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Oscars '98

How Good Are They?

Calendar again convenes its panel of acting coaches to comment on the nominees. Sometimes, the academy is wrong.

March 22, 1998|Elaine Dutka | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

Can 12 months have passed since the last encounter with our no-holds-barred acting coaches? Once again, they've immersed themselves in the Oscar-nominated performances, targeting the highs--and the unexpected lows. Dramatic choices? Disconcerting tics? For the fifth year running, Janet Alhanti, Howard Fine and Larry Moss weigh in.

BEST ACTRESS

Helena Bonham Carter (The Wings of the Dove)

Fine: Bonham Carter falls into a common trap: after reading the script, she underlines what she perceives to be her big moments--underestimating the audience and robbing each scene of its dramatic impact. She asks her lover if he's in love with her rival and, knowing the answer, projects "victim" instead of "trepidation." In "A Room With a View," she was fresh and alive. Now, she's calculated and affected.

Moss: In past roles, Bonham Carter has been refined. Here, we see her driven and sexually voracious. The actress found part of herself that was duplicitous, manipulative and completely selfish. Though she's ruthless in not sugar-coating the part, we sympathize with the character who's so torrentially sad. This is Bonham Carter's best work, and her most surprising.

Julie Christie (Afterglow)

Alhanti: This is not the kind of role a lot of actresses would have taken because it's so passive. She plays a woman so removed from her situation that she's almost an observer of her life. There's a wonderful subtlety in Christie. Beauty doesn't interfere with credibility because she never plays the looks.

Fine: An incomplete, indulgent performance that lacks dimension and spontaneity. Working off herself rather than other actors, she's saying 'look at me.' A mother devastated by the departure of her child and by failed artistic aspirations, she never lets us inside. That reflects a certain kind of British training, acting from the outside in.

Judi Dench (Mrs. Brown)

Fine: Dench has an uncanny ability to humanize royalty. At the country house, her attempt to set the table conveys a frailty and desire to fit in. The actress never postures, never plays attitude. Dench could have settled for a queen who stopped feeling when her husband died rather than a real woman longing to live again. Her chemistry with Billy Connolly is electric.

Moss: Like Joan Plowright, Dench is one of the few contemporary actresses who can play historical figures with absolute accuracy. She gives us a woman straining against the constraints of her position--not unlike Princess Diana. While we always know she's the Queen, Dench projects subtle glints of color and a surprising girlishness at times.

Helen Hunt (As Good as It Gets)

Alhanti: Hunt takes the movie out of the hands of the obsessive-compulsives and sets the terms of the action. She's able to keep a straight face with Nicholson which takes a lot of discipline. In this film and others, she plays a tough cookie--it's almost as though she's afraid to express love. If it's the roles she takes on and not Hunt herself, the actress should shuffle things up.

Fine: It's great to see a comic performance nominated. Because Hunt never plays for laughs, I really cared about her. She not only holds her own against Jack Nicholson but makes Greg Kinnear's performance seem better than it is. Though she's much younger than Nicholson, she comes off like an old soul. This is the first time we get to see her range on the big screen.

Kate Winslet (Titanic)

Alhanti: A very passive, stereotypical performance in which Winslet was too old for DiCaprio. Our first encounters with her are unappealing--there's an arrogance, a shallowness to her. I never saw something build that changed her from a victim. Scarlett O'Hara was very headstrong but since we saw her vulnerability from the start, she came off much more human.

Moss: There is something slightly awkward about the way that Winslet wears her costumes--which actually works in her favor since her character is trying to escape her corseted, desperate life. Winslet is like a piece of overripe fruit. Her voluptuous face and blazing eyes give the film some humanity. She carried the romance--bringing it true passion and depth. DiCaprio seemed all energy and force.

BEST ACTOR

Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting)

Fine: Many young actors posture without letting their underbelly show. Damon lets us see beneath the mask of bravado. He also avoids the trap of suggesting his character doesn't care--if he has nothing at stake, the audience has no reason to feel. Damon did a great job making the transition from writer to actor. Writers are often the worst interpreters of their work.

Moss: A wonderfully warm, likable actor, Damon seems like he just walked off the street. This is a difficult, multilayered performance. The actor not only responds to what's going on in each scene but projects the rage, pain and confusion underneath. He has the same pugnacious, underdog quality that Jimmy Cagney had.

Robert Duvall (The Apostle)

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