Oscars flashback: 5 reasons I predicted Meg Ryan to win Best Actress for ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ in 1994

Twenty years ago I was still a journalism student, there was no Gold Derby, and I hadn’t even met Tom O’Neil. It was kind of like beginning of “The Wizard of Oz.” Dorothy was still in Kansas, everything was in black and white, and she had yet to encounter the Wicked Witch of the West. But like O’Neil (and most Gold Derby readers born before the fall of the Berlin Wall) I was already obsessed with the Academy Awards.

And with just a few months remaining in 1994, I felt fairly confident about many of the major races. The Best Picture category seemed to have four locks – “Forrest Gump,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Quiz Show” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” The fifth slot was up for grabs, with the surprise hit British comedy “Four Weddings and a Funeral” looking like a real possibility. Even though he had just won Best Actor for 1993’s “Philadelphia,” Tom Hanks appeared to be on track to repeat with “Gump.” Veteran Martin Landau was considered a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.” And Dianne Wiest, who had claimed Best Supporting Actress of 1986 for Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” seemed Oscar-bound again for her comic romp in Allen’s latest, “Bullets over Broadway.”

The one contest which lacked a clear frontrunner was Best Actress. Unlike 1993, when eventual winner Holly Hunter in “The Piano” was touted from the moment she won at the Cannes Film Festival, there was no early favorite. Naturally, I was already telling my friends and classmates that I had the answer, and would undoubtedly be proven right come March. My fearless Best Actress prediction: Meg Ryan in “When a Man Loves a Woman.” The film had opened in the spring to positive reviews and performed well at the box office. The one-time “When Harry Met Sally” star was absolutely devastating in her role as an alcoholic wife and mother. I remember walking out of a Boston movie theatre, telling my friends: “Meg Ryan has got to win an Academy Award for this!” 

Of course, Ryan failed to even get nominated, something which perplexes me to this day. I saw Ryan at a Paramount luncheon last year, and emphatically told her that she deserved an Oscar for the film. She seemed flattered, but rather unfazed by the lack of awards attention. Will such a fate befall one of this year’s leading contenders for Best Actress: Rosamund Pike in “Gone Girl.”? Make your predictions in this competitive category at the bottom of this post. See who I think will make the cut HERE

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At this point in last year’s race, we Experts had already predicted 22 of the eventual 34 nominees in the top six races. And it is time to make your early picks too: CLICK HERE. Your predictions impact the notorious Gold Derby’s official racetrack odds that give heart attacks to Hollywood execs and stars. How can you not join the fun? Especially when there is a prize of $1,000 up for grabs. And don’t fret, you can change your predix as often as you wish. Indeed, we encourage frequent tweaks so we can track the latest momentum in the Oscar derby. 

I often wonder how Oscar history might have changed had the proper campaign had been mounted on Ryan’s behalf. Maybe if Gold Derby had been in existence at the time, some gutsy pundit might have helped to generate buzz for her performance, putting her firmly on the Academy’s radar. In fact, maybe I could have been that pundit. So let’s pretend that for a moment that we’re back in the autumn of 1994, and Gold Derby is very much an influential medium in the Oscar discussion. I present five reasons why I’m predicting Meg Ryan to win Best Actress for “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

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1. She’s cast against type as an alcoholic.
Oscar voters always admire an actor willing to step outside of his/her comfort zone. They seem especially impressed by those who effectively (and dramatically) portray alcoholics. Ray Milland in “The Lost Weekend,” Lee Marvin in “Cat Ballou” and Elizabeth Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” all took the big prize after successfully playing heavy drinkers. Countless others have been nominated, including Frederic  March and James Mason in two separate versions of “A Star Is Born,” Susan Hayward in “I’ll Cry Tomorrow,” Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in “Days of Wine and Roses,” Dudley Moore in “Arthur,” and Peter O’Toole in “My Favorite Year,” among others.

In “Woman,” Ryan shows a person battling alcoholism in a variety of stages and settings. She plays drunk when she’s happy and sad, when she’s silent and screaming, and while she experiences a climactic breakdown. Ryan’s most effective scene might actually be at the end of the film, when she gives a long speech at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, reflecting on her illness and her subsequent shameful behavior. There’s no way Mrs. Reiner would “have what she’s having” this time. This leads me to my second point …

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2. She should have been nominated for “When Harry Met Sally.”
True, comedy is rarely the Academy’s cup of tea. However, there are some lighthearted performances so iconic that they do get rewarded. Look at the Best Actress wins by Judy Holliday in “Born Yesterday,” Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday,” Julie Andrews in “Mary Poppins,” Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall” and Cher in “Moonstruck.” Isn’t Ryan’s “Sally” just as memorable?

Could anyone else have played the role like her? Ryan’s skillful comic delivery, unforgettable facial expressions and quirky mannerisms helped make the film one of the all-time greats in the romantic comedy genre. Had 1989 not been so fiercely competitive, Ryan might have at least been nominated. She had the misfortune of going up against eventual Oscar winner Jessica Tandy in “Driving Miss Daisy” at the Golden Globes, robbing her of at least one chance to make a trip to the podium. She lost the Globe again for last year’s “Sleepless in Seattle,” facing heavyweight Angela Bassett in “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” Giving Ryan the Oscar for “When Harry Met Sally” is a way of honoring her prior cinematic achievements.

3. She faces very little competition this year.
When sizing up this year’s potential Best Actress nominees, the field looks pretty weak. An overdue Susan Sarandon could be remembered for last summer’s “The Client,” though her part doesn’t seem strong enough to win. Jessica Lange earned excellent reviews for her long-shelved “Blue Sky,” but the film played in only a few theatres for a single week and probably won’t be remembered at Oscar time. Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Mrs. Parker in the Vicious Circle” and Miranda Richardson in the upcoming “Tom and Viv” might be serious possibilities if their films weren’t quite so small. And then there’s Jodie Foster in December’s “Nell.” It’s probably the perfect Oscar vehicle. But will the Academy really want to give her a third Best Actress trophy so soon? Voters will likely want to spread the wealth…and going with Ryan in ‘Woman” would be a logical way to do so.

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4. She might win the Golden Globe.
Assuming that Ryan gets nominated, she will have an excellent chance of the winning Best Drama Actress at the Globes. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. loves to honor big stars, and Ryan has already gone home empty-handed after being nominated for “Sally” and “Sleepless.” It would be her first major acceptance speech. If she’s as endearing at the podium as she is onscreen, she’ll get a major bump in the Oscar race. On a side note, if tradition holds and last year’s Best Actor winner returns to present Best Actress, we could see Ryan reunited with her “Sleepless” (and “Joe Versus the Volcano”) co-star Tom Hanks on the Oscar stage. The third time will indeed be the charm.

5. She’ll get bonus points for her holiday release, “I.Q.”
I’ll admit that what makes me most nervous about Ryan’s Oscar prospects for “When a Man Loves a Woman” is its May release date. Roger Ebert often speaks of the Academy’s “three-month attention” span. Will members even remember Ryan’s work by the time they start filling out their ballots after the first of the year? Fortunately, Ryan stars with Tim Robbins and Oscar winner Walter Matthau in “I.Q.,” a romantic comedy opening on Christmas Day. The film is helmed by the acclaimed Fred Schepisi, who directed Meryl Streep in “A Cry in the Dark” and Stockard Channing in “Six Degrees of Separation” to Oscar nominations. While “I.Q.” probably won’t be much of a factor in the awards derby, it may help remind voters to be smart – and nominate Ryan for her genius work in “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

I was wrong on this one. How do you think I will do this year? After checking out my predictions HERE, start making yours by using the easy drag-and-drop menu below to forecast the five women who will contend for Best Actress. The 24 Users like you with the best scores will form a team to compete against our Experts and Editors next year. See who’s in our current Top 24 here and their early Oscar predictions. And meet the guy who won our contest to predict Oscar nominations last year — and learn how he did it and how you can be our next Gold Derby superstar. Register/log in to your account to get started and you can also compete to predict the winners of the Golden Globes, Grammys, “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “Dancing with the Stars” and more.

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