First, let’s start by looking at how Oscar got it wrong:
Annette Bening ... The Grifters
Lorraine Bracco ... Goodfellas
Whoopi Goldberg ... Ghost *
Mary McDonnell ... Dances with Wolves
Diane Ladd ... Wild at Heart
Whoopi Goldberg became the second black woman to win a Supporting Actress Oscar in 1990 for such a crowd-pleasingly funny turn in the box office blockbuster Ghost that is seems almost unfair to say she wasn’t really amongst the year’s top five Supporting Actress performances. But alas, trying to be objective, her broadly comedic work had little substance to it, as enjoyable as it might be. Many pundits factored her strong, Oscar-nominated work in Steven Speilberg’s The Color Purple into her win, noting that in most other years, she would have won the award for Best Actress (she lost to legend Geraldine Page for her work in The Trip to Bountiful).
Fellow nominee Lorraine Bracco has always come across, at least to me, as being the weakest link in a true powerhouse of a cast in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Her performance as “Karen Hill” never feels completely full. A Dances With Wolves sweep propelled character actress Mary McDonnell into the race playing a white woman raised as a Native American. In retrospect, McDonnell’s nomination was to be expected, and her work is interesting and well-put-together, but the film overall lacks grace and guts, doing McDonnell’s performance no favors.
Out of the five actresses nominated for Best Supporting Actress is 1990, I would keep two in my line up: Nominated somewhat inexplicably following a grass roots campaign, veteran character actress Diane Ladd did a smashing job in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart with her brilliantly-played grotesquerie that riffed on the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz. The fifth Oscar nominee should have been the winner, and that statuette should have gone to Annette Bening for her astonishing work in The Grifters, referencing and updating the salacious, scandalous noir dame Gloria Grahame had patented decades before. Her electric chemistry opposite Anjelica Huston needs to be seen to be believed.
Rounding out my personal top five would be perennial nominees Joan Cusack and Dianne Wiest who were both somehow overlooked for two of their best performances: Cusack as a daffy cougar nurse opposite Jessica Lange in Men Don’t Leave and Wiest as Edward Scissorhands’ sweetly suburban mother figure. And a woman that has shockingly never been Oscar-nominated, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Leigh took the New York Film Critics’ Society award for Best Supporting Actress and many thought she was headed for her first nomination for playing two different kinds of hookers in two very dark films. Eventually Leigh’s sultry, fearless work was outrageously overlooked when the nominations were announced. For me, she is a close runner up for the win on the pure strength of those physical, instinctual performances that only come along once in a lifetime for most actors. Leigh has spent the better part of her career delivering work at this same intense level—from the underrated Rush, to the delirious neo noir of Single White Female, to the ballsy Georgia, to the brash sensuality of Margot at the Wedding—and has still to date not been given an Oscar nomination. Think about that. Why has Jennifer Jason Leigh never been nominated for an Oscar?
That said, for me this is, and always has been, Annette Bening’s year to win.
Annette Bening ... The Grifters *
Joan Cusack … Men Don’t Leave
Diane Ladd ... Wild at Heart
Jennifer Jason Leigh ... Last Exit to Brooklyn & Miami Blues ^
Dianne Wiest ... Edward Scissorhands