It's Friday, and that means it is time for another episode of Twice a Best Actress! This week is all about Hilary Swank, which is kind of interesting because she is such a polarizing and controversial presence in film. Her Oscar wins are met with so much disdain by many because of circumstances surrounding them, but we are here to judge the actual performances and not the races or the actress as a whole.
Oh, this is fun!
And, here is our esteemed panel of awesomeness:
Andrew from The Films the Thing
Drew from A Fistful of Films
Fritz from Fritz and the Oscars
Josh from The Cinematic Spectacle
Kevin from Speaks in Movie Lines
Sati from Cinematic Corner
Back in 1999, unless you were still watching 90210 limping along in its 8th season or you were a really big fan of The Next Karate Kid, seeing Hilary Swank in her groundbreaking and mesmerizing performance as Brandon Teena in Kimberly Pierce's Boys Don't Cry was truly a unique experience. Not being familiar with Swank as an actress gave her an advantage in transforming into Brandon, her anonymity allowing her to dig deep into the character in ways we hadn't fully comprehended yet and committing so completely that it never felt like an actress giving a performance but as if we were being introduced to a real person, flaws and all. But even now, 15 years and two Best Actress Oscars later, the familiarity we've gained over the years hasn't diminished the astonishing work Swank created. If it had just been the physical transformation (which Swank is able to do believably and flawlessly, her Brandon resembling a skinnier version of Matt Damon) the performance would've still technically impressed, but what makes Swank's Brandon transcend mere artifice is the heart and humanity she brings. Allowing the brutal conclusion to resonate even more profoundly because of the time we've spent with Brandon, getting to know the person and understanding the inner workings of Brandon's hopes and fears. As hard as those scenes are to watch, the most devastating is the way Swank, recounting the event, hesitantly whispers the words "sexual identity crisis" as if saying them aloud shatters the inner center of Brandon's being, the soul crushed through the humiliation of admission. It's a heartbreaking performance more than deserving of the Oscar, standing among one of the best performances ever awarded.
My Grade: A
Hilary Swank, the actress, gets a lot of flak. People hate her for having two Oscars, solely because Annette Bening has none, and because Swank’s career, her two Oscar wins aside, is kind of embarrassing. I give her flak, as an actress…but I don’t begrudge her Oscar wins at all because, when looked at as a separate entity, they are both, in their own ways, respectable.
Her performance, and win, in Boys Don’t Cry, is more than respectable though. This is, easily, one of the greatest performances to ever win the Oscar.
It doesn’t hurt that the film itself is one of my favorites of the 90’s, but the rest of the film aside, Swank is just plain remarkable here. Her complete transformation, physically and emotionally, is so believable and so complete that she literally convinces you of her sexuality, blinding you to what you think you know, taking you to a place that is beyond cinema. This is real life, and Swank IS Brandon Teena. The wonder, the insecurity, the faux confidence, the heartfelt embrace of her newfound friends; everything makes so much sense and feels so incredibly grounded in this purity, this humble honesty. The approach to the character, from both Swank and Pierce, is astonishing. Instead of making this feel like some kind of exploitive lesbian drama, the love affair, while important and fleshed out, becomes this sidepoint to the real meat of this story; the emotional frailty of Teena herself. Swank’s best moments come when she is in fear of her secret, because her very real projection of insecurity and panic send shivers down the viewer’s body. She just nails that aspect of adolescence; that underlining layer of fear that permeates those who are hiding something.
But for anyone who wants to claim that Swank was nothing but gimmick here, I ask you to watch the police interrogation scene again. That whole scene is just crushing, and the way that Swank mumbles her words, everything a whisper, like something hard for her to formulate, a struggle she can’t get out from under; it just bleeds such rich character development and such emotional rawness all over the screen.
One of the single best moments in modern cinema.
I love Annette Bening, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore as actresses far more than Hilary Swank (who cares about Janet McTeer), but we’re not talking about actresses, we’re talking about singular performances, and I’ve seen all five contenders and Swank was in a different league altogether. She was BY FAR the most deserving performance in the bunch, and in all honesty is one of the greatest Oscar wins in the history of the award.
Hate her all you want, but if you hate her for this particular win then you are missing the point of the Oscars entirely.
My Grade: A+
Back in 1999, American Beauty was the Holy Grail of movie making for me – complete and utter perfection, a movie I would watch every day and that really influenced me as a person (I still adore it even if my appreciation went down a little bit). And of course, watching the Oscars I simply wanted it to win everything. The losses for Editing and Score really disappointed me (and that loss for Best Score still hurts to this day) but nothing created more depression for me than the moment Annette Bening lost the Oscar to Hilary Swank. Bening was my favourite of the cast then and I was wild about her portrayal while I hadn’t seen Hilary and didn’t want to – yes, I could be a very stubborn young man. But eventually I decided to give Boys Don’t Cry a chance – and while I can be stubborn I can also admit when I am wrong and basically went out of the movie and all was forgiven. Because just like American Beauty, Hilary Swank was complete and utter perfection – and unlike American Beauty, my appreciation for her did not go down (even just a little bit). It’s a miraculous performance not just because she is so convincing as a man for the viewers (I never think of her character as Teena – for me, he is always Brandon) but also for the other characters in the story – a lot of times, performers can be successful in portrayals for the camera but you are still wondering why their characters would be able to fool anyone else within the story. In the case of Hilary Swank, you don’t need to wonder because she not only nails the physical aspects of the character but also the behavior, the way of adjusting herself to her surroundings and especially to the woman he loves. Of course, you are wondering why Brandon would chose to live in this place where his life is in constant danger, why he doesn’t go somewhere else but Hilary Swank answers all these aspects flawlessly, simply showing Brandon as a person who belongs in this place, who had always lived there and for whom it is part of what he is. Furthermore, Hilary Swank has an outstanding chemistry with Chloe Sevigny and both actresses contribute to the success of their screen partners beautifully. It could be easy to dismiss this performance as mere cross dressing but Hilary Swank goes very deep in her portrayal, showing the humanity of her role and the horror that shaped his life, creating some almost unbearable moments on the screen when Brandon has to pay the price for being different in a world that doesn’t allow it. A truly unforgettable piece of work – sorry Annette!
My Grade: A+
Swank won her first Best Actress Oscar for playing Brandon Teena, a transgender man whose life ended brutally at the age of 21. Playing a real person can be tricky, especially if the performance feels like a mere imitation. This independent film is not a strict biopic though, taking a hard look at the older Brandon's last days. Swank plays Brandon with an endearing warmth and touching sensitivity, offering a powerful, naturalistic performance. Her portrayal seems effortless and genuine, and it makes the film's conclusion all the more heartbreaking. While the role is awards bait, Swank's brave performance brings humanity to Brandon, showing his desire to love and be loved. Swank is simply too good to ignore here, and she was justly nominated by the Academy.
Did Swank deserve to win?
I've only seen two of the nominees, but Swank easily deserved this over Annette Bening, who also gave a great performance in American Beauty.
My Grade: A+
I have to be honest. I haven't seen "Boys Don't Cry" in a few years. It is a fine achievement and a devastating character study. I chose not to re-watch it for this, however. I just couldn't do it to myself. I do believe I have enough to say about whether or not Swank deserved this Oscar though. She did.
As Teena Brandon (or more honestly Brandon Teena), Hillary Swank gives one of the bravest performances I've seen. It is well known that the Academy often loves transformative roles like this one. Based on a true story and following a documentary released the year before called "The Brandon Teena Story," director Kimberly Pierce finds just the right notes to tell a truly sad story about love, sexual identity, and the topic of hate crimes.
Swank (then pretty much unknown) just nails it. She transforms herself into this tragic figure. The mannerisms, the talk, the dress. Teena Brandon had to become Brandon Teena, and Swank miraculously becomes both. I remember being struck by how powerfully real this movie seemed. Swank and Chloe Sevigny (the love interest, Lana) have a chemistry that is always real. One of the greatest strengths of Swank's performances stems from this.
Nearly fifteen years later, actors are still being rewarded for transforming themselves into supremely tragic figures far from themselves in real life (see: Matthew McConaughey). When I looked at the field from 1999, I realized I had only also seen Annette Bening's brilliant work in Sam Mendes' "American Beauty." I remembered hoping that Bening would win to secure that Big Five. But now that I think back, the Academy got this one right. Hillary Swank wins it with pure transformation and bravery.
The Scene That Won It: Total ownership of the role throughout, but, to quote myself, "you know, the one."
My Grade: A
Boys Don't Cry is not an easy movie.
It's also a not particularly good movie - not only is there way too much sentimentality and showy, baity moments but the film sensationalizes - which I found particularly distasteful as apparently the real Lana did - certain aspects of the story, mainly the romance between Brandon and Lana. Instead of being an uncompromising look at a complex individual, Peirce paints Brandon Teena as some sort of angel of innocence who fell in love with Lana, as she did with him while in reality it wasn't all that singing, love-at-first-sight, I accept you for who you are loveliness at all.
In reality there were lots of shades of grey to the surrounding story and the movie did an awful job when it comes to making it all look nuanced - instead we are being served clichéd coming of age tale completed with uplifting tune and pretty girl driving away from shit town to start a new life in the film's ending. Where Peirce did a wonderful job is the depiction of crime and the heinous injustice that Brandon met. There's nothing grey about this - it's all black and white as it was in real life. Because when you see a heinous crime, you know it.
Swank gives an excellent performance, but her wings are clipped by clichéd script. She gets to play her character as sweet and naive, never really showing darker aspects of Brandon's personality or his confusion. In the hands of more capable writers and director this really could have been hall of acting fame kind of a performance but sadly it isn't. Swank gives it her best though, truly transforming herself and nailing every moment she was asked to nail - the problem is she wasn't asked enough. Swank never really goes beyond what the role requires and demands - I have no doubt her heart was truly in it, but she never really reaches that amazing state actors do when they not only seem to act but also react as the person they are playing, even if only for the shortest moment - flicker in their eye, look on their face. It's a rare thing. And that is why I cannot call Swank's performance one of the best ever - it's well crafted, dedicated but it doesn't have that divine factor of truly becoming another.
Especially that there is someone in this very movie who does this and that is scene-stealing Chloe Sevigny as Lana. She walks away with the film - her crazed, hazed eyes and her kind heart, her rage at everyone around, her fear and empathy for Brandon. The race in both actress categories was insane that year - Annette Bening's memorable turn in American Beauty vs Swank's transformative role and wild, energetic Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted vs Sevigny. While I do award the actresses like Academy did - there is just a special fondness for Lisa in my heart - the only actress out of those 4 who transformed herself - not just her body - to achieve the elusive 'she is the one she is playing' moment was Sevigny. A shame the movie didn't give her and Swank more to do.
My Grade: A-
There is no other well-known actress I can possibly imagine playing Maggie Fitzgerald, the boxer that came from nothing to be a contender, other than Hilary Swank. She is the go-to actress when it comes to believable athleticism and tomboyish charm (which is why it's probably been so hard for her to break-out in films other than her two Oscar wins, which were able to so effectively capitalize on her strengths). But despite the perfect casting, her work as Maggie, all toothy gumption and aw-shucks determination, seems like a miscalculation with the way the character is written. In voiceover we're told she grew up knowing one thing, that she was trash. But Swank doesn't play the character that way, her optimism is too idyllic without the hard-edge that someone who has struggled their whole life would have, her plucky spirit never feeling true to what we are told. Especially for someone that looks to their survival by pursuing a career based on beating other people up. Then after the accident, her character no longer seems to factor much at all, setting up the emotional moments for Frankie (Clint Eastwood) and allowing Eastwood to showcase his own work as he struggles with his moral dilemma. Throughout the first part of the film, Maggie has rather obviously been the stand-in for Frankie's estranged daughter, but as the film progresses our emotional connection is transferred from the bond of the two to Frankie alone. Maggie is transformed into nothing but a symbol of martyrdom and a catalyst for Frankie's emotional growth, leaving Swank little to do but let it happen. If only the Academy hadn't been so easily manipulated and given the Oscar that year to Kate Winslet for one of her greatest performances in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Her Clementine would never have allowed someone else to hijack the story from her like that.
My Grade: C
Kate Winslet was better than Swank. In fact, she gives one of my ten favorite performances by an actress ever, and should have won the Oscar in a walk. Annette Bening was better than Swank. Imelda Staunton was better than Swank. Hell, even Catalina Sandino Moreno was better than Swank. But, I’ve said this MANY times, and I continue to believe it rather wholeheartedly; the 2004 Lead Actress Oscar category was probably the strongest it had ever been in the history of the Award.
Yes, Swank was DAMN good here.
No matter what way you look at it, and no matter which actress would have won, they were all deserving performances, and even though Swank was the least deserving of the bunch, it doesn’t negate the fact that she WAS deserving.
Yes, Swank was fortunate. This was a late in the year contender, it peaked at the exact time it needed to, it was anchored by Eastwood’s sharpest direction to date and it handed her a character of the purest Oscar bait that fed right into her wheelhouse of expertise. Tomboy trailer trash who has nothing to lose rises above adversity only to face heartbreaking tragedy of the unjust kind. Basically, it was Boys Don’t Cry in a boxing ring. But, you can begrudge the circumstances of the win, and to a degree you can even begrudge the actual win, since the other four were MORE deserving, but you can’t really begrudge the performance because Swank truly gives this everything she has, and she succeeds marvelously within the scope of the film itself.
Swank’s mannerisms, her guarded shame, her fierce determination that is never completely assured (notice the way her face betrays her confidence even when her words are full of conviction), her childlike abandon; everything feels so genuine and so grounded in this woman, this complete character. While I will agree that the finale is less about Maggie and more about Frankie (and, let’s be honest, Eastwood delivers his career best acting performance here), the buildup is so strong that the finale really would NOT have worked had Swank not carved out such a rich and believable character.
So, did she deserve to win the Oscar IN THAT FIELD? No, but reflection on the performance proves that her win is not the travesty so many try and paint it as.
My Grade: A-
It is remarkable how similar Hilary Swank and Sally Field were in their paths to double Oscar glory. Neither of them was a very respected thespian (although Sally did have her Emmy – but the separation between TV and the big screen was still very prominent in those days) when they suddenly amazed the world with their roles in Norma Rae and Boys Don’t Cry in 1979 and 1999. Then both actresses kind of disappeared again but would be back exactly five years later in 1984 and 2004 to win a second Oscar with their second nomination – and in both cases, their second Oscars are usually regarded with much less appreciation. Usual comments state that Sally Field benefitted from a weak competition while Hilary Swank had the advantage of an admired movie that peaked just at the right time and a character that was impossible to dislike. In fact, both of Hilary Swank’s Oscar winning characters could be accused of playing the ‘victim card’ to a point where it was impossible to not vote for them because they gained all our sympathy. But I don’t agree with this accusation – yes, both roles win our sympathy easily but Hilary Swank is still an actress who never actively asks for this sympathy and who plays her characters as real people who simply developed the way they did. Hilary Swank plays Maggie’s constant rejections, her failures, the disapproval of her family and her ultimate tragic fate with a visible determination to not let it destroy her spirit – but not because it’s the easiest way out but because her Maggie is a fighter as she states herself and therefore constantly keeps up with what is happening to her. She’s a woman who often doesn’t recognize her own worth and constantly feels the need to please others, to take care of them first – it’s an honest characterization and one that is very recognizable to me. Beyond this, Hilary Swank again nails all the physical aspects of the part, from her fights as a professional boxer to the later scenes that only allow her to communicate with her voice and face. It’s a performance that combines the most different emotions and feels like a private journey of a unique character that even in its most triumphant moments remains quiet and simple. I know it’s not the most popular Oscar winner and Hilary Swank has never done anything worthy outside of her two Oscar winning performances but when the glove fits…
My Grade: A-
Swank won her second Best Actress Oscar for playing Maggie Fitzgerald, a boxer whose life takes a tragic turn for worse in the ring. This performance takes a lot of heat for being Swank's second Oscar win, but she's very good in the film. What starts out a straight boxer-trainer relationship drama turns into something more. That's when Swank shines. She nails the heavy dramatic scenes in the film's last act, and her mannered work in the previous two-thirds of the film is hardly subpar. Maggie is an up-and-comer who suffers the loss of her dream, and Swank handles this transition beautifully. From being the eager young contender at the beginning to becoming the frail, bed-ridden patient by the end, Swank just fits so well in this role, and her performance is, indeed, award-worthy.
Did Swank deserve to win?
I would've gone with Kate Winslet's lovable turn in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or even Imelda Staunton's brutal performance in Vera Drake, but Swank is a fine choice.
My Grade: A
Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" sort of came out of nowhere in 2004 and just overshadowed everything else. Rightly so. I love this movie. First, it's a boxing movie, which always work for me as a lover of the sport. Second, it's so much more than a boxing movie. Third, it is a truly classic tale that is made for the movies.
This time, Swank transforms herself into the title character, Maggie, a poor white-trash, but hard-nosed girl trying to make her way out of a sad existence in Missouri. She chooses boxing. She wants it more than anything else. She is persistent, despite the angry dismissals of Frankie Dunn (Eastwood). It is just purely believable screen acting. She has the accent and most importantly, she "has it in the eyes." They portray pure determination and hunger. Maggie is a role model of a character, and Swank nails that. Her chemistry, yet again, with co-lead Eastwood (in probably one of his best roles as an actor) is superb as well. Every bit of her performance just screams the sadness she has endured and the hope of finding a better life, one of success. She also got fit and shines in the boxing scenes as well. Just a true badass chick. As "Scrap" (Morgan Freeman, Best Supporting Actor) tells Frankie after one of the first big fights, "the girl's got sugar!" That's damn right.
"Million Dollar Baby" does not work with any other actress in the role. There must have been nobody else in mind during casting, I imagine. Hillary Swank is the biggest reason I love this movie. It is a top-notch performance in a movie filled with top-notch performances fueled by incredibly touching writing, a beautiful low-key score, and a darkly realistic tone created out of shadows and light, sweat and blood and heartache.
The Scene That Won It: The car ride with Frankie at night back from Maggie's home in Missouri.
My Grade: A+
This has gotta be one of Lars von Trier's favorite movies.
You know how you watch a movie and something horrible happens and then you think, well surely, things gonna get better soon, right? And then they don't and something awful happens again. And again. And again. And it keeps on happening.
For me Million Dollar Baby - along with Atonement - is the most cruel movie, in terms of storytelling technique, that was ever made that I've seen. The shock of that plot twist...Widely advertised as the story of a courageous woman who wants to make it in boxing the film pulls the rug from under you roughly 30 minutes before its end, presenting not only shocking but also completely heartbreaking and radically different approach from the first 90 minutes.
Million Dollar Baby is not a perfect movie - the script has flaws, scenes that exist only to signal other scenes, huge red flags being waved in front of us and tons of exposition in case you are asleep and not aware of characters' emotions (but it's nothing as bad as the ashes falling off cigarette in Changeling).
There is also an obligatory Catholic priest subplot - because for some strange reason you cannot have a movie about basic human dignity - which in case of this story is simply the right to say "enough"- without the subject of God. You know because some claim that life is "a gift from God". Are the ones protesting the right to die being STUCK with this gift? Are they being born with such severe health issues bringing that life against mother's wishes and rights borders on what was done by the Nazis? Are they losing limb by limb because of bed sores, ulcers, infections, with blood, puss and all the signs of our mortality oozing from their bodies, while their loved ones witness day after day, surrounded by nothing but pain, misery and hopelessness? No, they aren't.
So take these rosaries elsewhere.
But take all of this stuff away and at its most raw, the film feels very honest and heartfelt thanks to very good execution and dedicated performances. Eastwood and Freeman are both excellent and they don't let Swank walk away with the movie. Her role may be the most demanding but for me the whole success of the film lies in these three performances equally.
I don't think 2005 was a particularly strong year - granted, from the other Best Actress nominees I only saw Winslet and Staunton and I don't even remember who the hell my win is - but I can say Swank really deserved that statue - however she wouldn't deserve it faced with stronger opponents.
Yet again the actress' embrace of the extreme physicality of the role is impressive - while I'll never look at physical efforts to be as daunting as the psychological tall some performances must take on actors, it's still admirable what Swank does here - she is convincing as the fighter with all the exhausting movement and as a woman who is paralyzed from the neck up - where all she gets to move is her head. It's a powerful contrast - Maggie, who we saw always moving, running, training is suddenly immobilized. Swank manages to capture that anguish, but does she capture enough of it?
I thought Swank did a wonderful job in first 2/3 of the film playing lovely, lively, determined woman. But when Maggie becomes paralyzed Swank struggles for a way to play her and the only reason it's all gripping is quite honestly downright shocking screenplay - it's so sad you desperately cling to the idea something hopeful and uplifting will happen so you keep watching. But hope never comes. Watching the last 30 minutes of this film reminded me of seeing this animated gif of a cartoon depicting how dog is adopted by a family as a puppy and he is loved and adored for years, and later when he is older they abandon him and he waits for his owners in cold and dark for days, weeks even, until he finally dies out of hunger, loneliness and broken heart.
It's just fucking unbearable.
This idea on paper is already something so crushing Swank doesn't really need to challenge herself and she falls into a trap - playing Maggie like a helpless little girl with breaking voice, almost to elicit the viewer's compassion - you know, as we needed something to elicit that in addition to the story. But when the glimpses of Maggie's strength come through - like in the scene where she finally sees her family for what they are or the sce Thine which immediately brought a flood of tears to my eyes - 'Remember what my daddy did for Axel?' - Swank is mesmerizing, balancing the woman Maggie is inside with what she is facing outside flawlessly in a truly powerful manner.
While I am not a big fan of Swank's nor do I consider her a truly great actress or her wins particularly outstanding, I do respect and like those wins. It's extremely important that people like Brandon and Maggie are shown in films. Even if some of the films telling these stories are not perfect, at least their stories are being told.
My Grade: A-
There is a number assigned to each letter grade that helps us give a score to each performance. The highest number (and A+) would be 20 points. An F would warrant 0 points (a D gives you 5). So these are the scores for each performance as well as a collective score (which will be used at the end to rank each individual actress).
Hilary Swank received a total of 112 points for her performance in Boys Don't Cry.
Hilary Swank received a total of 94 points for her performance in Million Dollar Baby.
This is a collective total of 206 points.
As a point of reference, the highest collective score you can attain is 240.
This skyrockets Swank to the top of the leader board with a 29 point lead on Rainer, who rests at a collective total of 177 points. Who saw this coming?
So this closes our discussion of Hilary Swank. Next Friday we're going to be discussing one of the most beloved actresses of all time, Bette Davis. Question; do you know what performances won her Oscars?
Again, a big round of applause for the awesome bloggers sharing this series with me! You guys did some awesome work, as to be expected.