Oscars Flashback: When Anna Paquin won Best Supporting Actress (‘The Piano,’ 1993)

It had been an outstanding year for motion pictures, but the 1993 Academy Awards race seemed pretty clear by that December. The black and white holocaust drama “Schindler’s List” and its overdue director Steven Spielberg had virtually swept the critics’ awards and seemed unstoppable. Tom Hanks was coming off of the summer smash “Sleepless in Seattle” with the highly anticipated “Philadelphia,” in which he played a lawyer with AIDS fighting back against the firm which had fired him. Holly Hunter was racking up prizes for her role as a mute bride in 19th century New Zealand in “The Piano.” And Tommy Lee Jones was being touted his supporting role as US marshal trailing Harrison Ford in “The Fugitive.”

All of them cemented their frontrunner statuses when they won Golden Globes, and the Oscar presentation would almost seem like a mere formality.

The one race which did appear to be a bit tricky was that for Best Supporting Actress. The New York Film Critics selected Gong Li for her work in China’s “Farewell My Concubine.” The Los Angeles Film Critics declared a tie between newcomer Anna Paquin, who played Hunter’s precocious daughter in “The Piano,” and Rosie Perez as a plane crash survivor in “Fearless.” Further clouding the picture was the Golden Globes’ decision to honor Winona Ryder for her portrayal of an 1870’s New York socialite in “The Age of Innocence.”

When the Oscar nominations were announced in February, Paquin, Perez and Ryder were joined by Hunter (again) as Tom Cruise’s wacky secretary in “The Firm” and Emma Thompson as a human rights lawyer in “In the Name of the Father.” With Thompson also competing for Best Actress for the Merchant Ivory production “The Remains of the Day,” the women’s categories featured an unprecedented two double nominees.

Most observers called it Ryder’s race to lose. Hunter was a virtual lock for lead actress, and Academy members would probably not vote for her twice. Thompson had won a year earlier for “Howards End.” Perez was the sole nominee for her barely-seen film. And Paquin was an unknown non-professional child actor, who had only gotten the part by a chance audition.

On their annual Oscar show “If We Picked the Winners,” the late critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both chose Ryder, citing how convincing she was in controlling her onscreen partner Daniel Day-Lewis. The E! Channel interviewed a number of film pundits, who split between Ryder and Perez. (Gossip columnist Janet Charlton was the only one to pick Paquin.) One of the E! experts explained that Ryder would benefit from her presence in the Generation X comedy “Reality Bites,” which was playing in theatres during the voting period.

Entertainment Weekly also gave Ryder the best chances overall, but noted that the race was an “unseemly donnybrook.” The magazine cited a number of negatives for both Ryder and Paquin. For the former, it was written that “she might remind voters too much of their own kids.” For the latter, it pointed to the “just-a-kid factor: too young to have paid any dues,” and also mentioned her New Zealand residence.

When the big night finally arrived, Paquin made her red carpet debut in a royal blue taffeta dress and matching headpiece. Entertainment reporter Steve Kmetko, then with E!, asked her what it was like to be there. “It’s really great,” she said with a grin. A few other journalists then tried to throw some questions her way, but the shy pre-teen suddenly walked away with her father.

Inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Paquin could be seen sitting nervously in the front row alongside her onscreen mother (and Supporting Actress competitor) Hunter. An equally anxious Ryder was seated next to her “Age of Innocence” love interest Day-Lewis. Finally, after eight of the competitive awards had been presented, 1992 ‘s Best Supporting Actor Gene Hackman (“Unforgiven”) walked onstage to announce the Supporting Actress winner. (Watch the video clip at the bottom of this post.)

“When I open this envelope, four gifted nominees will use their considerable talents to convince us they’re happy that a fifth nominee is taking home the Oscar,” the two-time champion joked.

After reading the names of the five actresses, the classic quintuple shot appeared on the screen. Hunter kept looking down at her co-star, suggesting whom she was really rooting for. Paquin seemed to prepare herself for disappointment, while Ryder appeared cautiously optimistic.

Hackman proclaimed “For the best performance by an actress in a supporting role…the Oscar goes to…”

He opened the envelope and saw the name. And then it finally came.

Anna Paquin, ‘The Piano.’”

The winner’s mouth dropped as she literally jumped out of her seat and turned to her parents. Hunter gave a big cheer and screamed, “Yes!” Both Ryder and Perez tried to smile, but the disappointment could be seen on their faces. Interestingly enough, the camera on Ryder also caught Day-Lewis frowning over his film mate’s loss.

Clutching her dress, Paquin made her way up the steps and to the podium, still in a state of disbelief. As the thunderous applause finally ended, she just stood there and giggled. The audience laughed. Her failure to speak again triggered another round of laughs from the spectators. Finally, she managed to say “I’d like to thank the Academy, for the honor or letting me be here today. I’d like to thank Jane, Jan and Holly, for making all this possible. And I’d like to thank Eddie Campbell, Pat Quirk and Beanie, for taking such good care of me during the making of the film.”

[Jane Campion and Jan Chapman were the film’s director and producer, respectively. Campbell was Paquin’s dialect coach and Quirk was her tutor. Beanie was the film’s dog.]

With that, she grabbed her prize and walked right back to her seat, though Hackman could be seen calling to her in order to properly escort her backstage.

Paquin was all smiles through the remainder of the ceremony, especially when Campion won Best Original Screenplay and Hunter won Best Actress. Speaking to reporters in the press room, she couldn’t quite the shake the giggles and gave only brief answers. Siskel asked her if she was anything like the character she played, to which she responded, “Not really, no.” Another reporter posed the question, “Is this kind of a fun thing for you?” Paquin quickly replied “Actually, it is quite fun!” Campion and Hunter later entered the press room and praised the young Oscar winner. Campion said that she did very little to bring out Paquin’s performance “other than make sure that she wasn’t too exhausted after lunch.” Hunter described how Paquin made it “not work” for her but rather “play,” and how lucky she was to have shared a natural chemistry with the young actress.

Paquin later made an appearance at the Governor’s Ball and spoke to a few more reporters. She took a trip the Los Angeles Zoo with her family and then it was back to a hero’s welcome in New Zealand.

On the next day’s “Good Morning America,” the late critic Joel Siegel expressed his surprise at Paquin’s victory (which he had not predicted,) and said that everyone he spoke with was equally shocked. Trying to explain frontrunner Ryder’s loss, he asked, “Maybe the voters saw her film on cassette and it didn’t work as well as on a big screen?” He then added, “While everyone said that they were surprised, nobody said that she [Paquin] didn’t deserve it.”

The upset allowed for a bit of excitement in an otherwise very predictable Academy Awards broadcast. However, there are two questions which appear to be unanswered to this very day.

1. Did someone tell Paquin before the show that she would probably NOT win? She had never even seen an Oscar telecast before attending and had no idea what to expect. Surely her parents and the film’s producers wanted to spare her disappointment should another name have been called out. Were the long odds against her delicately explained?

2. Hunter’s reaction made it clear that she wanted to Paquin to win, even though Hunter herself was nominated in that category. When Hunter was filling out her own Oscar ballot, did she presumably vote for Paquin over herself? While Hunter was the heavy favorite for Best Actress, there was said to be a bit of a “Piano” backlash and even talk of an upset by then-newcomer Angela Bassett in “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” Did Hunter really risk being a double loser in order to help her young co-star?

Paquin has been working steadily in film and television for the past 20 years, though she has yet to be nominated for another Academy Award. Even if she never is, her unexpected victory will forever be remembered as one of Oscar’s truly great moments.

Who do you think will win Best Supporting Actress this year? Vote below using our easy drag-and-drop menu. Come back and change your predictions as often as you like till Oscar night, March 2.

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