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Six Circuit: Don’t Cry For The Snubbed 1996 Lead Actress That Missed – But Who Was It?

SS Frances Fargo

Welcome to the forty-second entry in our Six Circuit series.

As we’ve noticed after last week’s nominations, the Oscars often make the wrong decisions. However, sometimes they assemble categories that feature adventurous, offbeat and genuinely thrilling performances. The 1996 Lead Actress category comes stacked with talent in movies the Oscars might normally ignore. This year was notable for being the major breakthrough for independent film. This feels especially true in Best Actress, where all nominees were from independent films (if one considers Miramax an indie studio). Let’s take a look at the nominees:


  • Brenda Blethyn — Secrets & Lies {“Cynthia”}
  • Diane Keaton — Marvin’s Room {“Bessie”}
  • Frances McDormand — Fargo {“Marge Gunderson”} (WINNER)
  • Kristin Scott Thomas — The English Patient {“Katharine Clifton”}
  • Emily Watson — Breaking the Waves {“Bess”}


SS Frances Win
Frances McDormand won her first of two Oscars for “Fargo” in 1996. Her second Oscar came in 2017 for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

Frances McDormand’s role as Marge Gunderson, the ultimate good cop, in “Fargo” stands as one of the most iconic Oscar winning performances. However, this win was far from assured. As good as it is, McDormand faced strong competition. While the Critics Choice win helped separate her from other actresses with passionate fan bases, her SAG win was the strongest indication of an Oscar win.

Her greatest challenger came from another unexpected Best Picture nominee that year. “Secrets & Lies” was a small Mike Leigh film that managed to sustain its buzz after winning the Palm d’or and Best Actress for Brenda Blethyn at Cannes. In particular, Blethyn seemed to be the film’s best shot at a win. She won over the critics (Los Angeles Film Critics Association winner), the British (BAFTA Winner) and the HFPA (Golden Globes Winner). While it was close, “Fargo” peaked at the right time to bring McDormand the win.

Blethyn may also have seen some of her critical and independent votes get stolen by Emily Watson. She contended for Lars Von Trier’s devastating, unique romance, “Breaking the Waves.” She won critic awards and received most of the major precursor nominations, missing only at SAG. The other nominee to show up at all the major precursors was Kristen Scott-Thomas. She had the advantage of starring in “The English Patient,” which dominated the Oscars with nine Oscars.

The one wild card nominee was Diane Keaton, who led the star-studded cast of “Marvin’s Room.” Precursors struggled with who to nominate – Keaton or fellow lead Meryl Streep. Was Streep in sixth place, or was it someone else? Let’s take a look at the major players this year.


  • Glenn Close – “101 Dalmatians”
    • Precursors – Golden Globe Awards
    • Oscar Nominations – None
  • Nicole Kidman – “Portrait of a Lady”
    • Precursors – New York Film Critics Circle Nominee
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Supporting Actress (Barbara Hershey), Costume Design
  • Madonna – “Evita”
    • Precursors – Golden Globe Awards (WINNER)
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Art Direction, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Song (WINNER), Sound
  • Courtney Love – “The People vs. Larry Flynt”
    • Precursors – Golden Globe Awards, Critics Choice Nominee (Supporting), Los Angeles Film Critics Association (Supporting), New York Film Critics Circle (WINNER – SUPPORTING)
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Director (Milos Forman), Actor (Woody Harrelson)
  • Debbie Reynolds – “Mother”
    • Precursors – Golden Globe Awards
    • Oscar Nominations – None
  • Gena Rowlands – “Unhook the Stars”
    • Precursors – SAG Awards
    • Oscar Nominations – None
  • Meryl Streep – “Marvin’s Room”
    • Precursors – Golden Globe Awards
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Actress (Diane Keaton)
  • Barbra Streisand – “The Mirror Has Two Faces”
    • Precursors – Golden Globe Awards
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Supporting Actress (Lauren Bacall), Original Song


SS Meryl Streep
While Meryl Streep earned a Golden Globe nomination for “Marvin’s Room,” her co-star Diane Keaton got the Oscar nomination.

A SAG Award nomination often catapults a performer to the head of the Oscar conversation. With a large voting overlap with the Academy, the SAG Awards are considered the strongest predictor of Oscar success. This year’s lone SAG nominee not to repeat at the Oscars was “Unhook the Stars” star Gena Rowlands. The small film was little seen, despite starring Rowlands and Marisa Tomei. Its $227K box office gross likely hindered its Oscar chances, even in the year of independent film.

Speaking of big stars, Nicole Kidman capitalized on her Golden Globe win the year prior. Her goal to transition to prestige drama actress led her to Oscar nominated director Jane Campion. Her performance in Campion’s “Portrait of a Lady” was the runner up at the New York Film Critics Circle but was skunked by all other precursor bodies. If Oscar didn’t take notice of her starrier, and more rewarded, performance in “To Die For” one year earlier, they likely weren’t going to nominate her this year.

The Golden Globe lead categories are often the one awards precursors a longshot contender can land. Glenn Close (“101 Dalmatians”) and Debbie Reynolds (“Mother”) each showed up in Best Lead Actress in a Comedy/Musical. The legendary actresses certainly had name recognition but were far from the Oscar conversation.

Meanwhile, no one was a bigger name than Meryl Streep. With ten nominations at the time, “Marvin’s Room” seemed like a sure bet for Oscar. Yet, first SAG then Oscar went with her co-star Diane Keaton. It had only been five years since Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon were both nominated for “Thelma & Louise.” Yet, the Oscars wanted to make room for more Best Picture nominees.


SS Courtney Love
Courtney Love made a critical splash in her debut performance as Althea, Hustler model turned wife, in “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”

There’s been a recent trend of musicians earning corresponding acting and original song nominations. Mary J. Blige became the first to do so for “Mudbound” in 2017. Since then, both Lady Gaga and Cynthia Erivo have managed the same feat. Back in 1996, many felt Madonna could set that record. Her performance as Eva Perón won the pop star a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy. She even beat eventual Oscar winner Frances McDormand for the prize. While “Evita” won one Oscar (for Madonna in Original Song) and was nominated for five, Madonna was not able to make it into Best Actress. The lack of guild or critical support may have been the cause.

Speaking of critical support, Courtney Love received by far the most critical support of any snubbed actress. Unfortunately, Love’s accolades almost always came in the supporting actress category. She won the supporting prize from the New York Film Critics Circle, was nominated for the Critics Choice Award and was the runner-up at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. The only time she was nominated in lead was at the Golden Globe Awards. This category confusion likely cost her a nomination in either category.

Still, Madonna wasn’t the only Original Song nominee hoping for an acting nomination. Barbra Streisand headlined the romantic comedy “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” which earned her a Golden Globe nomination. Unfortunately, voters likely only saw the film as a vehicle to get Lauren Bacall her first Oscar in the supporting category. Still, Streisand may have benefitted from voters watching her film, thanks to Bacall. Was that enough to come in sixth place?



SS Evita

Who do you think came in 6th place in the 1996 Best Actress race? Share with us in the comments below.


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Written by Christopher James

Christopher James has been an Oscar obsessive ever since watching his first ceremony at age 5 when "Titanic" won Best Picture. He is a recent graduate from Loyola Marymount University with degrees in Screenwriting for Film and Television and Marketing. Christopher currently works in media strategy and planning at Liquid Advertising, based out of Los Angeles, CA. You can find Christopher running on the sunny beach, brunching at trendy restaurants or mostly just sitting in a dark room watching movies and TV in sweatpants. Follow me on Twitter @cwj92movieman


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