The Oscars are one week away, and last week we kicked off our series called "Epic Fails", in which we went back in Oscar history to discuss which actresses were robbed of the coveted golden statue.
Last week, we mentioned the years in which more than one actress should have won Oscar, and today, we'll focus on the women who were outright robbed, who really should have won and won alone. In this category, we're not saying that the winners in these years weren't good, but the other women they defeated were so much more deserving. (Our discussion of the winners who definitely did not deserve to win an Oscar comes later.)
In this category of Winners Who Were Good, but Someone Else Was Better, we could really only identify three years, 1937, 1990 and 1999, in which this Oscar storyline was true. In 1937, Luise Rainer won the Oscar for portraying a Chinese woman in "The Good Earth", and while she was good, her win robbed Barbara Stanwyck for what was a performance of a lifetime in "Stella Dallas". Yes, we know, we know, a lot of people consider "Stella Dallas" a hopeless weepy, a milque-toast soap opera, and while we wouldn't necessarily disagree that the movie is sappy, nevertheless, Stanwyck is unbelievably powerful in the title role. Stanwyck must portray a woman who is uneducated, loud and tacky, but has a singular focus to raise a daughter to a better place, and in her own way, is ferocious in that desire. In one regard, to portray someone who makes choices totally on instinct is tough enough, but one must also remember that Stanwyck pulled off this tight-wire performance in an age when the bigger stars around her, i.e. Davis, Hepburn, etc., were acting in big broad, hystrionic brush strokes. Stanwyck's acting is more quiet, and thus much more realistic. Stanwyck's performance in "Stella Dallas" still stands up today as an honest, realistic portrayal of a confused yet determined woman who is ill-equipped to accomplish her goals, yet somehow finds a way to triumph. Luise Rainer was certainly good, but her performance that year couldn't hold a candle to Barbara Stanwyck's. Stanwyck's loss in 1937 is especially sad considering that, in the end, she never won an Oscar; and looking back, "Stella Dallas" is one of her movies for which she really should have.
In 1990, Kathy Bates made a major break-through playing a mentally-challenged literary fan from hell in "Misery", and taking an Oscar in the process. No one begrudges Bates' win, she was commanding in the role and unsettlingly good, but when you consider the fact that she beat Anjelica Huston in "The Grifters", Bates just pales in comparison. Huston played a petty criminal and "mother from the darkside", who was bereft of all basic social mores, including those that say a mother shouldn't manipulate her own child to evil means. Huston's character, Lilly Dillon, was one of those that was written so big and so monstrous, it would have been very easy for a lesser actress to veer into comical parody, but Huston maintained a tight grip on the character and embued her with a realness that was downright scary. Huston is so good as the driven, scheming Dillon, there are scenes where you can not only see the veins bulging in her neck from anger, but you can almost see the wheels in her mind spinning furiously to plot her next move. Compared to Huston, Kathy Bates was a cookie-baking girl scout leader. Bates was good in 1990, but there is no way she should have won the Oscar instead of Anjelica Huston. It's a good thing that Huston had already won an Oscar in 1986 for "Prizzi's Honor", because in 1991, she was robbed!
Famously, Hilary Swank has won two Oscars, beating Annette Bening both times in those wins. Swank's second win for "Million Dollar Baby" over Bening's "Being Julia", okay, we'll give her that one. But Swank's first win for "Boys Don't Cry" over Bening's "American Beauty", no way. Swank is good as the girl portraying a boy, but she's just that: "good", not spectacular or even slightly awe-inspiring. Looking back on that movie, we really wonder how in the hell Swank won. And now, compare Swank that year to Bening in "American Beauty" in which Bening played the tightly-wound, obsessive perfectionist, Carolyn Burnham, and it's just no contest. Similar to Stanwyck's "Stella Dallas" and Huston's Lilly Dillon, Bening's Burnham is possessed of a singular focus: to achieve her goals, no matter what the cost. She leaps headfirst into her life with abandon, belying the truth beneath the surface, that she's dancing as fast as she can to keep from losing control. It takes an actress of incredible skill to simultaneously show us two levels of the human pysche, even as those two levels battle for supremacy. And in the ultimate complement, while watching Bening's Burnham, almost everyone could say they knew someone like her, which means despite the theatrics of the role, Bening kept it real. Nice win Swank, but Bening was definitely robbed.