By Paul Popiel

The Best Supporting Actress Oscars from the 90s are dominated by actresses who portrayed tough, fast-talking women, often with New York accents. Don’t believe me? Marisa Tomei, Mira Sorvino, Dianne Wiest, Mercedes Ruehl. And, let’s not forget tough, fast-talking women without New York accents: Angelina Jolie and Whoopi Goldberg. The rest? Tough women, though deliberate talkers rather than fast ones, and without the New York accents.

The results of our critic poll ranking the winners in this category are the most peculiar of the series thus far: an upset win, several ties, and a bizarre order in general. However, for your reading pleasure, I will make sense of it all for you. So, without further ado…

___________________________________________________________________________________

#10 Mira Sorvino – Mighty Aphrodite (1995) – 7.10

I’ll just say it. Mira Sorvino is considered one of the worst and most undeserving Oscar winners of all time. Nevertheless, 1995 was a good year for her. She was dating one of the hottest (in terms of success heat, not physical heat, due to his unfortunately-shaped forehead) indie directors at the time, Quentin Tarantino, and she had just landed a role in a Woody Allen film, playing a funny, tough, fast-talking, New-York-accented hooker and mother to the protagonist’s (wait for it) genius son. And, on top of that, she won an Oscar.

In my opinion, somewhat marred by the fact that I put her performance at number-9, is that I genuinely like Sorvino and think she’s a solid actress. Though the decade had many stronger and more iconic performances, hers was often hilarious and carried the film, which was not Woody’s strongest. Sorvino’s role gave it its emotional core. Though she starred in a few by-the-numbers action films afterwards, her ability did shine through in riskier films such as Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, in which she was excellent. That year, the only worthier candidate for the Oscar, was the fantastic Joan Allen, whose portrayal of Pat Nixon, in Oliver Stone’s Nixon should have gotten her the award.

___________________________________________________________________________________

#9 Whoopi Goldberg – Ghost (1990) – 6.90

Oda Mae Brown holding a check for a million dollars, arguing seemingly with herself about whether to hand it over to a nun, and then regretting it as she’s doing it and long afterwards. Yes, it was a chick flick, but that scene is forever burned into my memory. Whoopi Goldberg deserved the Oscar that year for a hilarious performance as an unwittingly genuine clairvoyant who bridges the otherwise cheesy love affair between Patrick Swayze’s ghost and the hot, semi-naked, clay-covered Demi Moore. (Not to mention a bizarre, but brilliant turn as Patrick Swayze in a kissing scene with Demi).

Number-4 on my list, and an inexplicable number-9 on this one, Goldberg’s performance was great. She had some solid competition that year, for example Annette Benning in The Grifters, Diane Ladd’s fantastic role as the twisted mother of Laura Dern in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, and Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas, but none was as effervescent, lively and charming as her Oda Mae Brown. Yes, some will argue that the role perpetuates the stereotype of the black actor playing the comic-relief role in an otherwise white film. But, for one, these were the early 90s and it was a major step forward for an African-American actress to win the Oscar, and, secondly, spewing politically correct attacks on this win understates the quality of Goldberg’s work. And, after all, the woman is a comedian.

___________________________________________________________________________________

#8 Mercedes Ruehl – The Fisher King (1991) – 6.40

Mercedes Ruehl beat out Jessica Tandy in Fried Green Tomatoes by playing Jeff Bridges’ crazy, tough, fast-talking, New-York-accented, stand-by-your-man-until-you-no-longer-can girlfriend. And, she landed here, at number-8. In some way, I’m not particularly surprised. Her performance, of the uneducated girlfriend who doesn’t understand her boyfriend’s complex world, while also having hidden layers to her own persona, is virtually exactly the same character Tomei played a year later in My Cousin Vinny, and three years later, Sorvino, in Mighty Aphrodite. The bigger surprise that year was that Robin Williams didn’t win for best supporting actor in the same movie, losing instead to Jack Palance (and winning for a much lesser performance in a much lesser film: Good Will Hunting).

That being said, I put Ruehl at number-2. This is just a matter of personal preference. I like Ruehl, I liked her performance, and I loved the film. The role may not have been the most original, but she carried herself with grace and good humor, and was a perfect contrast to Jeff Bridges’ searching loner.
Now, this is where things get a little complicated.

___________________________________________________________________________________

#6 – Angelina Jolie – Girl, Interrupted (1999) – 5.30

Marisa Tomei – My Cousin Vinny (1992) – 5.30

We have a tie. Let’s break it down. Two critics put Jolie’s performance at number-1. Only one critic put Tomei at number 1. Both of them were voted number 10 by exactly one person. But Tomei got more 2’s and 3’s, while Jolie got more 7’s. And they tied.

I put Jolie at 5. Her performance was solid as the cynical psych-hospital-savvy inmate who pulled Winona Ryder into her orbit with her inside-knowledge, charisma, and, let’s be honest, craziness. Not to mention sexuality, which Jolie exudes even when she tries to sublimate it – all you have to do is watch the scene in which she orders an ice-cream sundae from the increasingly aroused soda jerk. This film made Jolie famous; more so than her stunning performance in Gia, a year earlier. But this is not Jolie’s best. She was better in A Mighty Heart (2007), and Clint Eastwood’s Changeling (2008). I also think both Catherine Keener in Being John Malkovich and Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown gave more nuanced and challenging performances that year, and were more deserving.

Now Tomei is a tough one. I believe she has grown to become a fantastic actress; and I really mean fantastic. Have you seen In the Bedroom? The Wrestler? Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead? All age did to Marisa Tomei is make her more beautiful and surer of herself. Though she’s recently been picking more dramatic roles, what gained her fame was her performance as the tough, fast-talking, New-York-accented girlfriend of a (literally) criminal lawyer played by Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny.

She was number-3 for me. She made the film (well, she and Joe Pesci’s speech about what the hell “yoots” are). Yes, she represents what Hollywood thought of women in the 1990s – strong women who are entitled to their own opinions, but still play a secondary role to the obsessions of their men – but given the constraints of the role, she became Mona Lisa Vito, with a biological clock that doesn’t just kick – it stomps.

There were some other solid performances that year, including Miranda Richardson’s in Damage (who I think should have won), and Judy Davis’ in Husbands and Wives, but I’m not upset Tomei won. Her role more fun than Jolie’s, she gets the higher rating in my book.

___________________________________________________________________________________

#4 Kim Basinger – L.A. Confidential (1997) – 4.90

Dianne Wiest – Bullets Over Broadway (1994) – 4.90

A second tie, these two women represent the polar opposites on my scale. Basinger is on the losing end, at number-10. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the film, even the second and third time when I could see through its plot. It made several careers, especially Russell Crowe’s, but also Guy Pearce’s. It also propelled Curtis Hanson’s, who directed the incredible Wonder Boys afterwards. Most importantly, it spawned a ton of James Ellroy adaptations, none of which matched L.A. Confidential in mood, verve and balls. Finally, it made Hollywood take Kim Basinger seriously. She was no longer just a pretty face: she was an Actress with a capital “A.”

Personally, I thought Basinger was great as the femme fatale, but I don’t think her performance was Oscar-caliber (whether that means anything anymore is another story). In retrospect, in context of the decade’s winners she’s the least appealing winner. Nevertheless, no other critic judged Basinger as harshly as I did. While I stand by my ranking, I will admit that Basinger’s competition left a lot to be desired. The wretched Minnie Driver was nominated for Good Will Hunting, the all-too-adorable Joan Cusack was nominated for her slight role in the equally slight In & Out, and Gloria Stuart received a nomination for something like ten minutes total screen time in the epic Titanic. The only serious challenger, and one I feel that should have gotten the statuette, was the incredible Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights.

Wiest I love. Wiest is one of my favorite actresses; an artistic crush probably developed as a result of her role as the mom in Lost Boys. This partly explains why she landed in the number-1 spot on my list. The other part is her simply great performance. Bullets Over Broadway is not my favorite Woody Allen, but no one says “don’t speak” like Dianne as Helen Sinclair.

Helen Sinclair is tough, she is fast-talking, and her New York accent is not the street stuff of Ruehl, Sorvino or Tomei. She’s a bona fide aristocrat. Wiest’s performance is funny, graceful, regal, and, as Woody would say, terrific. Only one other critic put her at number 1, much like only one put her at number-10. I was happy this great actress won a second Academy Award (the first one was for another incredible performance in Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters).

___________________________________________________________________________________

#2 Juliette Binoche – The English Patient (1996) – 4.80

Judi Dench – Shakespeare in Love (1998) – 4.80

Another tie! These were close for me as well. Binoche ended up taking the number-7 spot and I remember that when she won I was dumbfounded, thinking the Oscar was either going to go Barbara Hershey for The Portrait of a Lady or Marianne Jean-Baptiste for Secrets & Lies. Part of it has to do with the fact that I never understood the obsession with The English Patient, having nearly slept through it, but I also think that both of the aforementioned performances were stronger.

Instead, The Binoche packed home the gold. But one cannot be upset because a Juliette Binoche win, is a win for everybody. Show me a person who does not like her and I will show you a demented individual, who occasionally enjoys hunting kittens for sport. Case in point, not one critic put her at number 10. Why? She’s French, she’s incredibly well-known in the West, she’s pretty, she’s talented, she stars in respectable films and has worked with fantastic directors like Louis Malle, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Michael Haneke, amongst others. What’s to be upset about?

Judi Dench is in a similar boat. She’s British, she’s a fantastic actress, she’s a Dame, and she told James Bond what’s what. Several times. Consequently, it’s not surprising not a single critic dared to put her performance at number-10 (I put her higher than Binoche, at 6!), even though her performance is the second-shortest to win an Oscar, hardly original (a British Dame playing the Queen of England – wow) or substantial (seven minutes on-screen).

Because it was so short, I think the win was in pretty bad taste. More deserving actresses were nominated that year, including the great Kathy Bates in Primary Colors and Rachel Griffiths in Hilary and Jackie. I’m sure Dame Dench would have loved to have won for any other of her five Oscar-nominated roles, but since she didn’t, we’ll accept this and move on.

___________________________________________________________________________________

Ladies and gentlemen, our winner is:

#1 – Anna Paquin – The Piano (1993) – 4.60

If you’ve observed the scores next to each winner’s name, you’ll notice that they range from about 7 to about 4 (well, closer to 5), making the Best Supporting Actress of the 1990s category the most contentious among our critics. Collectively, the group felt pretty strongly about Sorvino losing (putting her in the 7 range), but less certain about everybody else. Paquin is no exception. She makes the top of the list by .2 of a point.

If everybody voted like I did, she would be at number-8 because, for the love of god, you gotta put the woman somewhere. I didn’t dislike her performance. I loved the film, but after it was over I didn’t remember Paquin. I remembered Holly Hunter, who deservedly won an Oscar for one of the best performances of her stunning career, and I sort of remembered Harvey Keitel.

Upon a second-viewing I appreciated Paquin’s role more. It is clear that the performance paved the path for her into the X-Men films, Spike Lee’s great 25th Hour, and, of course, “True Blood.” She became the second-youngest winner that Oscar night, making the Academy seem young and fresh to some, reckless to others. Was she as good as Emma Thompson in In the Name of the Father? No. Arguably, Rosie Perez in Fearless also gave a better performance.

Overall, I am resigned to the fact that my voting pattern in the 1990s Supporting Actress category favored comedic roles over dramatic ones. Paradoxically, I generally liked the films with the actresses I ranked lowest more than those with the actresses I ranked higher. Still, you know what they say – in many ways they’re all winners.

___________________________________________________________________________________

Oscar Decades Series

Completed:

2000s Best Picture
2000s Best Actor
2000s Best Actress
1990s Best Picture
1990s Best Actor
1990s Best Actress
1980s Best Picture
2000s Best Supporting Actor
2000s Best Supporting Actress
1990s Best Supporting Actor
1990s Best Supporting Actress

Up Next:

2000s Best Original Song