I find her grating. Maybe it’s her movie-diabetes, which the film treats like tuberculosis in La Boheme, fainting couches and all. Maybe it’s the Blanche DuBois accent. Maybe it’s the way the film is filled with far-more-fabulous women who thoroughly out shine her. But she’s so middle-of-the-road here, it’s ridiculous that she was the only one nominated. I think she got the death-sympathy vote. ♥♥
Todd VanDerWerff: In my head, this was always nominated because the Academy recognized a star in the making. But that’s me reading knowledge of the future onto the past. So then I thought maybe it was a beautiful woman suffering beautifully, a type the Academy often loves. But Roberts (to her credit) really does allow herself moments of true ugliness in this part. So I genuinely don’t know why she was nominated here. She’s certainly fine, and she plays both the sweet and stubborn sides of the character well. But why? ♥♥
Nathaniel R: Director Herbert Ross famously dissed Julia’s acting after the fact in an interview claiming that “she could only play the top of scenes.” It was mean to say so publicly but… he wasn’t wrong. Her coquettish self-absorption is exactly right for the part and her romantic love for Jackson reads completely authentic. Elsewhere, authenticity is not the word. She visibly waits for each line then overplays it. It’s a star-is-born moment, but the actress hasn’t yet caught up to the star’s dazzling surface. Soon, Julia, soon. ♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "Shelby could easily be one of the most annoying characters but Roberts gives her a renegade warmth and spirited defiance that is attractive, more than repellant." - Christopher James (Reader average: ♥♥½)
Actress earns 17½ ❤s
DIANNE WIEST as "Helen Buckman" in Parenthood
Synopsis: An exasperated lonely single mother finds her secretive teenagers slipping away from her and worries for them constantly.
Stats: 41 yrs old. Second of 3 nominations. 25 minutes screen time (or 20% of running time).
Nick Davis: I like Parenthood’s ambitions but mostly dislike its script and direction. Howard lamely encourages the actors to sling out highly variable punchlines without remotely disguising that’s what they are. Nobody emerges unscathed. Still, among the adults, Wiest’s heroism is second only to Martin’s in summoning sympathy and authenticity within this artificial framework. She also gets to respond to the movie’s best, most earnest performance, by tiny Joaquin Phoenix. In the scene where he calls his delinquent father, they conjure levels and complexities of feeling that Parenthood otherwise barely attempts. ♥♥♥
Kevin B Lee: Wiest isn’t helped by the sit-commy material and directing that never fails to reduce characters to types. Also doesn’t help that she is out-acted by a 15 year-old Joaquin Phoenix in the film’s most affecting scene. This strikes me as the closest to a pity nomination in the group, partly for the role (sympathetic single working mom character), partly for being game enough to serve as punchline for the vibrator joke that’s the film’s signature moment (once bawdy and outrageous, now dumb and dated). ♥♥
Tim Robey: Because we’re not at Hannah level, I tend to assume Wiest’s making the best of a so-so job here, but she’s Just. Too. Good. Peerless at letting infinite-reservoir-of-patience overrun into very precise and funny hysterics. The “I was at Woodstock” bit and the “This is my favourite” bit and the “I have no life” bit are easy bits, sure, but she sells them with a rare combination of zing and truth – LOVE her jumping up and down on every monosyllable of the last one. Film-trumping neurotic-comic gold. A joy. ♥♥♥♥
Tasha Robinson: This was the film where I fell in love with Dianne Wiest. (Even though she’d played the exact same role in Lost Boys two years earlier.) It’s such a lovely, layered piece of acting: equal parts sweet, clueless, and angsty, with vulnerability, loneliness, and real anger hidden underneath. I love how she can simultaneously communicate “I just want to help my poor kids” and “I’m going to snap and kill these brats.” I would have given her the Oscar. ♥♥♥♥♥
Todd VanDerWerff: Maybe 1989 was just a phenomenally weak year for supporting actresses. Or maybe the Academy just loved Dianne Wiest that much. Because she’s quite good in this, but she always is. Yet the movie around her is much more of a mess than I remembered, and kind of horrifying by the standards of 2014 racial and gender politics. Wiest gets a few big scenes where she gets to shout, and her relationship with her daughter (played by a young Martha Plimpton) is fun. But the character’s arc is non-existent. ♥♥
Nathaniel R: Of the many many things I love about this actress, her voice ranks high. Her pitch flips from soothing to shrill to sad on a dime as this harried mom. “I was at Woodstock ferchrissakes!” is overkill but her best jokes have a delicious fed-up interiority (“one for my wallet”) like she’s spent way too much time alone, talking as much to herself as the teenagers she knows aren’t listening. Exceptionally funny but dramatically grounded when it counts, listening to her young son’s heart break on the telephone. ♥♥♥♥
Reader Write-Ins: "Can I give this performance 10 hearts?! It's such a lived-in, funny, real piece of work." - Suzanne (Reader average: ♥♥♥♥)
Actress earns 24 ❤s
THE OSCAR WENT TO... Brenda Fricker
AND THE SMACKDOWN AGREES AND SALUTES THIS...
Would you have chosen similarly?
Want more? A companion podcast is coming soon where we flesh out these feelings and talk about the films themselves and our moviegoing histories
Further Reading? 1989 themed articles are here