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"The Client" and Populist Oscar Choices in Acting

by Nathaniel R

Today is the 25th anniversary of the release of The Client which was a big sleeper success in its summer, ending the year as the 13th highest grossing movie of 1994. Only that number wasn't bad luck since Susan Sarandon netted a Best Actress nomination for the legal drama. That nomination kept her momentum as "overdue for a win" going strong until the next year when she won the Oscar for something in Oscar's more typical wheelhouse, Dead Man Walking (1995) an issue drama based on a true story.

So let's discuss something no one talks about much. What are the lead acting nominations that would never have happened without the big hit status for the movies that housed them? This is NOT meant as a critique of the performances. Sometimes Oscar just needs to be convinced by enormous success to look at worthy pieces of acting within genres they take less seriously (their loss) or star vehicles they might not have stopped to mull over without all the general audience enthusiasm forcing the movie to be taken seriously... 

Let's only do the 1985 onward for the purposes of this list since that's when yours truly began to pay rapt attention to the  'who might be nominated?' discourse each year, a discourse that was much much quieter than it is now pre-internet. It's also inarguably true that the public moviegoing taste used to align more closely with Oscar tastes pre 1980s (so many Oscar dramas were massive hits in their years once you go back in time) so this would be harder to suss out before then. But we think the following performances would not have been Oscar-blessed if the movies weren't big hits.

You'll notice that Meryl is not here for Prada because history has proven, time and again, that Streep doesn't need the movie to be successful to be nominated. Also Julia Roberts is not here for Pretty Woman, this was a judgment call about which I kept waffling. You could probably argue that she would not have been nominated but, on the other hand, she was a rising star who had just been nominated who happened to be playing hooker with a heart of gold back when Oscar still loved that 'type'.  

(# = where the movie landed at the end of the year box office charts -- all of these movies were huge ass hits.) 


  • 1986 Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (#7)
  • 1990 Kathy Bates in Misery (#19)
  • 1994 Susan Sarandon in The Client (#13)
  • 1996 Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient (#19) - Another gray area but if the movie hadn't proven a phenomenon we suspect that it would have only been Fiennes & Binoche... It was a competitive year
  • 2003 Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give (#16)
  • 2009 Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side (#8)
  • 2014 Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl (#18)



  • 1988 Tom Hanks in Big (#4) - A comedy. And it was released in June
  • 1996 Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire (#4)
  • 2000 Russell Crowe in Gladiator (#4) - Maybe you could argue he would have been nominated without it. But he would not have won. 
  • 2003 Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (#3) - this one is very very very obvious but also the performance was genius (too bad he tarnished it with all those phoned-in reprises) so we're thrilled that it happened
  • 2012 Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook (#23)
    Another iffy choice... but we think this applies because men so rarely get nominated for romantic comedies. 
  • 2015 Matt Damon in The Martian (#8)
  • 2017 Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out ($15)

Agree? Disagree? What would you remove or replace it with? And, which performances wouldn't have won without their commercial succcess even if the nomination was probably always going to happen? 




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Reader Comments (54)

Would Diane Lane in UNFAITHFUL qualify here?

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

The financial success of Pretty Woman secured Roberts the nod. Explain how publicly ridiculed that nomination was via the audible responses from the press room when her name was announced and Siskel and Ebert had to defend this nomination on the Arsenio Hall show and their own if We Picked the winners special?

What's so appealing about Sarandon's award season run with The Client is the studio thought she was initially too old for the part.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Cher's nod for Moonstruck definitely is about its financial success. Weaver was overdue for recognition when she got her nod for Aliens.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire is too big and complete a performance, even if one fails to appreciate it.

Biggest star in the world, more respected as an actor that passers-by would realize, giving a serious performance, where the comedy actually adds to the fullness of his performance. Movie is also very long and very cinematic. If he were 40 he'd have won.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

This was when Susan peaked. The studio paid her a ridiculously high salary. She never gave a good performance after. I so relate.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterFaye

This list is good. It’s most of the mediocre actors in Hollywood. Julia has August Osage County, Ben’s Back, and Erin Brockovich etc. so I support your analysis.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

I don't understand why she was nommed for The Client and then after her win nothing.

Roberts is now Iconic in Pretty Woman and is so utterly charming and movie star ish in it.

The last time a female star was truly born.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I don't know the exactly box office numbers but in terms of
comercial succesful movies i could add:
Kate Winslet in Titanic
Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette in The Sixth Sense
Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones's Diary

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCésar Gaytán

Performances that WON because of popularity but would have been nominated regardless?


88: Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man (If it wasn't a financial hit? Edward James Olmos, Stand and Deliver.)
94: Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump (If it wasn't a financial hit? Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption.)
97: Jack Nicholson, As Good As it Gets (This was win #3. It wouldn't have happened with milder success. If it wasn't a financial hit? Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting.)
98: Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful (Well, this case wasn't JUST about it being a financial hit. It was also kind of "Oh, crap, Jim Carrey missed. Guess we give it to the other clown." If it wasn't a hit? Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters.)
99: Kevin Spacey, American Beauty (If it wasn't a financial hit? Crowe or Washington.)
00: Russell Crowe, Gladiator (If it wasn't a financial hit? Ed Harris.)
(Note: Brutal four year run of clearly financially motivated Best Actor winners.)
18: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody (If it wasn't a MONSTER financial hit? Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born.)


89: Jessica Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy (If it wasn't a financial hit? Michelle Pfeiffer, The Fabulous Baker Boys.)
98: Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love (If it wasn't a financial hit? Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie.)
04: Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby (If it wasn't a financial hit? Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine.)
09: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side (If it wasn't a financial hit? Carey Mulligan, An Education.)
12: Jennifer Lawrence, The Hung-I mean, Silver Linings Playbook (If one or the other weren't financial hits? Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty.)
16: Emma Stone, La La Land (If it wasn't a financial hit? Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins.)

/3rtful: Kind of agree on Weaver (a WIN would possibly imply what Nat's looking for, but not the nomination), but don't agree Cher's nomination OR win were strictly about financial success. Moonstruck was "regular successful", not "override the Academy's taste centres successful." It wasn't a Rain Man. Fatal Attraction is the best performance of that field AND year, but it was too trashy a movie for Oscar and the best alternative, sadly, was the Holly Hunter performance they DIDN'T nominate.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

The thing is ... most of these performances are terrific. I'll willingly take a couple head-scratchers to make room for excellent genre work.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCash

It’s interesting in hindsight how bad many of these are. Sandra Bullock? Some actors have really lost their luster including Sue and Michelle.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCher


Sarandon was on borrowed time during her post Bull Durham leading lady run. She was politically outspoken then.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful


Diane Lane for UNFAITHFUL?!? Nah. The film only did okay box office wise. It was Lane’s commuter train scene and semi-surprising (but deserved) critics prizes that sealed her nomination.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJohnny B

I don't think many of you are getting what he meant by a populist nomination.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan (the 1st)

Yea, much as I love Zellwegger in BJD (easily her best perf for me), that movie had to be a hit to get her the love.

Stone? Come on. Successfully carrying a musical is heavy lifting, and she frankly carried more of the weight than Gosling. The difficulty of pulling it off would have carried her if the film wasn't a hit.

Hard to argue with Lawrence in SLP, though I know people who rave about that role. Pike was helped by plot device as well as hit status, and I actually think the role itself is extremely baity. (I love what she did with it.) Plus, given the competition I think she was in regardless.

Weaver should have been on her second nod for the series. We need a list for "huge hit, impressive performance, still no love" list for her turn in Alien. It was even more impressive when she went from assumed ensemble player to leading lady, and how that went down.

Finally, while I'm a staunch defender of Bullock's nod for Gravity, if it wasn't a massive hit she wasn't going to get in.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

This list makes no sense to me without Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.

I would add
Kate Winslet, Titanic
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born

1994 was a strange year. One of the favourites was ineligible and the rest were all in indie movies. That definitively helped Sarandon. I also want to believe that her nomination can be read as a "you're forgiven" sign after being banned from the ceremony for speaking up against the internment of HIV-positive refugees at Guantanamo while presenting Best Editing in 92.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I do rave about .JLaw in SLP. Terrific performance

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Pretty Woman is the very definition of a populist Oscar choice in acting. Its reviews, after all, were middling at best.

Unfaithful was a modest success but not a sizable hit, so Diane Lane more than earned her Oscar nomination. By contrast, another Adrian Lyne film, Fatal Attraction, may not have gotten Glenn Close a Best Actress nomination (not to mention its other noms) if not for its monster hit/cultural zeitgeist status.

I'd add that Melanie Griffith also probably wouldn't have been Oscar-nominated if Working Girl had not done well at the box office. (Ditto Winslet for Titanic.) Perhaps controversially, I don't think Viola Davis would've been nominated for The Help had it not been a huge summer hit.

On the actor side, obviously Rami Malek doesn't make it in (let alone win) if Bohemian Rhapsody had bombed (as it should've).

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

I understand the idea and I liked to add:

Denzel Washington in Training Day, Flight, Fences and Roman J. Israel, Esq
Ian McKellen in LOTR The Fellowship of the Ring
Naomi Watts in The Impossible
Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs
Morgan Freeman The Shawshank Redemption
Matt Damon for all the nominations
Jude Law in Cold Mountain
Johnny Depp for all his nominations
DiCaprio for The Aviator, Blood Diamond
Andrew Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge
Bradley Cooper for all his nominations
Viggo Mortensen for Green Book

Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon for Thelma & Louise
Winona Ryder for Little Women
Helen Hunt for As Good as it gets
Meryl Streep for One True Thing, Music for the heart, Julie & Julia, Florence Foster Jenkins
Nicole Kidman for Moulin Rouge
Salma Hayek for Frida
Annette Bening fot Being Julia, The Kids are all right
Judi Dench for Mrs Henderson Presents,
Angelina Jolie for Changeling
Viola Davis for The Help
Sandra Bullock for all her nominations
Lady Gaga for A Star is born
Brie Larson for Room

George Clooney for all his acting nominations
Brad Pitt for all his nominations
Jean Dujardin for the Artist

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

One could argue that both of Sandra Bullock's nominations came about because of box office hits. Rami Malek might still get nominated but for sure doesn't win if his movie isn't a hit.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTom G.

Renee Zellwegger for Bridget Jones was the first name that came to mind.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLucky

Brian: Denzel Washington ones? $104 million, $161 million, $64 million and $13 million. No, maybe, no, no. Fellowship of the Ring? Not the right category, but maybe. Naomi Watts in The Impossible? $180 million, but loosely based on a true story, so no. Silence of the Lambs? $272 million, but the across the board Oscar fav that year. Can't go higher than a maybe. The Shawshank Redemption? Became HUGE later, but the initial theatrical gross is a TINY $58 million. Nope. Damon? I'm actually going to say no for Good Will Hunting and Invictus, but give a YES to The Martian. Cold Mountain? $173 million. Old school weepy epic. No. Depp? In order: Yes, no, no. DiCaprio in The Aviator and Blood Diamond? No, no. Hacksaw Ridge? Outside of extreme success, biography is an instant no. Cooper? Maybe, no, no, no. Thelma and Louise? $45 million. No. Little Women? $50 million. No. Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets? MAYBE the gross got her the WIN, but the nom would have happened regardless. The Streeps you mention? No, no, no, no. Moulin Rouge! ? Maybe. Frida? No. Bening? No, no. Mrs. Henderson presents? No. Changeling? No. The Help? Maybe. Sandra Bullock? Maybe. Yes. GAGA for A Star is Born? Maybe. Room? No. Clooney? No. No. Maybe. Maybe. Pitt? Maybe. No. No. The Artist? No.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I will defend Sarandon’s performance in “The Client” to the ends of the earth. She’s smart, witty, doesn’t overdue the accent, conveys strong legal savvy and mothering without blinking g an eye. It is arguably one of the strongest female role model performances ever. Every line from her is gold starting with “I’m Reggie Love.” This is the kind of picture that sadly won’t be made never less nominated in today’s market. Susan Sarandon takes this character and OWNS it and makes a legal thriller have heart and soul, that’s acting I can get behind. I also love Julia in the Pelican Brief.

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBrezz

David, I thought about that but Unfaithful was only a modest hit.

Tom G -- i would argue that Gravity didn't have to be a colossal success for Bullock to get the nomination, because it was a "see, we were right" follow up nod.

Me -- i totally think Tom Cruise should have won for Jerry Maguire. His best performance. But because it was a star vehicle and a romantic dramedy... i think it needed to be a massive hit (which it was) to get those big Oscar nominations... and still no Zellweger in supporting.

July 20, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

How about....

Jack Palance in City Slickers?

Does Bradley Cooper surge past Gyllenhaal and Oyelowo without the box office in 2014?

Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder?

July 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

The Client is actually pretty bad. Just saying.

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterFaye

I can't believe you didn't put Al Pacino "Scent of a Woman" on this list. It's one of my least favourite roles that Pacino has played. I find it too broad and way over-acted. But surely the fact that it was a massive hit put him in the running.
@Brezz - thanks for sticking up for Sarandon as Reggie Love. I agree 100%, she made that character believable and made that film watchable.

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Brezz, there was a time when John Grisham novels were literary blockbusters and it made sense that the movies followed. Not sure when that all ended. THE RAINMAKER?

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

I still think 1994 was the worst year ever for actresses:

Jessica Lange – Blue Sky as Carly
Jodie Foster – Nell as Nell
Miranda Richardson – Tom & Viv as Vivienne Haigh-Wood
Winona Ryder – Little Women as Josephine "Jo" March
Susan Sarandon – The Client as Regina "Reggie" Love

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJane

I think this is a tough question because box office success is already so strongly tied to Oscar success in general. So many factors come into play for the nomination that I find it very hard to narrow it down to primarily box office success. You could argue movies like Dances With Wolves, Gladiator, Forrest Gump, Erin Brockovich, and so on and so forth would not have been the Oscar hits they were if they had not been box office hits before. Therefore that their leading nominations/wins (and especially their supporting nods) wouldn't have happened without the $$ first either.

Though it does seem we're seeing those "popular" nods less and less with the Academy nowadays. Unless the movie is a big hit with them across the board (Kaluuya) they don't really happen. Pike does feel like the only one of the last decade to reaaaally fit that mold. Especially since they ignored the movie completely outside of her. Though this could also be because you can argue movie stars as vehicles and figures in Hollywood are fading away. As well as the independent industry dominating the conversation more than the big studios nowadays. It's almost funny that the only other leading nod of this ilk in the past several years might be Malek and I would put up that it's not an actual star turn, it feels like one because of the character he played.

But again, Malek's success is tied to BoRap's overall success with the Academy, which is equally tied to the box office hit the movie was.

I would argue that if we're not including nominations like Costner, Winslet (Titanic) or Hanks (FG or SPR), that benefitted from being in popular movies I would take out Cooper, Scott Thomas and Cruise since they were in movies that Oscar loved all around. And I guess you could picture them nominated more so for being in the movies that they were rather than box office.

While Streep can get in for almost anything, she's misses here and there (Manchurian Candidate, Hope Springs, Ricki). So, while most actresses probably wouldn't have gotten in for The Devil Wears Prada under the same circumstances I also feel Streep wouldn't have gotten in without the box office either.

The big ones that I would probably throw in were box office probably played more of a role in the nomination than the acclaim (and especially for being in genres the Academy stays away from) are Renee Zellweger for Bridget Jones, DeNiro for Cape Fear and Hanks for Cast Away. Maybe Streep for Madison County too. And as you say, not as a slight to any of the ones I've mentioned, many of which I like a lot too!

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAlex D

Richard Gere also said something about Tibet that year.

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterViv

Excellent question, Nathaniel. I'd argue that any nomination from before the fall Oscar season release period needs populist appeal to make it in, unless it has a narrative like Glenn Close in The Wife to carry it through the rest of the year. Starting in 1985, I'd argue Witness and Fatal Attraction were boosted to Best Picture nominations due to their box office, and Don Ameche and Sean Connery were helped to their Supporting Actor Oscar due to appearing in summer hits. Field of Dreams and Dead Poets Society were likely helped into the Best Picture race because of their box office, and Do The Right Thing may have been hurt by its weaker financial standing. Ghost was certainly boosted on a populist wave. Jack Palance's win for City Slickers definitely needed that strong summer run to get him that win. Even My Cousin Vinny being moderately successful with 12 million tickets sold in the spring helped keep the film remembered until the following year. All of the Tom Hanks summer hits probably didn't need box office to get attention, but I'd argue that The Fugitive and The Firm for Holly Hunter, Primal Fear for Edward Norton, The Truman Show, The Sixth Sense, Gladiator, and then, to lesser extents, Bridget Jones' Diary and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, all had strong enough financial strength to remain in the conversation that boosted them above more "artistic" and lesser seen movies. In the last 15 years, I feel like more on demand options have lessened this phenomenom, but it sure is interesting to see play out!

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel

Julia Roberts needs to be on your list for Pretty Woman. It made the most money from any Best Actress contender in its category slate. Misery on the other hand, was a critical darling in direct comparison to Pretty Woman. And Bates was recognized through critics citations. Though Huston and Woodward (Harvey's girls) took home the ransom or precursors until the Globes ceremony.

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Rami Malek
Rami Malek
Rami Malek

If Bohemian Rhapsody has the same gross as Rocketman, it gets 0 Oscar nominations.

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Remove Kathy Bates' name from your list and put Cher's name in the place. Moonstruck would never get its three Oscars or six nominations if it wasn' t a hit, including best movie - best movie!

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterFeline Justice

I'll agree with everyone except Sigourney and Kathy. I would argue that both of their performances were so strong that they contributed to the financial success of the movies they were in, especially Kathy. I think Kathy is comparable to Julia: Pretty Woman would never have been as successful as it was with another actress, and there's no way Misery would have been as successful with anyone else but Kathy. As for Sigourney, she had done some exceptional work in parts that would've been unmemorable played by someone else, and Aliens was an actor's workshop. She managed to be a kick ass action hero while fully embracing her maternal instincts (which should be redundant, but in Hollywood, unfortunately, isn't).

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTommy

I never understood Julia Roberts' appeal. Or stardom. Never. And who remembers or talks about Pretty Woman besides the fans (with all their right)? Seen today looks like one of those movies made for tv from saturday nights. The soundtrack, however, is great.

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSe_bas_tian

I loved when Brad Renfro quizzed Sarandon on Led Zeppelin: “And the album after that, while officially untitled, is known by fans as Led Zeppelin IV.”

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

Sue is the epitome of the Oscar curse. She won for Dead Man Walking and everything she did after is largely bad or mediocre.

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCher

I think 1994 Best Actress needs to be discussed. A really weird lineup, in my opinion.

I wonder if MURIEL’S WEDDING had gotten a U.S. release, would Toni have snuck in?

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

And Erin Brockovich - Julia would never ever get the Oscar without the box office. It's her Norma Rae.

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSe_bas_tian

I wish Constance Wu got nommed so I could complain about it here. Plus Constance Wu would be Oscar nominated.

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterChoog

Rosamund Pike is extraordinary in GONE GIRL

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBhuray

Peggy Sue: Is Toni Colette the actress who was not eligible en 1994?

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

@Roger: yes, a 1994 Best *Actress* Smackdown would be amazing. It was the most indifferent lineup in this category that I can ever remember. Jessica Lange won practically by default b/c it seemed like no one seriously cared about any of those movies or performances.

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

I think it was Linda Fiorentino for The Last Seduction.

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSoSue

Marcos: no, you're thinking of Linda Fiorentino in "The Last Seduction."

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJJ

Plus Blue Sky sat in a can for a couple of years so it was old. 1995 remedied that sad group from 1994 with five great 1995 performances that are still remembered.

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCher


The past year the 1994 line-up for best actress was already discuss

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCésar Gaytán

Look at the 1995. It's so true. All of these are required viewing for film lovers.

Susan Sarandon – Dead Man Walking as Helen Prejean
Elisabeth Shue – Leaving Las Vegas as Sera
Sharon Stone – Casino as Ginger McKenna
Meryl Streep – The Bridges of Madison County as Francesca Johnson
Emma Thompson – Sense and Sensibility as Elinor Dashwood

July 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

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