Yesterday, we began our coverage counting down to the 85th Academy Awards next Sunday, by taking a look at some of the best early performances of the Best Supporting Actor nominees. So today, the only natural place to go was across the gender divide, to the Best Supporting Actress contenders. And as with their male counterparts, it’s a mostly established bunch of names.
However, while the men are all previous Oscar winners, there’s a little more of a mix with the ladies: from two-time winner Sally Field, to one-time winner Helen Hunt, to 3-time nominee Amy Adams, to Jacki Weaver and Anne Hathaway, each with one previous nomination, but no wins. It’s perhaps the most pre-determined of all the Oscar categories, but that’s not why we’re here. Below, you’ll find our picks for the best performances (or ok, maybe relatively interesting ones for some of them) of all five actresses’ early careers. Let us know your own favorites in the comments below.
Anne Hathaway – “Havoc”
Directed by two-time Academy Award winner and cinéma vérité documentarian Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County, USA,” “American Dream”), “Havoc” was the filmmaker’s first non-documentary feature film and it went to straight to DVD in 2005. Yes, it’s not great by any stretch of the imagination, centering on a pair of naïve, underage teenage girls (Anne Hathaway and Bijou Phillips) who are exposed to hip-hop culture in Los Angeles and then aspire to be badass and imitate this lifestyle. They encounter gang bangers and get in way over their heads, quickly learning they are not as street tough as they thought, and face some dire consequences. And while the movie is otherwise forgettable, Hathaway shows the spark of her daring, go-for-emotional-broke acting that she would take on in bigger and better movies down the line, making her one of the most sought after actresses working today. Hathaway also isn’t afraid to bare it all like she does in “Havoc,” and while it’s probably just a screencap favorite for the Mr. Skins of the world, it did show she was willing to go to dark and raw places. Now if only she had a stronger director to back her up. Kopple doesn’t necessarily leave her dangling, but the movie just never clicks in a meaningful way, mostly because it’s too obsessed with coming across as a cautionary tale. Still, the Hathaway glimmer is there.
Helen Hunt – “As Good As It Gets”
Interestingly, before 1997-ish, Helen Hunt was not that common a presence on screen. There were small roles — “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “Project X,” “Bob Roberts” — but nothing that really penetrated the general consciousness until “Kiss Of Death” in 1995, and the blockbuster “Twister” in 1996. By this time, she’d already made her name on TV, thanks to “Mad About You” with Paul Reiser. So as such, the best pick for this feature seemed to be the film that she won an Oscar for, James L Brooks‘ “As Good As It Gets.” The film’s Oscar success — a Best Picture nomination, the most recent film to win Best Actor and Best Actress together — has led many to label it as overrated, but the fifteen year gap has let it settle into place as a modest, smart and touching, if unexceptional, romantic comedy. Hunt plays Carol, a single mother who waits the table of misanthropic novelist Melvin (Jack Nicholson), and is one of the few people who can put up with his behavior. The two become drawn closer together after Melvin’s gay neighbor (Greg Kinnear) is savagely beaten, and she’s eventually able to soften him up. Brooks was (at least until the “Spanglish” era), one of the better writers of women in dramedy out there, and Carol is never a simple fantasy figure or redemptive saint, especially in Hunt’s hands; there’s a toughness to her that makes her feel like the heroine of a fast-talking 1940s comedy, a Rosalind Russell type. With this role, Hunt definitely demonstrated that she was more than just a sitcom star.
Jacki Weaver – “Picnic At Hanging Rock”
As far as most movie fans were concerned, Jacki Weaver was a virtual unknown when she won an Oscar nomination for her astonishing turn in “Animal Kingdom.” And it’s fair enough. The actress didn’t even do that much cinema in Australia, let alone the U.S., tending to focus on stage work over her long career. But in fact, she did have a notable early role, in one of the most seminal Australian films of all time, and one that helped launch perhaps the country’s greatest director, Peter Weir — “Picnic At Hanging Rock.” Weir’s 1975 film, about a group of schoolgirls and their sometimes intimidating teachers, who mysteriously vanish after being drawn towards a peculiar rock formation in early 1900s Australia, is an eerie and outstanding look at brewing female sexuality, friendship, and the unknown, and features terrific performances from its young cast. But Weaver’s scenes are something of an oddity. As maid Minnie, she’s mostly outside of the main narrative, back at Appleyard College. But in her affair with fellow servant Tom (Tony Llewellyn-Jones), her character serves as a neat contrast to the more repressed teachers and pupils. While it’s a very small part (in fact, Weaver says that she shot more, which Weir cut), she’s very good, if unrecognizable from the terrifying Smurf from “Animal Kingdom,” or even the sweet-natured Dolores in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Also, keep an eye out for valet Albert — that’s John Jarratt, of “Wolf Creek” and more recently, “Django Unchained.”
Sally Field – “Norma Rae”
Like Hunt, Sally Field was famous long before she moved into movies, thanks to television — in her case, with roles in “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun.” And like Hunt, Field won an Oscar for her first really notable role, which also followed a big blockbuster (“Smokey And The Bandit” instead of “Twister“). Field’s first Oscar came for the title role in “Norma Rae,” and it capped off a year that found her winning the Best Actress prize at Cannes, too. In Martin Ritt‘s based-in-fact tale, Field plays Norma Rae Webster, a cotton mill worker who, fed up with the miserable working conditions, sets out to unionize her workplace, going head to head with management, and even her husband (Beau Bridges). The film is sentimental in places, and has probably been lessened by the many others made in its mold over the years (“Erin Brockovich,” “North Country,” “Made In Dagenham” et al), but holds up reasonably well, thanks to a progressive viewpoint on gender politics, and a detailed look at the politics of unionization. But it’s worth checking out for Field alone; she’s funny and tough and vulnerable and above all else, steely. The script gives her plenty of complexity and contradictions to play with (she can fight with her unreconstructed, somewhat boorish husband, but still love him), and Field really gets her teeth into the part. If nothing else, it should be watched if only for the contrast with her turn in “Lincoln.”
Amy Adams in “Junebug”
Like many actors getting started, Amy Adams had to slum in crap like “Cruel Intentions 2,” “Psycho Beach Party” and other similar crud before she got noticed. But that attention did quickly come. She nabbed a head-turning small role in Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in 2002, and scored the first supporting role in 2005’s “The Wedding Date,” but her breakthrough came with the Sundance hit “Junebug.” As the neurotic and underloved pregnant Southern firecracker Ashley Johnsten, Adams’ furiously lived-in and organic turn won her a Special Jury Prize in Park City for her performance, and by the end of the year she found herself with an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, plus an army of major awards and nominations under her belt, including Critics Choice, Gotham, Independent Spirit Awards, SAG, and National Society of Film Critics Awards. “Junebug” rightly put Adams on the map, and while she still enjoyed tackling sillier roles like “Enchanted” and “Talladega Nights” there is a definitive line to be drawn from “Junebug” to her four Academy Award nominations to date. Four nominations in seven years is nothing to sneeze at, and while she has yet to win (and it seems doubtful she will take the prize this year), at 38 years old, we presume Adams is only getting started.
– Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez