As we established last week, 1991 was a good year for movies. From new directors to new crops of acting talent, the year was, in many ways, where the shift began from the stylized films of the 80s to the grittier, more pensive fare of the 90s. This is not to say that the 90s weren’t glossy and stylized. But there was certainly a change.
Many actors gave great performances that year. Some were newcomers, making their first films. Others were veterans who were finally getting their overdue recognition. And some were veterans who had been loved for years.
The Best Actor of 1991 had 16 minutes of screen time. And yet, to this day, Anthony Hopkins‘ Hannibal Lecter is one of the most memorable Oscar-winning performances ever. As the Best Supporting Actor, Jack Palance accepted his award after showing up co-star and host Billy Crystal by doing one-handed pushups at age 72. Mercedes Ruehl stood out from a pack of amazing performers in “The Fisher King,” taking her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. And the Best Actress of the year already had an Academy Award plus another nomination. But Jodie Foster‘s Clarice Starling was a strong force against the man who was the most unexpected and disturbing of mentors.
There were many great performances in 1991. Some received Academy Award nominations. Many did not. And so, today, we take a look at 10 actors and actresses whose work was exemplary, even if Oscar did not come calling.
10. Anna Chlumsky, “My Girl”
A lot of child actors stand up and make you take notice of them, but very few offer roles so memorable, you still talk about them years later. Anna Chlumsky’s Vada Sultenfuss is one such character. She is sweet and charming and annoying and precocious and funny. Basically, she’s everything a normal 11-year-old girl is, and yet, she’s so much more. She leads the audience through the usual angst of being on the cusp of teenage-hood but takes us through emotion and trauma and love in ways that many grown actors struggle to accomplish.
9. Bill Murray, “What About Bob?”
This is a film where two co-leads are both really good, very memorable, and really funny to watch opposite each other. But Bill Murray’s neurotic Bob Wiley is a standout character in a long list of standout character from his filmography. The character is laugh-out-loud funny, and Murray is so convincing, how could anyone not side with his poor psychiatrist? Comedy work is underappreciated by the Academy, but this is one that deserved recognition.
8. Jerry Orbach, “Beauty and the Beast”
Yes, it’s true that there were some great and memorable performances in the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture. But the one that stands out from this pack is truly New York-born Jerry Orbach as the very French candelabra, Lumiére. A convincing French accent is actually quite tricky to accomplish, and he does it beautifully. Add to that the fact that he gets to perform one of the three best Disney musical numbers in history, and how can anyone say vocal performance isn’t award worthy?
7. Mary Stuart Masterson, “Fried Green Tomatoes”
The year was a pretty good one for women-led films. While “Thelma and Louise” took most of the attention, the quieter “Fried Green Tomatoes” also boasted great work from its quartet. While beloved Jessica Tandy got to represent her co-stars as the lone nominee for this ensemble, Mary Stuart Masterson won the hearts of many for her performance as the wild and untamed Idgie Threadgoode. She is tough and angry and that is exactly why she’s also full of love. Masterson is aloof, but also endearing.
6. River Phoenix, “My Own Private Idaho”
It’s impossible to think about River Phoenix and wonder what films we might have had if he hadn’t left us so soon. He was one of those one-in-a-million stars who burn bright, starring in such memorable films as “Explorers,” “Stand By Me,” and “Running on Empty.” But going into the 90s, Phoenix was an adult and wanted to transition into my grown-up fare. He signed on to Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho,” taking a role that was very different from anything else he’d done. Sadly, his research into the life of a drug-addicted drifter had real-life implications. Many have cited this film as the tipping point for Phoenix. It led to a heroin addiction, which led to his fatal overdose two years later. Regardless of what it did to him personally, Phoenix gave a stellar performance in this film that doesn’t deserve him.
5. and 4. Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia, “The Addams Family”
There are plenty of Great Love Stories in literature and cinema, but few so perfectly encapsulate love and lust simultaneously. Gomez and Morticia Addams were fun characters on television, but when Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia took the characters to film, the electricity between them basically coined the phrase Couples Goals. On this ranking, Julia is just slightly ahead of Huston, but only because he had a more defined arc dealing with his long-lost brother and family issues. These two go together, always and forever.
3. Val Kilmer, “The Doors”
Even without considering the uncanny resemblance between Val Kilmer and iconic Jim Morrison, this is one of Kilmer’s best performances. Like many great roles, the film doesn’t quite deserve what he gives it. On the whole, it lets him down in some ways. Which may be why Kilmer was passed up for a nomination. He not only lends great acting to this work, but he does a lot of the singing himself. He truly draws the audience into this dark and isolated world, taking them along on Morrison’s dark descent.
2. Alan Rickman, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”
One of the things that was so great about Alan Rickman was that he could make you like the bad guy without actually making you like the bad guy. It’s a very strange balance that very few have mastered. In fact, he may have been the only one that could do it. While all eyes are supposed to be on Kevin Costner’s Robin of Locksley, Alan Rickman creates a mesmerizing villain as the Sheriff of Nottingham. He is evil and wicked and dastardly. And so delightfully fun to watch. And has there ever been a better cinematic use of the word “twit?” No, no there has not.
1. Laurence Fishburne, “Boyz n the Hood”
The world is full of examples of single mothers who work hard to raise their children when dad walks out. But Laurence Fishburne gets to play the dad who stays when Mom leaves. Besides having the coolest character name on this list—Furious Styles—he is a good man committed to raising a good son in a rough part of town. Fishburne portrays Furious with a lot of heart, keeping back the anger and frustration brewing just beneath the surface.