5. Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice
The weird thing about this choice is that I don’t even consider it to be the best performance by an actress that year. I still think Jessica Lange should have won Best Actress for Frances. Right behind her is Meryl Streep in an astonishing performance made all the more so by the fact that so much of what she did required her to be about six inches away from the camera with nobody to react to but the crew in her line of vision. That is the difference between film acting and stage acting. Those long close-ups were what won Meryl Streep her-amazingly-only Oscar for Best Actress and it is always important to keep in mind how you might be able to express such deep and profound emotions with a gigantic Panavision camera closer to your face than your computer screen is now.
4. Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God
For female actors the quickest route to an Oscar is playing a hooker. For male actors it is playing someone with physical or mental defect. Marlee Matlin doesn’t play a hooker and she isn’t playing someone with a physical defect; she really is deaf. This was Matlin’s first movie and she was going up against the man who at the time was the best actor in Hollywood, William Hurt, smack dab in the middle of his hot streak. Matlin is a ball of fire in this movie and she becomes the first deaf character since Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker who isn’t some sad little shrinking violet we’re supposed to feel sorry for. Her character is short-tempered, profane and passionate and she more than holds her own against Hurt.
3. Elizabeth Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
There are actresses and there are movie stars and Elizabeth Taylor is perhaps the quintessential movie star. She was never a bad actress, but rarely rose to the occasion. She won an Oscar for Butterfield 8, but mainly because everyone thought she was about to die. She won an Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf because in it she is nothing at all like that beautiful young girl that Montgomery Clift commit murder by omission for in A Place in the Sun. Elizabeth Taylor looks and acts like a shrew and even a pig in this incendiary movie and while the folks at the Academy Awards were intelligent enough to recognize her brilliance with an Oscar, they failed to do the same for her co-star Richard Burton who also turned in the best performance of his life in this movie.
2. Emma Thompson, Howard’s End
She was the best actress of the 1990s, turning in brilliant performances in dramatic films and comedic films; in contemporary settings and Jane Austen’s England. One might well argue that Emma Thompson’s performance in Sense and Sensibility was even better than Howard’s End, but that would only mean that when you realize she gave the two best performances of the 1990s that she didn’t win the Oscar for the better performance. There is so much going on in any scene with Emma Thompson in this movie; Thompson can bequeath deeper levels of emotion with her neck muscles than actresses like Halle Berry and Angelina Jolie can do with pages of dialogue. The Academy Awards rarely confers the Oscar upon the person who deserves it, but they got it right when they gave Thompson her Oscar for Howard’s End.
1 Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind
Once upon a time Gone with the Wind regularly topped lists of greatest American movie of all time. We know better now. There is really only one reason to sit through this massive movie and it is the titanic and overpowering performance of the then-unknown young British beauty Vivien Leigh as Katie Scarlett O’Hara. Leigh won the Academy Award for this movie because she is the film; every scene revolves Scarlett whether she is actually in the scene or not. The legend goes that every actress in Hollywood was screen tested for the role; it is impossible to imagine any other actress as Scarlett. Vivien eigh inhabits the coquettish southern belle in a way that she never duplicated again; nobody has. Any aspiring actress needs to watch this clinic in film acting.