Tuesday, January 12, 2016

1997: Helen Hunt for As Good as It Gets

Helen Hunt plays a single mother struggling to support her mother and her perpetually ill son by working as a waitress. Her job unintentionally makes her a vital part of an obsessive-compulsive author's routine, so when she starts having to miss work to take her son to the hospital, the author steps in.

This is a fascinating movie. I've seen it several times, and I still can't decide how I feel about it. One thing I know is that I would never have described it as a Helen Hunt movie. The star is unquestionably Jack Nicholson. He is the dominant force in this film, and his perfect embodiment of such a complicated, quirky, barely tolerable yet somehow still sympathetic character essentially makes his Oscar win a shoo-in. Since he takes over so much of the movie, before this re-watch I kind of expected this post to be about how Hunt really didn't deserve this award. But, while I still don't think this is anywhere near the top Best Actress Winning performance, it was a more worthy win than I previously thought.

Hunt's character is absolutely vital to this movie because she's the one that makes it bearable. She provides a perfect foil for Nicholson, making his character more believable by seeming so real herself. Despite his incredible performance, I think without her he could have bordered on ridiculous; with her there he becomes both more real and more tragic than ridiculous. Nicholson and Hunt might seem like two very odd co-stars, not just because of the 26-year age gap, but also because their acting styles are so different, but in this movie it works. They play off each other remarkably well, and their arguments are actually kind of fun to watch, since they seem so evenly matched. Few actors, if any, could have done as well as Nicholson, but I also think few actresses could have kept up with him as well as Hunt. His character is intimidating, self-centered, and rude; hers is the only one who successfully puts him in his place.

I know I'm saying more about her character than her performance, but I think it would have been easy to make her character just as unlikable as his, since she has some pretty rude lines as well. But she portrays much more sympathetic emotions. For much of the movie she seems confused, which I think is how most of us would feel in her situation. Even when she thinks she has Nicholson's character figured out, he never stops visibly surprising and confounding her, but she recovers quickly. Just reading her lines without these flashes of confusion would make her unrealistic; no one could possibly think of comebacks that quickly, except perhaps Nicholson's character. Her pause before some of her lines makes her seem more real and relatable. She also gives the impression that part of her snappiness is a defense mechanism against falling into depression over her barely-held-together life. The role requires her to be simultaneously incredibly strong and totally vulnerable, which it would be nearly impossible to pull off better than she does. All of this is not even to mention the fact that Nicholson's character becomes more bearable around her because she is literally the only one besides himself that he cares about at all. So while it's mostly a Jack Nicholson movie, if it didn't have Helen Hunt in it, I think very few people would be able to sit through it. I'm pretty sure that's why she won the Oscar.

This was Hunt's first Oscar nomination, and her only one in this category so far. She was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress for 2012's The Sessions. Most of her work has been in comedy, which the Academy apparently doesn't like to recognize very often, so it's not too surprising that she hasn't been nominated more. But we'll see what happens in the future.

Stay tuned for Gwyneth Paltrow, in the 10th Best Picture Winner to also win Best Actress, and possibly the most unexpected

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