Judy Davis received her second Oscar nomination for her performance as Sally Simmons in Husbands and Wives.
Husbands and Wives is a good Woody Allen movie about two married couples and how the decision of one couple to split up affects the relationship of the other one. Even though Allen himself thought of this as one of his very best pictures, I've never been overly fond of it: it's a cleverly written and rather well-acted movie but one that I think is a bit hindered by its aesthetic. The idea of shooting it with a handheld camera often comes off as more distracting than anything and I thought the editing was particularly awful with its tendency to cut from one scene to another in the middle of a dialogue or even a sentence - it's just plain frustrating and doesn't add anything to the movie. That said, I don't actually mind the documentary-like style as I think the interviews of the main characters are well-written and poignantly performed. The screenplay is overall very good - it's a character-driven movie and all of the main roles are believable, three-dimensional human beings. The acting is also solid all around, though I think only Davis and Sidney Pollack end up being truly memorable.
Back in the days Judy Davis was apparently considered to be the frontrunner for the win and it's quite easy to see why: it's a flashy performance, she won a great deal of the critics' awards and supporting ladies in Woody Allen's films usually fare well with the Academy (see Dianne Wiest, Mira Sorvino and Penelope Cruz). I don't think her loss is as surprising as some do - Marisa Tomei might not have been nominated to almost any of the precursors but her performance is probably even flashier than Davis' and I think Richardson also stood a chance for the award due to the fact that she was in three appreciated movies that year. Still, out of the five nominated performances Judy Davis' is probably the most appreciated one nowadays, with people often claiming she was robbed of a win. I have to admit I've never been in love with this performance as most people - I like it a great deal and I think she is overall quite great in a challenging role but I've never found this to be the masterwork it is sometimes regarded as.
The main reason why I don't rate this performance as high as most people is because of how she handles one of her early scenes, namely her first date with another man after her splitting up with her husband (Pollack). It's quite clear from the beginning that Sally as a person is a bit neurotic but in this scene Davis stresses this idea a little bit too much - she's quite good at portraying Sally's underlying awkwardness at the beginning of the scene but as it progresses her performances grows progressively more obvious and definitely louder in not quite the right way. Her body language often comes off as excessive in even in the slightest gestures, such as her holding of the wine glass or the smoking, and even if the concept of the scene is actually quite interesting, with Sally consistently interrupting the date to call her husband and yell at him about his new girlfriend, I found her execution of it to be often unconvincing and overcooked. Her acting comes across as needless showboating here and by the end of the sequence I found her to be actually quite terrible - her delivery of "Don't defend your sex! It's true!" is particularly off as it comes across as both over-the-top and robotic. She has a couple of inspired moments throughout the scene ("Fucking Don Juans, they should have cut his dick off") but for most of it she goes far overboard than it was required.
Now I don't want to sound too negative on this performance because outside of this scene there is plenty to like about this performance - Sally is probably the most interesting character of the movie and save for that misstep Davis does a terrific job at bringing it to life. She is excellent in the movie's first scene when she and her husband announce that they are breaking up - Davis effectively shows that her nonchalance as she delivers the news is pretty much a put on, betraying her character's true emotional state through her somewhat uncomfortable body language. After the aforementioned first date scene, Davis improves greatly as she finds a way to be flashy and scene-stealing without coming across as trying too hard. Her character's words and actions are often in contrast with each other, as sometimes she expresses sorrow for the break-up and the next minute she's talking about how much she loves being single, but Davis effectively conveys in every scene the inner desperation of the character whether she is willing to admit it or not. For instance, I love the scene in which she is talking to Mia Farrow's character pretending to be totally fine with the break-up and to be enjoying her single life: she is terrific at bringing so much energy in what she says almost as if she were trying to convince herself more than her interlocutor, and there's a striking inconsistency between what she says and what her body tells - she has a great control of her physical acting as her small glances and gestures perfectly convey the insecurities her words are trying to hide. And she's brilliant whenever the façade drops - her reaction when she sees her husband with his new girlfriend across the street is just pitch-perfect. My favorite scene of her performance is probably her date with Michael (Liam Neeson in a charming, lovely turn): she's quite hilarious at the beginning of the scene in her portrayal of her character's nervousness and then goes on being rather heartbreaking as she opens up about her marriage and what ultimately led to its end: it's a surprisingly powerful moment that Davis plays with unexpected delicacy and feeling. Her chemistry with Neeson is also very effective - their relationship ends up being not very lasting but there's a sincere, heartfelt connection in their few scenes together.
Davis also thrives in the interview scenes and she ably uses them to add even more depth and complexity to the character: those moments are some of the strongest of her work as she plays them with incredible frankness, honesty and sincerity. The "fox and hedgehog" monologue as she opens up to the interviewer about her sexual problems is a terrific moment that Davis delivers beautifully. The eventual reunion between Sally and her husband is not quite properly built up but Davis and Pollock share such a strong chemistry it's believable - they are fierce and explosive in their character's confrontations over the course of the movie but surprisingly tender in the few moments in which they convey the mutual affection between them. Their final scene together is particularly brilliant - both actors are amazing at showing that their relationship has not changed drastically and that their problems are still there but that they've learned to accept them and live with them. Davis is quite moving in the end as she shows a newfound peace in Sally and a certain maturity in her acknowledgement that perfection in a marriage is unachievable but that doesn't mean it isn't worth it.
So overall I might not quite adore this performance as some do but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate it. That misguided scene I mentioned in the beginning detracts a bit from the overall work but it's still a compelling, fascinating and three-dimensional portrayal from a great actress. A memorable, fiercely vivid performance that adds a lot of substance to the movie.