Want more of what the Academy is honoring? Look back at great performances by Clint, Natalie, Imelda, and 2005's other Oscar nominees

By Gary Susman
Updated February 17, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST
Don Cheadle, Denzel Washington, ...
Credit: Devil In A Blue Dress: TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

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Image credit: Croupier: The Shooting Gallery/ Everett Collection

Clive Owen

SCREEN GEM: Croupier (1998)

Great role: Clive Owen in ”Croupier”

PREMISE By day, Jack (Owen) is a frustrated novelist; by night, he’s a debonair London casino dealer, a thrill-seeker who moves from fleecing gamblers into shadier territory.

FUN FACT Owen spent a few weeks in croupier school to learn the tricky sleight of hand that Jack displays with cards and chips.

WHY IT’S GREAT The frequently silent Owen gives a textbook definition of smoldering. Plus, the memorable image of Owen in a tuxedo at a casino explains why all those ”next James Bond” rumors won’t go away.

Image credit: Everett Collection

Cate Blanchett

SCREEN GEM: Charlotte Gray (2001)

Great role: Cate Blanchett in ”Charlotte Gray”

PREMISE When her lover is shot down over occupied France during World War II, Scottish-born Charlotte (Blanchett) is determined to find him, so she becomes a spy. Parachuting into France, she finds handsome resistance leader Julien (Billy Crudup) instead.

FUN FACT Blanchett had her own stealthy secret, which she kept from the filmmakers even as she was running, jumping, and bicycling through the movie’s action sequences: She was pregnant with her first child by her husband, screenwriter Andrew Upton.

WHY IT’S GREAT In a role befitting the actress who would later play Katharine Hepburn, Blanchett is all old-fashioned, pants-suited glamour in this lavishly melodramatic tribute to screen heroines of the 1940s.

Image credit: Devil In A Blue Dress: TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Don Cheadle

SCREEN GEM: Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Great role: Don Cheadle in ”Devil in a Blue Dress”

PREMISE Sleuth Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington, right), looking for the title dame, is aided by his loyal pal Mouse (Cheadle, left), a flashy thug with a gold-toothed grin and an itchy trigger finger.

FUN FACT In Entertainment Weekly’s 1999 retrospective of the films of the ’90s, Cheadle’s turn here was rated the decade’s best unsung performance.

WHY IT’S GREAT Denzel is his smooth self, but Cheadle steals the movie from him with his funny, frightening, inventive performance, and with lines like: ”You said don’t shoot him, right? Well, I didn’t; I strangled him. If you didn’t want me to kill him, why did you leave me alone with him?”

Image credit: Valmont: Claude Berri-Ren/ Orion/ The Kobal Collection

Annette Bening

SCREEN GEM: Valmont (1989)

Great role: Annette Bening in ”Valmont”

PREMISE Marquise de Merteuil (Bening, right) and her partner in sexual gamesmanship Valmont (Colin Firth, left) entangle others in their web of spite, betrayal, and revenge.

FUN FACT Director Milos Forman (Amadeus) said he cast Bening in the lead, despite her near-total obscurity, because he prefers to cast the actor who most fits the role, ”star or no star.” Once cast, Bening found that Forman knew how he wanted her to play the role, and he would only comment if she strayed from his vision. ”You don’t waste a lot of time with Milos,” she said. ”When you go in, you essentially try to fill in the sketch that he’s given you.”

WHY IT’S GREAT It’s the same story as Dangerous Liaisons, a movie that stole Valmont‘s thunder by racing into theaters a year earlier. But while Glenn Close’s version plays as black comic farce, this one is a sumptuous tragedy. At the center is Bening’s surprisingly hearty, cheerful portrayal of a woman with equal appetites for pleasure and treachery, prefiguring Bening’s work in films from The Grifters to Being Julia.

Image credit: Beguiled: The Everett Collection

Clint Eastwood

SCREEN GEM: The Beguiled (1971)

Great role: Clint Eastwood in ”The Beguiled”

PREMISE Wounded Union soldier Eastwood takes refuge with headmistress Geraldine Page (pictured with Eastwood) at a Southern school for girls. A lone rooster in the henhouse, the seductive and manipulative Yankee plays the various women and girls against each other until they respond with chilling, emasculating fury.

FUN FACT Don Siegel, who directed Eastwood five times (most notably, in Dirty Harry), and whom Eastwood regarded as his directing mentor, considered this his favorite among his own films.

WHY IT’S GREAT It may have taken until Million Dollar Baby for viewers to regard Eastwood as a skilled actor and not just an icon, but he showed his range in this movie by playing, for once, a thoroughly unsympathetic character and an immobilized man of action.

Image credit: Beautiful Girls: Miramax/ Courtesy Everett Collection

Natalie Portman

SCREEN GEM: Beautiful Girls (1996)

Great role: Natalie Portman in ”Beautiful Girls”

PREMISE Returning to his icy New England hometown for a high school reunion, lounge pianist Willie (Timothy Hutton, right) warms to Marty (Portman, left), the girl next door who may be the film’s most well-adjusted character; alas, at 13, she’s way too young for him.

FUN FACT Despite her nymphet roles in this film and her debut (1994’s The Professional), Portman turned down many more sexually precocious roles at the time, including parts in The Ice Storm, Romeo + Juliet, and Lolita. ”I think I would have been pretty upset to be in a sex scene at 14, before I’d even experienced it in real life,” she said in a 2002 interview. ”Can you imagine if I was walking down the street and I had to wonder if someone had seen me naked or having sex? That’s not something I should have to deal with when I was growing up and I’m very lucky that I didn’t.”

WHY IT’S GREAT At 13, the eerily mature Portman takes what could have been a creepy subplot and turns it into something wistful, luminous, and pure.

Image credit: Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Kobal Collection

Alan Alda

SCREEN GEM: Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Great role: Alan Alda in ”Crimes and Misdemeanors”

PREMISE In one of the film’s two main storylines, Alda (left) is Lester, a crass but successful TV producer who commissions a documentary about himself from prinicipled but struggling filmmaker Cliff (Woody Allen, right), then snatches away the woman (Mia Farrow) on whom Cliff has a crush.

FUN FACT Lester’s aphorisms about comedy (”Comedy is tragedy plus time”) supposedly came from actual quotes by venerable TV comedy writer Larry Gelbart, who had worked with Allen on Sid Caesar’s sketch-writing team and with Alda on M*A*S*H.

WHY IT’S GREAT With this role, the onetime poster boy for sensitive masculinity began playing against type, the first of a long string of jerks and outright villains (Whispers in the Dark, Murder at 1600) that culminates in his weaselly senator in Aviator. Here, the former Hawkeye first revealed how much fun it is to be bad.

Image credit: Antonia and Jane: The Everett Collection

Imelda Staunton

SCREEN GEM: Antonia & Jane (1991)

Great role: Imelda Staunton in ”Antonia & Jane”

PREMISE Lifelong friends Antonia (Saskia Reeves) and Jane (Staunton) are secretly envious of each other. Frumpy bohemian Jane covets Antonia’s sleek looks and well-ordered life; married Antonia, in turn, wishes she had Jane’s intellect and independence.

FUN FACT ”I don’t look a certain way, the star way,” Staunton, who plays a similarly frumpy role in Vera Drake, said in a recent interview. But she’s not holding her breath waiting for Hollywood to come calling and make her over. ”You need to accommodate yourself if you want to play those Hollywood types of roles,” she said. ”You can be very famous without being a great actress, and that’s not good for me.”

WHY IT’S GREAT Hiding behind owlish glasses, Staunton gives a standout comic performance as a seething woman with a richly strange inner life.

Image credit: Nurse Betty: Bruce Birmelin/ Universal/ The Kobal Collection

Morgan Freeman

SCREEN GEM: Nurse Betty (2000)

Great role: Morgan Freeman in ”Nurse Betty”

PREMISE Charlie (Freeman, left) and Wesley (Chris Rock, right) are father-son contract killers on the trail of Betty (Renée Zellweger), a waitress so traumatized by having seen Charlie and Wesley kill her drug-dealing husband that she’s broken from reality and imagines herself to be a character in her favorite soap opera. As he follows her across the country, Charlie starts to idealize the unfortunate Betty and develops tender feelings for her.

FUN FACT Freeman and Rock’s roles were originally written for white actors, but producer Steve Golin, recognizing that philosophical hitmen had quickly become a cliché after Pulp Fiction, decided he needed only to change the characters’ race to make these stock figures seem fresh. (It also helped that Rock improvised much of his dialogue.)

WHY IT’S GREAT It’s fun to see the usually noble Freeman play an irritable killer. Of course, he ends up ennobling his character anyway, and his affection for Zellweger’s young, white, pluckily determined waitress anticipates Freeman’s bond with Hilary Swank’s character in Million Dollar Baby.

Image credit: You Can Count on Me: Paramount Pictures/ Photofest

Laura Linney

SCREEN GEM: You Can Count on Me (2000)

Great role: Laura Linney in ”You Can Count on Me”

PREMISE Small-town single mom Sammy (Linney, right) sees her well-ordered life take a dramatic turn with the arrivals of a persnickety new boss (Matthew Broderick, left) and her ne’er-do-well brother (Mark Ruffalo).

FUN FACT Having grown accustomed to the lavish accommodations on studio movie shoots like those of Primal Fear and The Truman Show, Linney got a rude shock on the upstate New York set of the low-budget indie drama. ”There was a chicken coop that we cleaned out and it became home base,” she told EW. ”Chickens had not left that long ago. It was really eau de chicken. It was pretty disgusting.”

WHY IT’S GREAT Linney progresses through a full spectrum of emotions, some subtly registered, some raw and messy, in this alternately funny and mournful exploration of family ties.