Annette Bening vs. Natalie Portman: Who Deserves Oscar More?

Once again, I respectfully dissent. This time, with the Oscar prognosticators, whose general consensus is that Annette Bening is egregiously overdue. I understand where they’re coming from: She’s a first-rate actress and one of the few who has allowed herself to age gracefully onscreen. She also accomplished the seemingly impossible Hollywood task of taming Warren Beatty. But how overdue is she?

First, the facts. Fact #1: Bening has been nominated three times and is likely to once again make the short list for The Kids Are All Right. Fact #2: Her best bid yet was in 2005, the year she was a Best Actress nominee for Being Julia. Though it fell slightly short of being the kind of performance that’s usually called iconic, or career-defining, she was at least as deserving as The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s Kate Winslet and certainly more so than Hilary Swank, who won her second Oscar for Million Dollar Baby five years after her Boys Don’t Cry breakthrough beat out Bening in American Beauty.

Two years ago, Winslet finally got hers. Though it was for the wrong role (The Reader), Winslet was the epitome of overdue. She had starred in and been nominated for the biggest movie ever (Titanic), and had been nominated six times in 13 years, with at least two of those performances (Sense and Sensibility and Sunshine) being quintessentially Oscar-worthy and three being in Best Picture nominees.

Then there’s Julianne Moore, Bening’s costar in The Kids Are All Right, who, interestingly, is getting no Oscar buzz this year, and was up against Swank and Bening in 2000 for The End of the Affair. She’s been nominated four times, was once an early season favorite (for 2002’s Far from Heaven, beforeThe Hour‘s Nicole Kidman won by — or for — a nose), and probably should have taken the gold for Boogie Nights. She also has been un-nominated several times when she should have been (Short CutsSafeMagnolia).

Moore might be more overdue for an Oscar win than any actress who still has a good chance of getting one, but her A Single Man snub last time around and her likely second consecutive one suggests that Oscar might be over her, sort of the way he tossed aside Sigourney Weaver — a non-nominee for The Ice StormA Map of the World and Death and the Maiden in the ’90s — after three rapid ’80s nominations. At least Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close, both multiple nominees who should be Oscar winners, gave up on their own.

But what about Bening? As I said before, she’s a great actress. I love her in practically everything she’s in, but I think she’s getting Oscar attention this year for the wrong movie. Good as she was in The Kids Are All Right, to me, her performance in Mother and Child was more moving, more emotionally demanding, more nomination-worthy. That said, I still wouldn’t call her overdue, not the way Deborah Kerr, Barbara Stanwyck, Natalie Wood and Thelma Ritter, all multiple nominees who never won a competitive Oscar, were. Not when she works so sporadically, and has yet to deliver a truly iconic, career-defining performance that will be remembered and talked about in 20 years.

And that, folks, is precisely what Natalie Portman does in Black Swan. Whether or not you love the movie, it’s hard to deny that Portman gives the kind of bravura this-movie-wouldn’t-have-worked-without-her performance that people will remember, the kind that wins precursor awards, the kind that snatches Oscar from the grip of older frontrunner actresses (sort of the way La Vie en Rose‘s Marion Cotillard, then 32, pushed aside Away from Her‘s Julie Christie, then 66, in 2008).

Portman may be just 29, but she’s no less due than 52-year-old Bening. To be honest, I’m not as much of a Portman fan as I probably should be. (Before Black SwanCold Mountain was the only time I really loved her in anything). I’ve always found her acting style to be too measured, too controlled, too perfect, too full of effort, which, ironically, is exactly what it needed to be in Black Swan, until her character’s descent into madness, which Portman negotiated beautifully. Still, her work has been praised consistently over the years, and she has age on her side: Oscar likes his Best Actresses young, and this is around the time in a career when he usually lets them take him home (see Reese Witherspoon, Charlize Theron and Gwyneth Paltrow, for starters).

The bright side for Bening: If the 2011 Academy Awards on February 27 end up being another Annette vs. Hilary showdown (it’s highly unlikely, but judging from Swank’s surprise Screen Actors Guild nomination for Conviction, not entirely outside the realm of possibility), she won’t have to worry about losing a third time to the same actress. TC mark


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  • Bee Goode

    black swan was really effin' good.

    • nadia

      i agree, stunning and 'perfect' so much so i had to watch it twice.

  • Hugh Lilly

    I completely agree.

  • Anthony Jauneaud

    Am I the only one who found “The Kids Are All Right” to be kind of wrong? I hated the ending, the way all this family reacted :/

    • Jeremy Helligar

      You are not alone. A friend of mine called the movie “a perfectly pleasant way to spend 110 minutes,” and that about sums it up for me. I found Lisa Cholodenko's “High Art” to be much more moving and that didn't get any Oscar attention. Of course, that film didn't have Annette Bening, a good actress who for some reason everyone has been deeming way overdue since she lost to Hilary Swank the first time.

  • A.

    Are you kidding me? Natalie Portman is quite possibly the worst actress I've ever seen. I could barely get through Black Swan, but perhaps that's because I spent 11 years in Ballet. Did anyone see Star Wars? Did they want to leave like I did? The only reason she's going to win, and I'm going to say it, is because she's of Israeli decent, and it's a Hollywood political issue.
    I've had it. I'm not going to the movies anymore. This is getting to be ridiculous.

    • Jeremy Helligar

      That's an interesting point of view re the possibility of Natalie's winning because she's Israeli. As for her talent, I suppose it depends on what you like to see onscreen, but until “Black Swan,” I preferred her in small supporting doses.

  • Laura

    Hey A., you're a complete, utter idiot to assume the Academy will give Natalie the award based on being an Israeli. Way to broadcast your own prejudice. Anyone with a quarter brain knows they'll give it to her because they're too easily impressed by overwrought performances from young, hot women, particularly if they do something like have a lesbian scene with Mila Kunis. They're mostly men, and openly ageist and sexist, and thus, mostly predictable.

  • Lola L

    Natalie Portman has already had too many things handed her in life. Much, MUCH better actresses than her have never been nominated. Should they be handing her an Oscar for just an adequate performance in a confused, misogynistic, shitty movie?

  • Jakob

    Natalie Portman doesn't have the instinct to get to any character's heart, so she made an excuse being disliking method acting. I don't care how you pull off a character, as long as you are not so unconvincing and plain bad it's hard to watch. She only has one facial expression playing sorrow and terror. An unbearably over the top expression. Seeing her cry or act terrified makes me want to throw my TV at the wall. Girl doesn't have any useful acting talent.

    • Jakob

      The worst part of this is, we can all see how desperately she tries to act like a good method actor. Give it up honey, you can't pull it off. Go back to Harvard, you'll serve humanity better there.

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