With buzz building for "Sweeney Todd," it appears that Helena Bonham Carter could be a lead actress Oscar contender again. Her only other nod was back in 1997 for playing another scheming woman who manipulates a man in "The Wings of the Dove." Both roles, that of Kate Croy then and Mrs. Lovett now, required the well-bred actress (a great-granddaughter of a British prime minister) to get down and dirty.
A decade ago, Carter was but one of four English roses in the race, all pricked at the finish by the sole American — Helen Hunt, winner for her thorny portrayal of a put-upon single mom in "As Good as It Gets." While Hunt had taken home the Golden Globe (comedy) and SAG award, she had been ignored by all of the critics groups.
Was this because of her television pedigree? At the time, she was in the middle of a seven-year run with Paul Reiser as Manhattan marrieds in "Mad About You" and had already won the first two of four consecutive Emmys as best comedy actress. While her track record in films was spotty — battling tornadoes in "Twister" gets you MTV Movie award nods, not Oscars — triple Oscar winner James Brooks, also a TV vet, cast Hunt opposite the irascible Jack Nicholson in "As Good as It Gets." Holly Hunter had turned down the role, citing the two-decade age difference with Nicholson, but 26-years-younger Hunt had no such problem playing the tart-tongued waitress who swaps quips and spit with Jack.
Since her unexpected Oscar win, Hunt's career has faded fast. After her series ended in 1999, she starred in four films of varying quality in 2000, made one of Woody Allen's lesser comedies in 2001, and appeared in "A Good Woman," an ill-conceived update of Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan," in 2004. After taking time off to have a baby, she tore a page out of Barbra Streisand's book and wrote, produced, directed and starred in "Then She Found Me," a comedy-drama about a woman in a mid-life crisis. While THINKfilm picked up the distribution rights at the Toronto filmfest in September for a spring 2008 release, Hunt has no future projects planned.
Back to 1997: Carter had won the National Board of Review as well as recognition from the L.A. and broadcast film critics for her riveting role as the anti-heroine in this sumptuous screen version of the Henry James novel. Five years earlier, she had had seen her on-screen sister Emma Thompson sweep the awards derby starring in another literary adaptation, E.M. Forster's "Howards End."
Carter's chief rival on Oscar night was thought to be Julie Christie, who could well be her main competition again this year for her astonishing work as an Alzheimer patient in "Away From Her." Born in India in the last days of the Raj, the upper-class Christie won the lead actress Academy Award back in 1965 as a bed-hopping babe in "Darling." More than three decades on, she was winning plaudits in 1997 for playing an unhappily married woman in Alan Rudolph's love-rectangle drama "Afterglow." She was named best actress by both the New York Film Critics Cicle and National Society of Film Critics and took home the Independent Spirit award the night before the Oscars for her subtle portrayal of a woman on the verge.
The fourth nominee, Judi Dench, was starring in her first film after decades of toiling on the British stage, and 12 years after her first substantive movie role in "A Room With a View" (Carter's film debut). She had won the Golden Globe (drama) for playing the widowed Queen Victoria in "Mrs Brown" and was fast becoming a favorite by Oscar night. Though she lost then, Dame Judi returned the next year to win the supporting-actress award for playing another monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, for all of 8 1/2 minutes in best picture winner "Shakespeare in Love." Her competition then? Two Brits — Brenda Blethyn ("Little Voice") and Lynn Redgrave ("Gods and Monsters"), one Aussie Rachel Griffiths ("Hilary and Jackie") and one American, previous lead actress winner Kathy Bates ("Primary Colors").
Since that win, Dench has had four more nods including one in 2001 for "Iris" with her younger self in that biopic played by the fifth nominee from Oscar night 1997, Kate Winslet. At 22, Winslet became a two-time loser in 1997, having been nominated in the supporting actress race two years earlier for playing Emma Thompson's younger sister in "Sense and Sensibility." (A decade on, she is the youngest actress to have had five nominations, but alas no win). Winslet may just have to make do with having starred in the biggest grossing film of all time — "Titanic" — which turned out to be quite the juggernaut on Oscar night winning 11 statues.
When Hunt won, many thought she had caught the wave of momentum that got her co-star, Jack Nicholson, his third Oscar. Indeed, they were only the seventh on-screen team in Oscar's first 70 years to win both awards for lead actor and actress. However, the more jingoistic Oscarologists think that she won because she was the only American in the race.
Does that theory really hold up? See separate post below. Meantime, give us YOUR vote for the 1997 race, please.