Hollywood's latest in joke is that the Academy will have to nominate Jaye Davidson or The Crying Game to help fill the five slots in the Best Actress category. Translation for those still unhip to Davidson's game: It's been a rotten movie year for women. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bridget Fonda (Single White Female) barely rose above their film's sexist mire. Ditto Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct) and Rebecca De Mornay (Hand That Rocks the Cradle).
Emma Thompson (Howards End) is that rare 1992 actress who had material to match her quality. China's Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern) was also blessed, though the Academy rarely breaks through the language barrier. Just when it seemed that Oscar nominators would have to go the usual route – over the top (Shirley MacLaine in Used People) or undeserving (Demi Moore in A Few Good Men) – three new movies have shown up to make it a real race for Best Actress.
Susan Sarandon is dependably fine onscreen, whether she's nominated (Thelma and Louise, Atlantic City) or stupidly ignored (Bull Durham). In Lorenzo's Oil, she delivers a stunning, emotionally direct performance as the mother of a five-year-old boy the doctors have given two years to live. The boy, Lorenzo Odone (Zack O'Malley Greenburg), suffers from adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a paralyzing disease that also results in the loss of hearing and speech. This true story is hardly a rigged disease-of-the-week TV weepie, owing to the remarkable work of Sarandon as the Irish American linguist Michaela Odone and Nick Nolte as her Italian husband, Augusto, an economist with the World Bank. In concert with Australian director and co-writer George Miller – a physician turned filmmaker (Mad Max) – they transform a complex case history into gripping cinema.
Without any medical background, the Odones care for Lorenzo at home in Maryland, conduct research, arrange symposiums and refuse to accept defeat. Miller unflinchingly details the ravages of the disease on Lorenzo and on the marriage of the Odones. These are two heroic battles. One indelibly moving image: Sarandon reading a bedtime story to the immobile Lorenzo, convinced against all odds that her son is silently comprehending. Watching her proved right makes Lorenzo's Oil an invigorating adventure.
Sarandon enjoys a sturdier vehicle for her talents than Michelle Pfeiffer does in Love Field, a low-octane interracial romance between a chatterbox Dallas housewife (Pfeiffer) and a black pharmacist (Dennis Haysbert) set in 1963. Yet Pfeiffer overcomes the poky direction of Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused) and the unfocused script by Don Roos (of Single White Female infamy). She weaves magic in a portrayal of striking grace notes.
Pfeiffer's Lurene Hallett is fixated on the Kennedys (she wears a Jackie-like pillbox hat). She is shattered by the news of JFK's assassination. Against the wishes of her redneck husband (Brian Kerwin), she embarks on a bus trip to the funeral in Washington. Paul Cater (Haysbert) is a fellow passenger traveling with his five-year-old daughter, Jonell (Stephanie McFadden). Lurene's yammering about all Kennedy has done for the Negro leaves Paul unmoved. In a tragic mix-up, Lurene and Paul become fugitives from the law, and a bond is forged. The Kennedy metaphor, meant to enlarge the feelings of these little people, only forces the movie to bear more weight than it can support. But long after Love Field hits a dead end, Pfeiffer cuts a path to the heart. Whether it's for Love Field or the flashier Batman Returns, she's a contender.
Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard shine, too, with the rich roles writer-director John Sayles (Eight Men Out, City of Hope) provides them in Passion Fish, an acutely funny and affecting duel of wits that ranks with Sayles's finest achievements. McDonnell plays May-Alice, a soap star who gets hit by a taxi. Embittered by a paralysis she thinks will end her career and reduce her sex life to blow jobs, she retreats to the Louisiana home of her dead parents to drown her sorrows in wine, TV watching and the pleasures of using her scalding tongue to scare off nurses. Last in a long line is Chantelle (Woodard), who is fresh from Chicago and detox but determined to take on this "bitch on wheels."
Woodard is superb. And it's gratifying to watch the usually pinched McDonnell (Grand Canyon) let it rip. She's unexpectedly poignant in scenes with Rennie the Cajun handyman (the marvelous David Strathairn), a former wild child tamed by marriage and fatherhood. Sayles's leisurely pace allows the actors to develop characters, including friends and strangers – vibrantly etched by Angela Bassett, Nancy Mette, Sheila Kelley, Mary Portser, Nora Dunn and coproducer Maggie Renzi, among others – who drop in alone or en masse. Passion Fish gives these women the chance to catch you by surprise. It's a damning comment on the sexism of movies today that Sayles's plain good sense now seems revolutionary.