By John H. Foote
By the end of the nineties audiences would know precisely what the following things and people were: CGI, Jurassic Park, the American western, Apollo 13, Dances with Wolves, Woody and Buzz, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Carrey, Paul Thomas Anderson, M. Night Shymalan, Truman Burbank, Tyler Durden, John Travolta, Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling, Jim Garrison, Malcolm X, Macauley Culkin, Thelma and Louise, Clint Eastwood the film director, and two-time Academy Award winning Best Director winner Steven Spielberg.
The nineties might have been the closest to the seventies in the sheer output and quality of great films until the 2000’s came along.
Great directors were making great movies again, and new upstarts within the independent cinema were all the rage. Miramax became a force to be reckoned with through the nineties, the brothers Weinstein owning the independents, and redefining the market for the Academy Awards. Films made at Miramax seemed destined for the Oscars despite the nightmare of working with the satanic brothers.
Emerging as great filmmakers through the decade were Clint Eastwood, Penny Marshall, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Ron Howard, Paul Thomas Anderson, Cameron Crowe, the brothers Coen, Curtis Hanson, Tim Burton, David Fincher, Kevin Costner. Re-establishing themselves as the icons of the directing world were Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Warren Beatty, and Terrence Malick.
Great films, truly great films, would dominate the nineties, but it had its share of duds too. Cutthroat Island, Waterworld, Showgirls and many others were at the bottom of the barrel.
A decade filled with foolish snubs and oversights; the decade that saw that buffoon Roberto Benigni win an Oscar over Edward Norton’s seething Nazi in American History X (1999). This was the decade Shakespeare in Love (1998) bested Steven Spielberg’s extraordinary war epic Saving Private Ryan (1998) and when Jim Carrey was twice denied Oscar nominations for Best Actor. Long ignored for an Oscar as Best Director, Spielberg finally won two, five years apart, and Clint Eastwood was finally recognized as a director for Unforgiven (1992).
The oversights? Man, so may. Read on.
1990 – BEST DIRECTOR – PENNY MARSHALL FOR AWAKENINGS
How did the film get nominated for Best Picture without Marshall up for Best Director? Whoever thought the brash actress who delighted millions in the seventies as Laverne on Laverne and Shirley would go on to become one of the most acclaimed directors of the nineties? Not me, but she deserved a nomination as Best Director for Awakenings. She absolutely should have been there, bringing a gentle tone to the film, and drawing exceptional performances out of her cast, a career best from Robin Williams and wonderful work from Robert De Niro. Marshall would direct two of the finest films in the nineties, another further down the list, but never enjoy the glory of an Oscar nomination, which is criminal. She deserved to be among the few women so nominated … twice.
1990 – BEST ACTOR – ROBIN WILLIAMS IN AWAKENINGS
For the finest performance he ever gave, as the gentle doctor in Penny Marshall’s superb film, Williams was breathtaking and deserved not only the nomination but the Oscar itself for Best Actor. As Dr. Sayer he is brought to a hospital in Brooklyn and discovers that long term care patients thought to be catatonic are not, but instead are in a deep sleep, aware of their surroundings but frozen. He works to revive a group, some whom have been frozen 30 years or more, only to see his work fail, as they begin to show side effects and slip back into their catatonia. He is left with the knowledge that for a few fleeting days he allowed them to live again, and in doing so he found the courage to live himself. While Dr. Sayer awakens many, by the end of the film the one most awake, finally, is himself.
1990 – BEST ACTRESS – DEBRA WINGER IN THE SHELTERING SKY
For a time there was no greater actress in American cinema, until Meryl Streep came along. Winger, with her husky voice and sexy manner, was brilliant, mercurial, and not afraid to stand up for herself on set. This earned her the label of difficult, which was unfair and unkind. She dazzled in Urban Cowboy (1980), An Officer and a Gentleman (1983) and Terms of Endearment (1983) before fading out of view for a time. When she came back, she did so in a big way with a brilliant performance in The Sheltering Sky for no less than Bernardo Bertolucci. As Kit, a woman cast into the desert after the death of her husband, picked up by a caravan and ravaged by the leader, she finds his advances welcome and their torrid affair angers the wives of the man. Thrown out again she is found nearly insane and sent home, knowing she can never return to the life she had. Winger is brilliant, rising above the epic grandeur of the film.
1991 – BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – TED LEVINE IN THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
Both Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster took home Oscars for their brilliant performances in The Silence of the Lambs, each one well deserved. But what of Ted Levine, the twisted, ferocious serial killer Buffalo Bill that both Clarine Starling (Foster) and Dr. Lector (Hopkins) are chasing? With a baleful gaze and deep foreboding voice, Levine was terrifying as the man killing to use the flesh of his victims to make a woman’s suit he can wear. His eyes are lifeless, dead, and his infamous taunting of the girl in the pit remains terrifying. Calling the girl “It”, dehumanizing her, as he pets his beloved dog, preparing to murder the girl without a thought. And that darkly perverse dance, tucking his genitals under to become a girl, in only his eyes, is beyond bizarre. A Best Supporting Actor nominee he should have been.
1992 – BEST PICTURE AND BEST DIRECTOR – MALCOLM X AND SPIKE LEE
Sadly, Warner Brothers knew they had a potential Oscar winner with Clint Eastwood’s western Unforgiven and threw all their support behind that film. It was bad enough Lee had no money to finish the film and went to outside sources in the black community, he had no Oscar campaign supported by Warner Brothers. This was an extraordinary film, a biopic that had the courage to explore the subject warts and all and did just that. In Denzel Washington they had an actor who became Malcolm rather than portray him, who found the electric soul of the man and portrayed it authentically and with realism. How was this snubbed? Shameful Academy, you blew it. Lee should have been a contender long before 2019.
1992 – BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – TOM HANKS IN A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
“There’s no crying in baseball” might be the finest line of the nineties, roared by Tom Hanks to a touchy woman ball player who just made a silly mistake. As Jimmy Dugan, drunk, hired to coach a team of women after his major league career has ended, Hanks was an absolute delight. With the girls he finds the desire to win again, slows down the booze and becomes a coach, finding the love of the game as never before. A foreshadow of what was to come for this gifted actor.
1992 – BEST PICTURE AND DIRECTOR – A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN AND PENNY MARSHALL
Again with Penny Marshall who deserved a second nomination as Best Director for this sentimental, warm, and nostalgic film about an era near forgotten, the women’s professional baseball league. The roaster of the men depleted by the war, a brainstorm came about to form a women’s baseball league, and for a few years at the end of the war and after it was a hit, so great it was added to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Geena Davis towers as Dottie, the MVP on her team and best player in the league, and there is a spark between she and Hanks that is never acted upon, as she is loyal to her husband. Lovingly conceived, nicely written and superbly acted and directed, this was among the very best films of the year in 1992. Oscar, for shame.
1993 – BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – BEN KINGSLEY IN SCHINDLER’S LIST
The heart and soul of the film, period. Twelve nominations, fair enough but where was Kingsley for his haunting and haunted performance as Stern, best friend of Schindler and engineer of his schemes? Where was Schindler without Stern? Where was Neeson without Kingsley? The haunted soul, the witness to the atrocities in the film as well as the decency of what Schindler did was the quiet presence of Stern, watching, always watching. His dignity is present in every moment and his eyes become ours, bearing witness to the most terrible events of the 20th century.
1993 – BEST ACTOR – DENZEL WASHINGTON IN PHILADELPHIA
Tom Hanks was terrific in the film, no question and richly deserved his Oscar but where would his performance be without Denzel Washington, who evolves from a homophobic lawyer to a truly decent human being who comes to love the man he is defending as a friend? When Andy (Hanks) first comes to him his distaste for gays is clear, his fear of AIDS even more so, but gradually a friendship evolves and, even more, a mutual admiration for each other. With Andy as his friend he becomes a better lawyer, but also a finer husband, father, and human being. The last tender moments of the two together are as intimate as one can be, being gay and straight. Stunning, and he should have been a nominee.
1994 – BEST ACTRESS – NATALIE PORTMAN IN LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL
One of the most astonishing and confident performances by a child I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. As Matilda, the precocious little girl living next door to a hitman, Leon (Jean Reno), she goes to him for protection after her entire family is massacred by the police, or rather a dirty cop, portrayed with quiet fury by Gary Oldman. He takes her in, and she guesses what he does, and asks that he train her, make her a “cleaner”. They become an unlikely couple, he her father and mentor, though she has romantic feelings for him she cannot understand just yet. A pre-teen, how could she? Her impersonations of Madonna and especially Marilyn Monroe are creepily effective because we know her intent (to seduce him) while he is oblivious. I suppose today the film is not politically correct, but damn what a performance from this Portman kid who went on to become one of the finest actresses of her generation.
1994 – BEST PICTURE AND BEST DIRECTOR – NATURAL BORN KILLERS AND OLIVER STONE
For his blazing roar against the media frenzy of serial killers and killers in the news, Oliver Stone made what is arguably his finest film, and most divisive. In Canada we were watching in horror as Paul Bernardo and his wife Karla Homolka dominated the daily news for murdering three schoolgirls, one of them Homolka’s own sister, during their reign of terror. They became the two most famous and infamous people in the country. News organizations from around the globe sent their writers to Toronto to write about the two beautiful people who were depraved killers. Not since Charles Manson had two deviant minds been such news. Stone’s film was a lacerating work, originally scripted by Quentin Tarantino but refashioned by Stone to be an electrifying series of fast cut images in different stocks of film and video to resemble a mad hallucination. Your eyes will never quite comprehend what you are seeing. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis are superb as the deranged lovers who cut a path of scorched earth across America, with strong supporting work from Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee jones, and best of all Rodney Dangerfield (I kid you not) as Lewis’s abusive father. No chance the Academy would have the guts to nominate the film, but they should have.
1994 – BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – SALLY FIELD AND ROBIN WRIGHT IN FORREST GUMP
When the nominations were announced for film in 1994, the glaring absence of both actresses from Forrest Gump was alarming. Did the Academy instantly forget about the splendid women in the film? Field was superb as Forrest’s mother, with her sayings and tales to him about right and wrong. Through the film Forrest is always saying, “Mama always said” and then we hear her say it or something akin to it. A warm, lovely performance of a mother who loves her boy and is immensely proud of what he has accomplished. The strength she imbues her son with is remarkable. Robin Wright was an even bigger surprise for not being nominated because she gave such a radiant performance. Angry, abused, tortured in her childhood years Forrest is her only escape and when in trouble in her adult life, it is he who keeps rescuing her until she realizes what he has always known, they are soulmates. Both actresses give the film so much soul, how could the members of the Academy not see that the film was so much more than Forrest, Bubba and Lt. Dan?
1996 – BEST PICTURE AND BEST DIRECTOR – THE CRUCIBLE
All through 1996, Fox was high on The Crucible, touting it as their film of the year. It landed on the coveted cover of Entertainment Weekly’s Fall Preview magazine and early screenings were said to be stunners. One critic, much loved in the industry, said the film could be nominated for every Academy Award when the nominations came out. Screenings started in December, and I saw the film the second week of December and was knocked out. Knowing the play, having directed two productions of it, I was astounded by what Nicholas Hytner had done with Miller’s superb text. Then … nothing. It opened to solid reviews, some raves, some very good notices, but no one was really discussing the film. Then Daniel Day-Lewis finished second in balloting for the coveted Best Actor Award from the New York Film Critics and I thought, “OK, here we go”, but nothing. Great performances from Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Schofield, Rob Campbell, Bruce Davison, Karen Graves totally ignored. Opening the play up to the outdoors gave way to stunning cinematography which also captured the claustrophobia of the dark courtroom. Brilliant. Nominated for just two Academy Awards, this masterful film sunk without a trace. How sad one of the greatest plays of the 20th century became one of the finest films of the nineties, but no one noticed. Nine, perhaps 10 nominations minimum were due.
1996 – BEST ACTOR – DANIEL DAY-LEWIS IN THE CRUCIBLE
When John Proctor (Day-Lewis) roars to his accusers “Because it is my name! Because I will never have another in my life!” I swear goosebumps gather on my arms, all over my body. His performance shook me to my very soul. Having seen some very good actors play the role, and one bad one, I realized that Day-Lewis absolutely nailed who Proctor was and what he stood for. Here was a flawed human being, admittedly, not a perfect man, but a deeply honest man who sees through a ruse set up by an evil young girl who covets him for her own. Why? Because he has had a sexual relationship with her, forbidden in the Puritan community, yet he is willing to bring shame upon himself to see the girl and her minions brought down. A spectacular performance, at the very least a nomination was due. In every way Proctor as portrayed by Day-Lewis was the Proctor put to page by Arthur Miller.
1996 – BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – COURTNEY LOVE IN THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT
The grunge rock star gave the year’s best performance for director Milos Forman as Althea, wife to Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson) the outrageous publisher of Hustler magazine. Who knew Love had this kind of depth as an actress? Not me. I sat transfixed as she took over the film and owned the character, inhabiting her in every possible way, giving herself over to Althea. Looking strung out and wasted most of the performance, when clear eyed it only serves to show her range in the character. She won several major awards for the performance including the coveted New York Film Critics Award for Supporting Actress, as well as awards from the Boston, Chicago and Florida Film Critics organizations, a Golden Globe nomination, but no, nothing from the Academy. Perhaps her musical career was too shocking? Who cares, she should have been not only the nominee but the winner.
1997 – BEST ACTRESS – JENNIFER JASON LEIGH IN WASHINGTON SQUARE
In this remake of the superb The Heiress (1949), which earned Olivia de Havilland an Oscar for Best Actress, Jennifer Jason Leigh gives the most remarkable performance of her interesting career. Choosing to work as an actress, not a movie star, Leigh has had an eclectic career with an array of brilliant performances in Rush (1991), Georgia (1995) and many other films, shining more recently for Quentin Tarantino in The Hateful Eight (2015) and getting her first and only Oscar nomination. Helen Hunt should not even have been an Oscar nominee in 1997 let alone won the damned Oscar, which should have gone to either Jodie Foster in Contact or Leigh for this haunting film. Watch as her father tries to break her and she emerges buoyed by her own strength of character, something he fails to notice.
1997 – BEST ACTRESS – JODIE FOSTER IN CONTACT
Listen as Ellie (Foster) says, “They should have sent a poet” as she stares into the vast expanse of a galaxy as she works her way through a series of wormholes to make contact with alien life, who have summoned her to them. A star gazer her entire life, she is now searching for active life in the universe as Dr. Ellie Arroway, working in a private project financed by a billionaire who believes in her. A signal comes from deep space, and a message, directions to build a craft. Yet further mysteries begin with the creation of the craft, which will not explode into space, but drop into water, launching it into a series of wormholes. Foster is really breathtaking in the part, her eyes and voice filled with awe, and wonder at what she sees. Stunning work from one of the very best actresses in movies.
1997 – BEST ACTRESS – PAM GRIER IN JACKIE BROWNE
I like Pam Grier, very much. She is a gutsy, take charge actress, fearless with the right script. Quentin Tarantino loved her work in the seventies and when the role of Jackie Brown came up in adapting Elmore Leonard’s “Rum Punch”, without hesitation or interference he cast her. The result was the performance of her career, one that she had been walking towards her entire life. In the many puzzle pieces plot of the film, she is a mule for a very bad dude dealing drugs and when the Feds pop her carrying, she has to cut a deal to help bring down the horrific criminal, Ordell, portrayed with ice water in his veins by Samuel L. Jackson. She begins to fall for her bail bondsman who is falling for her, and has to find a way to come out of the whole thing with something for herself. Jackie proves smarter than them all, and does indeed get everything she wants, except the kindly bail bondsman. Superb acting, lived in, yet still sexy despite being world weary and tired of what men put her through. Women power indeed.
1998 – BEST ACTOR – WARREN BEATTY IN BULWORTH
Beatty’s most daring performance as Senator Jay Bulworth, in the throes of a full breakdown, he takes a contract out on himself, which seems to liberate him to say anything on his mind. Anything. He speaks directly to the black community and they embrace his newfound honesty, taking him in as one of their own. Every backfire, every loud noise sends Bulworth dropping to the ground in fear, but when he sees the people love his new honesty, and he is falling for Nina (Halle Berry), a hood girl, he tries to call off the contract. Dressing in ghetto garb, strutting through the streets, rapping his speeches, Beatty is a sight to behold, brilliant in every way. Listen to his TV interview in which he takes the word “Obscenity” and turns it into a spot-on rant about the uphill battle the black youth face to find their place in the world. Blackly comic, a satire for the ages, with Beatty extraordinary. Did I mention he directed the film and co-wrote it? Where was Oscar looking in 1998?
1998 – BEST ACTOR – JEFF BRIDGES IN THE BIG LEBOWSKI
The Dude abides. One of America’s finest, most consistent actors gave the performance of his career, until True Grit in 2010, as The Dude, a pot smoking, white Russian swilling, obsessive bowler who happens to be the laziest man alive. Bridges delighted audiences in this bizarre comedy by the sheer force of his wonderfully, lived in performance. His very appearance suggests cries of “the Dude” and the role has become something of a signature for him. Superb, and though he won the Oscar in 2009, he should have been nominated for this one, and won for True Grit.
1999—BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER IN THE INSIDER
As whip smart Mike Wallace, best known as a gifted news reporter and 60 Minutes wunderkind, Christopher Plummer brings the perfect edge to the character, enough to make him a tad dislikable, but with that comes respect. He does not suffer fools and sadly the world is filled with them. For years he was best known as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1965), a film he hated, despite great work in several diverse films, best of all as a psychotic villain in The Silent Partner (1978). Cast here as Wallace was a huge risk for director Michael Mann, yet Plummer awarded him with a pitch perfect performance as the arrogant, fiery, yet brilliant newsman who had an instinct for where the story actually was. One of the finest supporting performances of the decade, Plummer disappeared under the skin of the character and inhabited Wallace’s every breath. Plummer won both the Supporting Actor awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics, but shockingly, no nomination despite seven for The Insider.
1999 – BEST ACTOR – JIM CARREY IN MAN ON THE MOON
Less a performance than an uncanny transformation into the character he was playing, Jim Carrey was nothing less than astounding as comic Andy Kaufmann, best known as Latka on Taxi, but well-known as well for his performance stunts. Seeing himself as a song and dance man, Kaufmann constantly pushed the envelope, often enraging his co-stars and cast mates, going off the script and doing things that drove them batty. The film beautifully captures his long battle with cancer, poignant work from both Carrey and Courtney Love as his long-time lady. Carrey astonishes throughout, and apparently became Kaufmann offscreen as well, infuriating the director and cast. The actor sunk so far into Kaufmann he had difficulty breaking free of the character when filming was over, haunted for years after by the role.
1999 – BEST ACTRESS — REESE WITHERSPOON IN ELECTION
Witherspoon won an Oscar for her performance as June Carter in Walk the Line (2005), one of those Oscar wins I call “perplexing”. I cannot say I am a huge fan of the actress, though I thought she shone in Wild (2014), but she was truly brilliant here as Tracey Flick, an impossibly ambitious high school senior running for President of the Student body. Great grades, a force to be reckoned with, tiny Tracey’s hand shoots up in class for any question, often ignored because the teachers cannot stand her, but there can be no stopping her. She has an affair with a teacher that gets him fired, as it could, but is also very aware of the law that states the affair can never be used against her. And when a teacher who truly hates her tries to bring her down in the election, his life is ruined by this tiny dynamo. Every gesture, every movement, every word feels rehearsed, because it likely was as she leaves nothing to chance. It is a bold, superb piece of acting that won the actress a well-earned Best Actress award from the National Society of Film Critics. Fearless.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.