The Great Performances: 1996

Posted by · 10:15 am · October 16th, 2009

Robert Carlyle in Trainspotting1996 was an odd year, a year when the independent cinema dominated the weak product emerging out of Hollywood. I am going to confess right off the top of this article (as I have numerous times before) that I was not a fan of “The English Patient,” which for me remains one of the most vastly over-appreciated films ever made.  I couldn’t stand Kristin Scott Thomas’s work, though I did enjoy the Dafoe/Binoche storyline.

So with that out of the way, and firmly in mind, let’s go…

The Best Actress race was clouded with the notion that Madonna was hell-bent on being nominated for her performance in “Evita,” which finally made it to the screen after years of starts and stops. Her performance split critics, but for me lacked the depth and edge that it was given on stage by Patti Lupone, and that Meryl Streep or Michelle Pfeiffer would have given the role. Her performance proved that Madonna should stop acting as she has little or no acting talent, and should stop making movies and trying to conquer Hollywood as she did the music industry.

Honestly, the performance rarely rises above a really good community theater performance. Mercifully she was not nominated, but she did win the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical over the eventual Oscar winner, Frances McDormand in “Fargo.” The nominees for Best Actress included, McDormand, Kristin Scott-Thomas for the aforementionend “The English Patient,” Diane Keaton for “Marvin’s Room,” Brenda Blythyn in “Secrets and Lies,” and best of all, perhaps, Emily Watson in “Breaking the Waves.”

Not among the nominees, despite giving fine performances, were Nicole Kidman in “The Portrait of a Lady,” Winona Ryder in “The Crucible,” Gwyneth Paltrow in “Emma” and Laura Dern in “Citizen Ruth.” Streep was also in “Marvin’s Room” with Keaton, along with Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, giving the film a strong cast. Laura Dern could have easily replaced Scott-Thomas for Best Actress, and Paltrow might have been a stronger nominee than Keaton.

The race for Best Actor gave me nightmares, but that is an old argument. How much screen time before a performance is considered lead? Should screen time matter? Marlon Brando has perhaps 30 minutes of screen time in “The Godfather” and while Al Pacino is clearly the lead, Brando’s presence haunts the film, making him, I think, a legitimate winner of Best Actor. Bear with me on this…

The eventual nominees were Geoffrey Rush in “Shine,” Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire,” Woody Harrelson in “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” Billy Bob Thornton in “Sling Blade” and Ralph Fiennes in “The English Patient.” Strong contenders all, though for me Rush gave more of a supporting performance, given that the character was played by more than one actor.  And his screen time was less than 30 minutes (though again, that has not mattered before).

Rush’s performance was still extraordinary, as was that of Noah Taylor, who portrayed the younger version of the character and was equally deserving of Oscar attention. Daniel Day-Lewis finished second in the balloting for the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Actor and in my opinion gave an electriufying performance as John Proctor in “The Crucible.” He should have been in the Oscar race.

I also quite liked Chris Cooper in “Lone Star,” Kenneth Branagh in “Hamlet” and Liam Neeson in “Michael Collins,” though in hindsight, I am not sure if Neeson’s performance was completely worthy. As the years have gone by, I have developed a strong appreciation for Rush’s work, which won many critics awards in addition to the Oscar, but I still have a hard time accepting his win over Cruise, who I think gave a delivered considerably.

Best Supporting Actor without Robert Carlyle in “Trainspotting?” How could they?  Carlyle portrayed one of the most intensely terrifying screen characters of the year, in 1996’s best film no less, and should have been nominated.  How is it James Woods, a brilliant actor, mind you, was nominated for his over-the-top performance in “Ghosts of Mississippi” while Carlyle was snubbed?

How is it that Armin Mueller-Stahl received what was a surprise nomination for “Shine” as the domineering father while Noah Taylor was ignored for his work? It is perhaps here that both Rush and Taylor could have been nominated.  That might have been cool!

I have no argument with William H. Macy in “Fargo,” though I think Steve Buscemi should have also been nominated. The eventual winner, Cuba Gooding Jr., gave a good performance in “Jerry Maguire,” but he wasn’t as strong as Carlyle, nor Edward Norton in “Primal Fear” or Paul Schofield in “The Crucible.”

Let’s also throw Willem Dafoe into the mix for “The English Patient” and Nathan Lane in “The Birdcage.” How about two more from “Lone Star”: Kris Kristofferson and Matthew McConaughey.  This category was stacked in 1996.

Finally, the year’s true Best Supporting Actress was also not nominated, though she won the lion’s share of the critics awards.  Courtney Love in “The People vs. Larry Flynt” was astonishing and deserved the Oscar over all the nominees, and those not nominated.

When the nominees where announced it seemed that the sentiment was going to carry Lauren Bacall right to her first award, for “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” but to everyone’s surprise, including Bacall’s, Julliette Binoche won for “The English Patient.” I remember groaning aloud when I heard Bacall’s name announced as a nominee, because that sort of nomination usually translates into an Oscar, a la Don Ameche in “Cocoon.” I was pleased the Academy had the courage to award Binoche, who gave the best performance of the nominees.

The other nominees that year were Joan Allen in “The Crucible,” Marianne Jean-Baptiste in “Secrets and Lies” and Barbara Hershey in “The Portrait of a Lady.” No Renee Zellweger in “Jerry Maguire,” though she was deserving, nor Kate Winslet in “Hamlet,” who made Helena Bonham Carter’s Ophelia in the 1990 version of the same play look ridiculous. Absent but not forgotten.

What are your thoughts on the best performances from 1996?  Have your say in the comments section below!

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37 responses so far

  • 1 10-16-2009 at 10:46 am

    Dave V said...

    You hit most of the great ones, but there are a few I’d add to the mix. Owen Wilson was great in Bottle Rocket. James Spader, Holly Hunter, Deborah Kara Unger and especially Elias Koteas were all great in Cronenberg’s Crash. Heather Matarazzo was amazing in Welcome to the Dollhouse. Jennifer Tilly, Gina Gershon and Joe Pantiliano were all wonderful in Bound. You mentioned Winslet in Hamlet, but she was also wonderful in Jude.

  • 2 10-16-2009 at 10:52 am

    Ingird said...

    Kate Winslet was amazing in “Jude”. One of her top five performances in my book.

    Didnt want Julliette Binoche to win because i always think she is the true lead of that movie. Kristin Scott-Thomas on the other hand, should get the supporting nom instead.

    Happen to think Winona Ryder was terrible in “The Crucible” .

  • 3 10-16-2009 at 10:54 am

    red_wine said...

    The most memorable 1 for me is Brenda Blythyn in “Secrets and Lies”. It was an absolute 5 star knockout of a performance, something I would have easily given the Oscar to, over McDormand.

    It is entirely cool that 1 of the luminaries of world cinema, the great Binoche, has an Oscar. Though I wish Fiennes had been awarded, Rush was like Freeman, they were going to give it to him for something or the other. Ditto McDormand. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Fiennes. It remains as elusive for him as ever. A pity they missed him for Schindler’s List.

    And I’ve heard Cuban Gooding Jr’s win called 1 of the worst ever in many quarters.

  • 4 10-16-2009 at 10:57 am

    BerkeleyGirl said...

    Interesting… Thanks for all the Flynt love!!! That was far and away my favorite film of that year. Woody was well and truly robbed. Day Lewis wasn’t nominated? Wow… His Proctor is pretty near definitive.

    I’m also with you on the Winona love. Why doesn’t she work more? Maybe Pippa Lee will resurrect her profile. With the right director, Ryder holds her own with the finest. Her work with Scorsese in “The Age of Innocence” was masterful – a rare case of improving on the novel.

  • 5 10-16-2009 at 11:15 am

    Encore Entertainment said...

    Well I thought The English Patient was great and I preferred Kristin Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes over their competition. And yeah I do think that Dafoe deserved some recognition.

    I also though Madonna was fine in Evita I don’t know if I’d have nominated her or not, but chameleon or not I don’t think Meryl Streep would have been right for the role. But oh well.

  • 6 10-16-2009 at 11:20 am

    Jeremy said...

    Good work on highlighting Chris Cooper. I also agree that Cruise should have won over Rush.

    That said, I’m surprised you mention Carlyle for “Trainspotting” but give no consideration to Ewan McGregor. He was riveting and carried the entire movie.

    I’d also add Vince Vaughn in “Swingers” for creating one of the most iconic characters of the ’90s in Double-Down Trent.

    And I second Dave V’s love for the cast of “Bound”, especially Joe Pantoliano, who was alternately terrifying and hilarious.

  • 7 10-16-2009 at 11:54 am

    Pablo (Col) said...

    I agree with you: Cuba Gooding jr as an oscar winner ? Come on ! Sometimes people think that it is beacuse he’s black or something but it actually isnt. Although i have to say that Denzel Washington winning rrwo times is also a little bit over the top…
    Would have been fun to see Courtney Love as a nominee.

  • 8 10-16-2009 at 12:11 pm

    Jordan Cronk said...

    I kinda despise Courtney Love for many reasons, but her performance in “Larry Flynt” is outstanding. She may be playing a variation on herself, but it’s a very effective portrayal and a difficult one to watch in light of her own addictions. Thanks for singling her out.

  • 9 10-16-2009 at 12:44 pm

    John said...

    LOL Scott Thomas is easily better than Keaton and McDormand and was one of the best nominations of that year. She was like the reincarnation of the Marlene Dietrichs and Carole Lombards of the golden years of Hollywood, there is no way Kidman (simply serviceable) and Ryder (awful) can be considered better than her.

  • 10 10-16-2009 at 1:09 pm

    Lance said...

    Emily Watson in “Breaking the Waves” is one of my favorite performances of all time – Best of the year in all categories…easily.

  • 11 10-16-2009 at 1:13 pm

    maurier said...

    I don’t like English Patient either, but I think that Kristin Scott Thomas was wonderful in this movie, much better than Juliette Binoche.

  • 12 10-16-2009 at 1:32 pm

    Michael C. said...

    I don’t know if I’d go as far as “great” performances, but I sure do have a lot of affection for Tucci and Shaloub in Big Night.

  • 13 10-16-2009 at 2:23 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Since you brought up the subject of what constitutes a lead role versus a supporting one, and since I railed on “category fraud” in another John Foote entry, does anyone else think that William H. Macy – like Samuel L. Jackson – would have had a better chance at winning the Oscar if he had campaigned in Best Actor instead? His performance as the pathetic and wretched Jerry Lundegaard was just as excellent and just as vital to the success of Fargo as Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, and as Foote pointed out, Geoffrey Rush really had more of a supporting role in Shine anyway. If it were up to me, Fargo would have performed a “clean sweep” of the top five that year.

    You also forgot to mention one more outstanding supporting performance of 1996; Harry Belafonte in Kansas City.

  • 14 10-16-2009 at 2:27 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Agree with Robert about William H. Macy in “Fargo” – he could have easily won Best ACtor with little argument — Belafonte however did not do it for me, good but not great — but that’s just me.

  • 15 10-16-2009 at 2:32 pm

    Calan said...

    Two veterans that year did surprisingly good work in two underrated films: Debbie Reynolds should have been recognized with a Best Actress nomination for “Mother” and Mary Tyler Moore deserved a Best Supporting Actress nod for “Flirting With Disaster”. Both gave funny, sharp, insightful performances.

  • 16 10-16-2009 at 2:40 pm

    John said...

    For me, the female performance of the year was Brenda Blethyn in ‘Secrets & Lies’. Just over-the-moon fantastic work.

    I also thought McDormand & Scott Thomas were worthy of their noms (McDormand’s win … acceptable).

    Madonna surprised me (in a good way); but still not nom worthy; not deep enough of a portrayal.

    Kidman was wonderful in ‘Portrait of a Lady’; as were Keaton & Streep in ‘Marvin’s Room’.

  • 17 10-16-2009 at 3:13 pm

    Ivan said...

    How come nobody mentioned Helen Mirren’s performance in SOME MOTHER’S SON? I think it was second best female performance of the year, the best being Emily Watson in BREAKING THE WAVES. Although not a fan of him, I thought Leonardo DiCaprio was magnificent in ROMEO & jULIET, his best performance ever. And for the best actor winner Geoffrey Rush I think they should have an award for the best impersonation (I am not a very big fan of performances based on actual people – is it really acting if you imitate someone’s gestures?)

  • 18 10-16-2009 at 3:29 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    “Although i have to say that Denzel Washington winning rrwo times is also a little bit over the top…”

    Washington is an actor-y movie star – makes sense to he has two (Supporting and Lead).

  • 19 10-16-2009 at 3:51 pm

    Ali E. said...

    Brenda Blethyn gave one of the best performances ever on film, imo… But Timothy Spall needed some recognition too (besides BAFTA).

    This is a good year for actors, and my ballot would look something like this:

    Daniel Auteuil, La Huitieme Jour
    Ralph Fiennes, The English Patient
    Woody Harrelson, The People vs. Larry Flint
    Geoffrey Rush, Shine
    Timothy Spall, Secrets & Lies

    Actress: (exactly the same as the Academy’s choices, actually)
    Blenda Blethyn, Secrets & Lies
    Diane Keaton, Marvin’s Room
    Frances McDormand, Fargo
    Kristin Scott-Thomas, The English Patient
    Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves

    Supporting Actor:
    Hank Azaria, The Birdcage
    Robert Carlyle, Trainspotting
    William H. Macy, Fargo
    Armin Mueller-Stahl, Shine
    Alan Rickman, Michael Collins

    Supporting Actress:
    Joan Allen, The Crucible
    Juliette Binoche, The English Patient
    Barbara Hershey, The Portrait of a Lady
    Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Secrets & Lies
    Courtney Love, The People vs. Larry Flynt

  • 20 10-16-2009 at 4:47 pm

    Gustavo H.R. said...

    Totally agree about Courtney Love.

  • 21 10-16-2009 at 5:13 pm

    Brooke said...

    I have to give Katrin Cartlidge’s performance in Breaking the Waves major props. Only Barbara Hershey’s achievement in Portrait of a Lady comes close in this year in this category.

  • 22 10-16-2009 at 5:41 pm

    Marshall1 said...

    I personally thought the best actress category is packed that year…and my favourite is……
    Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves
    what a raw and moving performance. No matter what you say about Lars von Trier, he “guides” his actresses into higher territory. Too bad Watson’s career hasn’t taken off, and she is now stuck with terrible characters. And I think into the whirlwind still doesn’t have a distributor:(
    maybe she should work with lars von trier again, she would be great in anti-christ…lol

  • 23 10-16-2009 at 6:01 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    1996 wasn’t as rich a year as some, which happily forced the Academy to venture beyond their comfort zone with the nods for “Breaking the Waves” and “Secrets and Lies.” Emily Watson is surely the strongest Best Actress nominee of the decade.

    I must take issue, however, with your dismissal of Madonna’s work in “Evita.” Never been a fan, never found her a particularly interesting presence in music or film alike, but she was more ingeniously cast as Eva Peron than Streep or Pfeiffer ever could have been, given her career-long preoccupation with surfaces and self-monumentalization.

    Still, as much as the casting helps, she really tore into the role with great empathy and conviction — its fascinating to watch her play herself through the prism of Peron. (Or vice versa, perhaps.) I’d have handed her a nomination without a moment’s hesitation.

  • 24 10-16-2009 at 8:08 pm

    Erik said...

    The two things i was gonna bring up have been mentioned, so i’ll just echo them:

    Timothy Spall deserved recognition for his stellar work in Secrets and Lies (which got much deserved nominations for it’s actresses).

    William H. Macy was leading in Fargo. Either that, or they were all supporting. McDormand shows up 30 minutes into a 90-minute film, the first half hour is mostly carried by Macy, and even after that, they share the spotlight.

  • 25 10-16-2009 at 10:28 pm

    Silencio said...

    I’m personally a huge fan of Mueller-Stahl’s work in that film, so I’m glad for the nom. But yeah, Rush and Taylor could have been Supporting nominees.

  • 26 10-16-2009 at 11:37 pm

    Glenn said...

    While I wouldn’t have nominated her, I have the same fondness for Madonna’s performance as Guy does. Not sure why John felt the need to tear into her as he did especially since she didn’t actually get a nomination. I can’t picture Streep or Pfeiffer in the role to be perfectly honest – and they are far better actresses, obviously, than Madonna. There was something unique about seeing Madonna in the role like watching a tightrope walker or something.

    I’ll also throw attention to Heather Matarazzo in “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and agree that Courtney Love was FANTASTIC, but is she supporting or lead? Hmmm.

  • 27 10-17-2009 at 3:35 am

    Simon Warrasch said...

    My Choice:

    Best Picture

    Breaking the Waves
    Jerry Maguire
    The First Wives Club

    Best Director

    Lars von Trier – Breaking the Waves
    Joel Coen – Fargo
    Baz Lurhman – Romeo & Julia
    Danny Boyle – Trainspotting
    Mike Nichols – The Birdcage

    Best Leading Actor

    Geoffrey Rush – Shine
    Tom Cruise – Jerry Maguire
    Billy Bob Thornton – Sling Blade
    Stellan Skarsgard – Breaking the Waves
    Leonardo DiCaprio – Romeo & Julia

    Best Leading Actress

    Emily Watson – Breaking the Waves
    Frances McDormand – Fargo
    Claire Danes – Romeo & Julia
    Diane Keaton – The First Wives Club
    Mara Wilson – Matilda

    Best Supporting Actor

    Hank Azaria – The Birdcage
    Cuba Cooding Jr – Jerry Maguire
    Edward Norton – Primeal Fear
    Jonathan Lipnicki – Jerry Maguire
    Nathan Lane – The Birdcage

    Best Supporting Actress

    Katrin Cartlidge – Breaking the Waves
    Renee Zellweger – Jerry Maguire
    Goldie Hawn – The First Wives Club
    Bette Middler – The First Wives Club
    Debbie Raynolds – Mother

  • 28 10-17-2009 at 6:10 am

    jess said...

    Winslet in “Jude” and Kidman in “Portrait of a Lady” were badly snubbed all year long.

    Fortunately they were snubbed, not forgotten.

  • 29 10-17-2009 at 6:24 am

    John H. Foote said...

    Guy — on Madonna in “Evita” — where she lost me, and I mean totally, was in her absolute lack of lust for power, that greedy, terrible thirst for power that nearly every actress on stage ever brought to the role — the need to be loved is there, the sham of doing for her people, but that unquenchable thirst for power, that sick hunger to be the Vice President of Argentina? Nope…not in the performance at all. And that is what drove Eva Peron, a need, almost obsessional for power, and Madonna never scratches the surface of that. Her rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” is flimsy, never touching the soul of the character — a stronger actress might have delivered the goods to the role.

  • 30 10-17-2009 at 4:07 pm

    Eric said...

    Two names, one movie: Isabelle Huppert, Sandrine Bonnaire, La Ceremonie.
    No list would be complete without them.

    And Madonna was amazing in Evita. You could feel her vulnerability, vanity, passion. Michelle Pfeiffer is anything but passionate, much too guarded an actor, and Meryl would have been entirely wrong as well. Madonna deserved that nomination, as much as Bjork deserved hers. But they won’t nominate pop singers, because they are afraid of them.

    That’s all.

  • 31 10-18-2009 at 5:22 pm

    John said...

    Glenn, I said, “Madonna surprised me (in a good way); but still not nom worthy; not deep enough of a portrayal”.

    You thought that was “tearing into her”?

    I thought she was good, as mentioned. Just didn’t think quite nom worthy. Sheeeeesh.

  • 32 10-18-2009 at 5:54 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    John: Glenn was addressing John Foote, who wrote the article.

  • 33 10-19-2009 at 6:57 am

    Mike Smolinski said...

    Totally agree with Calan regarding Debbie Reynolds in “Mother.” Subtle, real, funny and touching. She should have been nominated. (At least the Globes recognized her.) Here’s hoping she’s given another chance to show how great she can be with the right script and director before too long.
    And by the way, when is the Academy going to use the Life Achievement Award to recognize film musical legends like Debbie, Doris Day, and others?

  • 34 10-19-2009 at 12:05 pm

    Ivan said...

    The English Patient
    Jerry Maguire
    The People vs. Larry Flynt

    *Danny Boyle/Trainspotting
    Joel Coen/Fargo
    Milos Forman/The People vs. Larry Flynt
    Mike Leigh/Secrets & Lies
    Anthony Minghella/The English Patient

    Johnny Depp/Dead Man
    Ralph Fiennes/The English Patient
    *Woody Harrelson/The People vs. Larry Flynt
    Ewan McGregor/Trainsapotting
    Billy Bob Thornton/Sling Blade

    Brenda Blethyn/Secrets & Lies
    Courtney Love/The People vs. Larry Flynt
    *Frances McDormand/Fargo
    Emily Watson/Breaking the Waves
    Renee Zellweger/Jerry Maguire

    *Steve Buscemi/Fargo
    Robert Carlyle/Trainspotting
    Cuba Godding Jr./Jerry Maguire
    William H. Macy/Fargo
    Edward Norton/Primal Fear

    Joan Allen/The Crucible
    *Juliette Binoche/The English Patient
    Marianne Jean-Baptiste/Secrets & Lies
    Diane Keaton/Marvin´s Room
    Kristin Scott Thomas/The English Patient

    Jerry Maguire
    Marvin´s Room
    *Secrets & Lies

    Jerry Maguire
    The People vs. Larry Flynt
    Welcome to the Dollhouse

    The English Patient
    Marvin´s Room
    Sling Blade
    William Shakespeare´s Romeo+Juliet

    *Dead Man
    The English Patient
    The Portrait of a Lady
    William Shakespeare´s Romeo+Juliet

    *The English Patient
    Jerry Maguire
    William Shakespeare´s Romeo+Juliet

    The English Patient
    *William Shakespeare´s Romeo+Juliet

    Angels & Insects
    The English Patient
    *The Portrait of a Lady

    The Crucible
    Mars Attacks!
    Mary Reilly
    *101 Dalmatians

    The English Patient
    ID4 Independence Day
    The Rock
    William Shakespeare´s Romeo+Juliet

    *ID4 Independence Day
    Mars Attacks!
    Mission: Impossible
    The Rock

    Dead Man
    *The English Patient
    Michael Collins

    “You Must Love Me”/Evita
    (Written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber
    Performed by Madonna)

    “Secret Garden”/Jerry Maguire
    (Written and Performed by Bruce Springsteen)

    “Change The World”/Phenomenon
    (Performed by Eric Clapton)

    “Space Jam”/Space Jam
    (Performed by Quad City DJ’s)

    *”I’m Kissing You”/William Shakespeare´s Romeo+Juliet (Performed by Des’ree)

    Deep Crimson/Mexico
    The Eight Day/France
    Kolya/Czech Republic
    Irma Vep/France

    Jerry Maguire
    Mission: Impossible
    William Shakespeare´s Romeo+Juliet

  • 35 10-20-2009 at 6:00 pm

    Tom C said...

    I never understand why Emily Watson gets so much props while Katrin Cartlidge never gets any recognition. She is just as good, if not better than Watson.

  • 36 10-20-2009 at 6:23 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    You’re not alone, Tom. Nick Davis (arguably one of the top three smartest film bloggers out there) has Cartlidge as his Best Supporting Actress pick.

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