Nov 6, 2013

Top Ten Greatest Losers (Oscar's Best Actress Edition)

As you're already aware, I have been conducting monthly polls at The Film Experience since April, wherein Team Experience comes up with a top ten list on any given cinematic topic of my choosing. Our second poll was an Oscar-themed one: we chose the best performances that were nominated for, but lost the best actress award.

Here's what my ballot looked like:

1. Julianne Moore - Far From Heaven (8th on the team list)
2. Nicole Kidman - Moulin Rouge
3. Imelda Staunton - Vera Drake
4. Barbara Stanwyck - Double Indemnity (4th on the team list)
5. Natalie Wood - Splendor in the Grass
6. Judy Garland - A Star is Born (1st on the team list)
7. Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
8. Nicole Kidman - Rabbit Hole
9. Ingrid Bergman - Autumn Sonata
10. Gloria Swanson - Sunset Boulevard (7th on the team list)

Looking at that list, the striking observation is that it skews really recent. Half of it is comprised of performances from this century; and here's why: I've never looked at the Oscars as the be-all and end-all barometer for artistic merit. Sure, there was a time more than a decade ago, when I was in my early, formative years of cinephilia - though do the formative years ever really end? - when I actively sought out Oscar winning films to expand my knowledge of "old" cinema, but that period ended before my adolescence did.

This isn't a slight on the Academy, though I disagree with their choices more often than not. No one can deny the powerful impact the Oscars have made on the reception of films by the American public and on the politics of the international film industry. Their choices can reflect the times or sometimes even catalyze social change, but that's mainly their function for me. The Academy is there to tell the industry's story, of where it stands at a certain moment in time, of who is popular, who has momentum, who has lost favour and so on and so forth. In a perverse way, I don't even think Academy members believe they're voting for the best of the year, whatever that means. They're voting to tell a story.

Hence, sometime about eight or nine years ago, I gradually stopped watching films because they had won awards and started watching them based on more personal factors like affection for a particular director's work or filling gaps in understanding a cinematic movement. I think all cinephiles have that revelation at some point in their lives, where the type of films they watch and the reasons why they watch them gradually alters. I still follow the Oscars and certain festival awards and read their histories, but I stopped choosing what I watch on that basis altogether. (This strategy has become more of a principle in the past year or so, but that's a discussion for a different day.)

That long preface brings me to my main point: I'm nowhere near complete with watching all Oscar-nominated performances. If a film I want to watch otherwise happens to have been nominated for an Oscar, all the better, but that's not the starting point. In recent years, because I've been able to watch films in their original theatrical run, I've covered a much higher percentage of nominees without having to change my viewing habits. Going further back, though, I'm much more interested in watching, say, Baby Face because I'm fascinated by the work of Barbara Stanwyck than watching Morning Glory simply because Katherine Hepburn won an Oscar for the film.

Anyway, about my list, these performances deserve better than being written about in haste and all lumped together in one column. Suffice it to say that I think of them as the ten very best in a sea of magnificent performances, so if you haven't gotten around to any of them, do so as soon as you can. And here's the result of our team poll.

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