In her 2005 autobiography By Myself and Then Some, Lauren Bacall’s updated version of her 1978 bestseller By Myself, the two-time Tony Award-winning actress (for Applause in 1970 and Woman of the Year in 1981) candidly discusses the ballyhoo surrounding her first – and to date only – Academy Award nomination for Barbra Streisand’s 1996 romantic comedy-melodrama The Mirror Has Two Faces.
Apart from a few film career lulls, Bacall had been working steadily in front of the camera since her film début in Howard Hawks’ 1945 adventure-drama To Have and Have Not. But whether as mere on-screen decoration (Key Largo, Bright Leaf, Young Man with a Horn) or as a reliable leading lady (How to Marry a Millionaire, Woman’s World, The Fan), she had been invariably ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
More than half a century after she made film history as Humphrey Bogart’s love interest in To Have and Have Not, actress-director-composer-singer-etc. Streisand nabbed the by then legendary Bacall to play her domineering mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces.
Upon its release, Streisand’s film got massacred by critics, who felt – in my view, unjustly so – that The Mirror Has Two Faces was made only to reflect her ego. Even so, the movie did well at the box office, and it provided Bacall with her best film role in years. At the time, there was much talk of a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination, something that became a reality early in 1997.
Also that year, Bacall won the Golden Globe and the SAG Award for Best Supporting Actress, and received a nomination from the British Academy of Film.
At the Oscar ceremony on March 24, the first award of the evening was for Best Supporting Actress. Bacall’s fellow contenders were Joan Allen for The Crucible, Juliette Binoche for The English Patient, Barbara Hershey for Portrait of a Lady, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste for Secrets & Lies. Everyone everywhere was sure that the Oscar statuette came out of the factory with Lauren Bacall’s name carved on it.
Well, everyone everywhere with the possible exception of Oscarmeister Harvey Weinstein. His studio, Miramax, had been pushing hard for Anthony Minghella’s World War II romantic melodrama The English Patient, and for every individual associated with it. In that film, Juliette Binoche plays a nurse who finds and loses love while trying to save lives during World War II.
When Kevin Spacey opened the envelope containing the name of the year’s Best Supporting Actress, the unthinkable happened: The surest bet in years lost the award to Binoche, who, in her acceptance speech, said she herself was expecting Bacall to win.
Following the ceremony, Bacall recalls in By Myself and Then Some:
“We got through the rest of the programme and headed for the great dinner – chocolate Oscars at every place. I felt very alone. No matter how you slice it, this was a ball for winners. Kevin Spacey was there. He came over and invited me on to the dance floor, thank heaven. It’s not a good thing to be a shoo-in.”
Now, I believe that the Academy committed a major injustice when they gave Juliette Binoche the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year.
Let’s ignore the fact that Lauren Bacall had been around for more than five decades, had never been nominated for an Oscar before, and was (and still is) a link between the late 20th-century/early 21st-century film world – Barbra Streisand, Robert Altman, Nicole Kidman, Jeff Bridges, even Lars von Trier – and Old Hollywood: Howard Hawks, Vincente Minnelli, Humphrey Bogart, Charles Boyer, Gregory Peck, Marilyn Monroe, Doris Day, Betty Grable, Gary Cooper.
I’d say that the real problem with Binoche’s surprise win was a technical – not a sentimental – one.
Even though Binoche’s character isn’t leading man Ralph Fiennes’ love interest, the actress has what amounts to a leading role in The English Patient. In fact, she is at the center of one of the film’s two storylines; she doesn’t “support” anyone. Bacall, on the other hand, has a real (and good) supporting part in The Mirror Has Two Faces.
Binoche could – and should – have been nominated in the Best Actress category. But that would have pitted her against fellow English Patient player Kristin Scott Thomas, who, as Fiennes’ romantic interest in the film, was being pushed as the film’s lead actress. Scott Thomas, in fact, did eventually get a nomination in that category. (She lost to Frances McDormand in Fargo).
Thus, Miramax opted to advertise Binoche as a supporting player while the members of the Academy’s Actors Branch opted to ignore the obvious ruse.
They had done it before. For instance, Melvyn Douglas’ role in Martin Ritt’s 1963 family drama Hud is bigger than Patricia Neal’s; yet, Douglas won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, while Neal was that year’s Best Actress. (Best Actor nominee Paul Newman was Hud‘s official male lead.)
And they would do it again, e.g., Julianne Moore has more screen time than Nicole Kidman in Stephen Daldry’s 2002 drama The Hours. Even so, Kidman won the Best Actress Oscar for that film, while Moore was pushed – and was eventually nominated – in the Best Supporting Actress category so as not to compete with either Kidman or Meryl Streep. (Or with herself, for Moore was up for consideration for her lead role in Far from Heaven.)
Binoche’s win as a “supporting” actress is one of the numerous Academy-made injustices that make the whole process too inane to be taken seriously. That is, as Bacall can testify, unless you’re in the running.