Best Actresses: Have the Winning Roles Changed Through the Years?

by - February 19, 2018

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Right in the middle of the awards season, between the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards that took place back in January, the BAFTAs on this past Sunday and the pending 90th ceremony of the Academy Awards just two weeks away, there's no better opportunity to take a historical glimpse at some of the previous best leading actresses and see what has changed over the years. We're going to time-travel back to the early 1980s and trace the award winning roles through four decades. Are the winning roles drawn from primarily different genres than in the past? How different are the characters and how have their portrayals progressed? The answer to these and other questions you will find below in our comprehensive review of cinematic decades.


In 1980 Sally Field won for her role in Norma Rae - "the story of a woman with the courage to risk for what she knows is right.'' She competed for the award against Bette Midler starring in The Rose, Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome, Jill Clayburgh (Starting Over) and Marsha Mason (Chapter Two). It's interesting to note not only the differences between the genres, but also the focus of the portrayal. Norma Rae and The Rose are both female-driven films that follow the lives of two women, telling their own stories. Meanwhile Jill Clayburgh and Marsha Mason are co-stars in romantic comedies where the main focus is the journey of the male protagonist. I guess this was back in the day where we could still see sweet and upbeat romantic comedies shortlisted as nominees. In 1981 the award went to Sissy Spacek, sharing the story of a country singer Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter. Then in 1986, Jessica Lange was nominated for her role as a country singer Patsy Clain in Sweet Dreams, but didn't win. After the Academy's well-deserved break from music-related roles (yes, finally!), we see a rise in romantically centred movies again. In 1988, Cher won for her work in Moonstruck - a romantic comedy (the one you all probably have heard of) that sharply distinguished itself from the other competing roles, those of Glenn Close (Fatal Attraction), Meryl Streep (Ironweed) and Holly Hunter (Broadcast News) where romance is depicted in a less traditional way.


The early 1990s saw a curious shift among the best leading actresses who ended up going home with the golden statue. Rather than leads starring in romantic comedies or as country singers, we find more dramatic roles, such as winner Kathy Bates (Misery) playing a psychopathic fan in an adaptation based on Steven King's novel, followed by Jodie Foster for her performance in Silence of the Lambs (1992). However, before you rush to any assumptions, this pattern changes as the decade progresses. In the late 1990s the Academy rewarded more light-hearted performances, when the award was given to Helen Hunt, starring in the romantic comedy As Good as It Gets (1998), followed by Gwyneth Paltrow who was the recipient for Shakespeare in Love (1999) - another romantic comedy-drama. For some reason we observe a similar trend in the next decade as well when roles, exploring darker themes are more prevalent in the early 2000s, but then move towards romantic comedy-dramas leading to the 2010s.


Hilary Swank won for her role in the biographical Big Boys Don't Cry in 2000 and again five years later, starring in Million Dollar Baby where she depicted a rising boxing star. The 2000s undoubtedly show a wider range of versatile leading roles, which the Oscars' history has not seen before. There's Hallie Berry in 2002, who won for her work in Monster's Ball, becoming the first black actress to have won the Oscar. There's Nicole Kidman's performance of Virginia Wolf in The Hours in 2003, giving us a moving depiction of the writer's struggles with a mental illness and there's also Charlize Theron, winning the Oscar the following year for Monster. All of them portraying protagonists that are more complex, controversial and raw in comparison with the 1980s and majority of the 1990s. Of course, we also see similar depictions in the 2000s that have been awarded before, such as Reese Wetherspoon playing a country singer June Carter Cash (Walk the Line; 2006) and Marion Cotillard playing the famous French singer Edith Piaf (La Vie en Rose; 2008).


Close to saying goodbye to our little peek back in time, we stop by to review some of the roles that have been awarded in the past seven years. The first actress to be awarded for a romantic-comedy role this decade was Jennifer Lawrence in 2013 for her work in Silver Linings Playbook, which has received a great deal of critical acclaim. However, we shouldn't forget that the following year Cate Blanchett won for Blue Jasmine - a comedy-drama that wasn't as well received as its award predecessor and definitely failing to achieve the same box office success. And there's Emma Stone, winning the Oscar last year (how could anyone forget?) for La La Land - another romantic comedy-drama that turned out to be everyone's favorite and the Academy's golden child (well almost). It looks like romantic comedies with "an edge" are the trend now, but not the hopeful, more naïve kind that you could see back in the 1990s, where the movie creators had a more cheerful, but clichéd look at relationships and love. Or is it perhaps us and our reflection in the decade's culture we're living in? The only thing we could say for certain is that whoever is crowned the winner this year, it won't be for a romantic comedy, judging by the nominees.

What's your take on the previous winners or nominees? Can you spot a theme we've missed or overlooked? We'd be happy if you wish to share your opinions with us! Here at Shine Through You, we always love a healthy discussion even if we happen to disagree!

Have a fulfilling day and don't forget to have some fun too!

In Arts & Entertainment we will try to turn off our hard-working brains and deal with the less-exhausting prospect of our leisure time. Here we will talk about all things visual: new exhibitions, books and movies that made or failed to make an impression and also discuss what example the popular culture and our society give us - when is healthy to follow it and when to say enough.

Previously on Arts & Entertainment - Quiz: What's Your Next Favorite Book for 2018

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