Friday, June 26, 2020

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1989

The Contenders:

Isabelle Adjani: Camille Claudel
Jessica Tandy: Driving Miss Daisy (winner)
Michelle Pfeiffer: The Fabulous Baker Boys
Jessica Lange: Music Box
Pauline Collins: Shirley Valentine

What’s Missing

I have to say that 1989 feels like one of those years where there just aren’t a lot of nominations to choose from—admittedly, that’s based on my viewing history for the year. In fact, one of the five nominations was actually from a 1988 film. Anyway, we can talk about Andie McDowell and Laura San Giacomo in sex, lies, and videotape. We can also talk about Kelly Lynch in Drugstore Cowboy, even if she was more supporting. Gun to head, the biggest miss for me is the always-undervalued Adrienne Shelly in The Unbelievable Truth.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. It’s easy and tempting to bag on Oscar’s choices, of course, so there’s always a feeling of wondering about my own motivations when I put the winner in last place. I have nothing against Jessica Tandy, but Driving Miss Daisy was the safe and easy choice for 1989 if you wanted to pick a movie about racism. Her performance is fine, good even, and one of the reasons to see the film…once. But this feels like an Oscar handed out to someone who everyone thought should have had one already—career Oscar in competitive clothing.

4. I feel a little sad putting Jessica Lange in fourth place because I like Jessica Lange quite a bit as an actress, and she is absolutely the first, last, and only reason to watch Music Box. She’s taking some of the brunt of this because I genuinely don’t like the movie itself. It’s an ugly story that trades entirely on a shock moment, and while Lange does everything she can with the role, it’s not enough to get me to want to watch the film a second time. She’s been better and Oscar can do better.

3. I will never be mistaken for a Michelle Pfeiffer apologist, but I have to give her a lot of credit in The Fabulous Baker Boys. The fact that the two Bridges brothers don’t actually play the piano is completely masked by the fact that Pfeiffer does her own singing and completely steals every scene because of it. It’s probably the best she’s ever been on screen, and while I say that as someone who doesn’t generally like her a great deal, I also say that as someone who was genuinely impressed with the performance, and thinks the nomination was warranted.

2. Isabelle Adjani is at home playing people with severe mental issues, and Camille Claudel is no exception to that. The film itself is probably a good 20-30 minutes longer than it needs to be to tell the story it wants to, but Adjani is never boring, and makes sure that those moments are never boring as well. My favorite of her performances is probably Possession, but she’s channeling the same muse for this one, and she’s magnetic when she is on the screen. I could be argued into giving her the win, more than likely.

My Choice

1. But my winner, hands-down, is Pauline Collins for the lovely Shirley Valentine. The reason for this is simple—there’s nothing in this film that should be appealing to me: a middle-aged woman goes on vacation by herself and discovers that she’d rather ditch her husband and life in England and instead stay in Greece. But Collins is so immediately likeable and makes Shirley such a real and genuine person that I completely bought into the entire premise and every part of the movie. That’s rare, but there’s no one who could have made this film work the way Pauline Collins did. That, to me, is the sign of a deserved Oscar.

Final Analysis


  1. I thought Pauline Collins very good in Shirley Valentine but the movie did nothing for me and now I have only vague memories of it.

    Of this grouping my vote would go to Isabelle Adjani even if her character echoes her earlier nomination in The Story of Adele H. That's not a bad thing since she was extraordinary there but for most of the running time the other film kept cropping up in my mind.

    I think Jessica Tandy was a terrific actress and frequently quite great and she's fine in Driving Miss Daisy but not winner wonderful. Her win is a textbook career Oscar adding in the fact that she was known to be battling cancer at the time and there was no way she wasn't walking away with that gold guy.

    If it were up to me though I'd ditch everyone but Adjani and Jessica Lange and add Emily Lloyd for In Country, Winona Ryder for Heathers and Sally Field who would be my winner for Steel Magnolias. She was in that period that some performers go through where they are Oscar darlings and then suddenly can't get arrested despite continuing to do excellent work which lasted for her nearly 30 years until Lincoln.

    I'd also say Meg Ryan for When Harry Met Sally is worthy of consideration.

    I haven't seen The Unbelievable Truth.

    1. We'll disagree on Pauline Collins. I found her absolutely charming and completely real.

      Winona Ryder and Meg Ryan are good suggestions. Both are clear misses on my part.

  2. I fucking hate Driving Miss Daisy. It's Oscar-bait at its worst. Nothing against Jessica Tandy as I do like her work as an actress but this was just BLAH! I didn't see the other nods except for Michelle Pfeiffer who should've won in my opinion.

    1989 didn't see a lot of solid lead acting performances from women as I would've considered Andie MacDowell for sex, lies, & videotape (despite my low opinion of her as an actress), Kelly Lynch for Drugstore Cowboy, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio for The Abyss, Nicole Kidman for Dead Calm, Genevieve Lemon for Sweetie, and Kathleen Turner for The War of the Roses (a favorite of my parents).

    1. Nicole Kidman is an interesting choice. Dead Calm is an oddball movie, but she's quite good in it.

      I don't hate Driving Miss Daisy, but it's so safe that I find it frustrating.

  3. The only performance I've seen is Pfeiffer's and she

    I've tried to watch Driving Miss Daisy but haven't gotten very far.

    Other performances I really liked from that year are Kathleen Turner in War of the Roses and Andie McDowell in sex, lies, and videotape.

    1. You're honestly not missing a great deal by not seeing Driving Miss Daisy. If you've seen Green Book, you've seen 85% of it.

      Pfeiffer is good--one of a few times I can say that without reservation. Her version of "Makin' Whoopee" is what sells her whole performance and probably what earned her the nomination.