Oscar 2004: Hilary Versus Annette–Round Two

This article was originally posted December 2004

History tends to repeat itself. For example, we cultural historians compare the 1950s Cold War mentality and movies to the 1980s, when Reagan brought back not only the mentality but also a wave of right-wing chauvinistic movies.

But who could have predicted that in just five years the 1999 fierce battle between Annette Bening and Hilary Swank for the Best Actress Oscar will repeat itself in 2004 in a more brutal and competitive version.

As pointed out in a previous column, this season, there's dearth of strong leading female roles. Right now, the Best Actress category is shaping up like a triangle of frontrunners, headed by Annette Bening for “Being Julia” and Hilary Swank for “Million Dollar Baby,” with Imelda Staunton as the dark horse for “Vera Drake.”

For those with short memory, here's a reconstruction of the 1999 Actress race.

Hilary Versus Annette: Round One

In 1999, “American Beauty,” was the most talked-about film of the season, a combined result of Alan Ball's darkly humorous anatomy of American suburbia, prestigious theater director Sam Mendes making his feature directorial debut, Kevin Spacey's superlative performance, and above all Terry Press' brilliant marketing campaign that began as early as the Toronto Festival, in September.

Bening was cast as Carolyn Burnham, a brittle wife-mother pathologically obsessed with making everything just right, but falling apart under the gleaming and grinning surface. She gave an over-the-top performance (the only wrong note in a well-acted film) that denied her critical acclaim. Bening received the SAG Actor Award, but she didn't win any critics awards. All the kudos that year went to the girl from the trailer park, Hilary Swank, for “Boys Don't Cry,” a fictionalized version of Tina Brandon. On Oscar night, a very pregnant Bening lost the Best Actress to the newcomer Swank, who gave that year's most stunning performance. Swank appeared out of nowhere, to use Hollywood jargon.

Hilary Versus Annette: Round Two

Pro Bening

The Role's the Thing:

Bening may join the ranks of Gloria Swanson (“Sunset Boulevard”), Bette Davis (“All About Eve”), Simone Signoret (“Room at the Top”), Geraldine Page (“Sweet Bird of Youth”), and Dianne Wiest (“Bullets Over Broadway”), all of whom were nominated (and some won) for playing aging, flamboyant actresses. My book, All About Oscar, shows that the two most prominent professions among female Oscar roles are actresses and prostitutes. You don't have to be a sociologist to see the link between the two occupations, or to understand the sexism that explains their prominence in Hollywood. Both acting and prostitution are service-oriented professions that rely heavily on physical looks and the desire to please, sexually and otherwise.

Actresses playing actresses stand a good chance to receive Oscar nominations and awards for several reasons. First, the Acting Branch has the largest number of members (about one fourth of the Academy) and is easily biased toward portraits of eccentric showbiz personalities (actresses, singers, dancers). Second, playing a performer, preferably afflicted with a problem or disease, provides a meaty, juicy part that lends itself to histrionics and wide gamut of emotions.

In “Being Julia,” Bening plays Julia Lambert, a beguiling actress at her peak. However, her successful theatrical career and marriage to impresario Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons) are becoming too familiar, even stale. Julia is smart enough to know that she's becoming a woman of a certain age, that as her youth and celebrity fade, she would have to relinquish the romantic leads and be relegated to supporting parts. Longing for novelty and excitement, Julia falls for Tom Fennell, a callow youth half her age. The affair proves to be the best antidote to a mid-life crisis–until she discovers that Tom is courting a younger actress and potential rival. Summoning up her considerable powers, Julia masterminds a brilliant revenge that places her where she belongs, center stage and in the spotlight.

Quality of Acting:

Bening is marvelous, playing the kind of juicy role that theater critics describe as delicious. Nothing I've seen Bening do before matches the exuberance of this performance. Breaking all the sacred rules of acting, she is not content merely to “be” Julia or let the camera “discover” her character. She projects big, attacking the role the way a stage actress reaches for the top balcony. Bening has always been too theatrical for the big screen, but in “Being Julia,” she puts her theatricality to good use. The relish with which Bening feasts upon her role is contagious; thoroughly invigorating what is a stock role. In the movie's big climax, set on opening night, Julia turns her fading actress status into greatest triumph. She's now in control of her career and her life, fully accepting her newfound maturity.

Previous Oscar Record:

In 1990, Bening received a supporting actress nomination for “The Grifters,” playing Myra, a con artist, always on the lookout for easy hustles. Myra is easily able to ply with her siren's body, which she unabashedly reveals. Bening stole every scene she was in, confirming her talent as a solid performer.

Hollywood Insider:

In 1991, Bening joined Hollywood royalty when she married former playboy, actor-director-producer Warren Beatty. They met on the set of “Bugsy,” a stylish crime-gangster film that was nominated for Best Picture and reenergized Beatty's career but didn't do much for Bening the actress.

Experience:

At 46, Bening possesses the self-assurance of an experienced performer, showing new facets. There is an entire universe in Bening's face–bemusement, bafflement, comic hauteur, rudeness, gleaming pleasure, and disdain–that's intoxicating to observe. She gives Julia style, snap, and the right brittle and irony. Her histrionic intensity elevates her work to a high level of exuberance. Playing a character her own age, Bening is perfect as a woman who never doubts for an instant that she's meant to be the center of attention, on stage and off. Bening races through the motions with reckless assurance, turning temper tantrums into opera arias. The role and Bening's temperament as a star are inseparable.

Con Bening

“Being Julia” is a small film, which got decent (but not great) reviews but has been seen by few. As of today, the Sony Picture Classic release barely grossed $2 million at the box-office. She plays a clichd, typically feminine role in an old-fashioned movie that's a throwback to the romantic star vehicles of yesteryear.
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Pro Hilary

The Eastwood Supremacy:

Clint is one of Academy's favorite sons, having won Best Director and Picture Oscars for “Unforgiven” in 1992, and the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award for a career full of producing achievements.

Critical Attention:

“Million Dollar Baby” has just been cited by the LA. Film Critics Association as a runner-up Best Picture; the winner was “Sideways.” The film was placed on the Ten Best List of the National Board of Reviews and is likely to on the Ten Best List of many critics around the country. The picture is number ten on my rank-ordered list.

Classic Hollywood Cinema in Disguise of Modernism:

My review of “Million Dollar Baby” (See Link), describes it as an uneven film in which the first reel is formulaic a la “Rocky”, the second a good boxing melodrama a la indie “Girl Fight,” and the third an intimate drama that matches in its intensity Ingmar's Bergman's best work. The film represents a shrewd, calculated combination of classic Hollywood cinema with some modern touches. Indeed, a light feminist streak runs through the film, which mixes generic conventions of the boxing drama, a femme-driven story about a poor girl, a love story between an older man and his trainee who becomes his surrogate daughter; and a compassionate social-issue narrative about the controversial issue of euthanasia. Miraculously, the end result is a touching and engaging drama.

The Role's the Thing:

Swank plays a meaty, substantial, crowd-pleasing role, a female version of Rocky. As Maggie Fitzgerald, she's a young, ambitious girl, determined become a pro boxer at all costs. Despite a life of constant struggle, Maggie possesses raw talent, unshakable focus, and will power. More than anything, she yearns for someone to believe in her. However, in their first encounter, Frankie tells Maggie bluntly that she's too old and he doesn't train girls. Maggie doesn't take no as an answer. Unwilling to give up, she wears herself to the bone at the gym, encouraged only by Scrap. Maggie grew up dirt-poor in the Ozarks, but somehow managed to maintain her dream of becoming a pro fighter. Maggie finds in boxing purpose, pride, and happiness. Untrained, at 31, she's considered too old to begin a career, but she refuses to give up. With no education and no support from her family, boxing is her only way out. Scorned by the male boxers, the only encouragement she gets is from Scrap, an ex-fighter, who slyly throws Maggie small tips to improve her technique, while nudging Frankie in her direction. On the night of her 32nd birthday, Frankie finally realizes the pain and desperation underscoring Maggie's fervor.

Two Generational/Interracial Plot:

“Million Dollar Baby” is structured as a triangle of fully-developed relationships between an older white man (Eastwood), his buddy (played by the always reliable Morgan Freeman), and a working class girl from the wrong side of the tracks. The fact that Scrap is black is irrelevant in the story, which is politically correct and in tune with the times, though Freeman may bring larger black constituency.

The Sentimental-Emotional Factor:

Though boxing plays an important role, “Million Dollar Baby” is not a picture about boxing; it's about love and human relationships. Eastwood treats the film as a love story about a person who's distressed about his non-existent relationship with his daughter, and who then finds a surrogate daughter in the shape of Maggie.

The Message's the Thing:

Perfectly timed as a Christmas release, “Million Dollar Baby” is a spiritual, even religious movie about the search for redemption of an old Irish Catholic who's become disillusioned with the church and the lack of significant family relationship. Through his relationship with Maggie, Frankie redeems himself and experiences a moral and emotional rebirth at the most tragic circumstances.

Shaking up the Oscar as a Jinx

It may be premature to declare “Million Dollars Baby” a comeback performance for an actress who's been around for only a decade. But perhaps more than other Oscar winner, Swank has made mostly bad movies since winning the award. In fact, her clout/cachet was so low after the abysmal “The Affair of the Necklace,” that when she vied for the lead role in “Proof,” she was rejected, and the part was given to Gwyneth Paltrow.

Con Swank

Oscar Record:

Swank has already won Best Actress, and won at a very young age. While “Boys Don't Cry” was not her feature debut, it was one of Swank's first films, a clear breakthrough performance.

Youth:

Unlike the middle-aged Bening, Swank has just turned 30 and thus has a whole future ahead of her. We know Hollywood's biases and lack of good roles for women of a certain age.