the great big academy awards project: BEST LEAD ACTRESS in the 1980s

Hurrah!  I’m just the teensiest bit excited that I’ve finally completed the decade we all know and love as the 1980s.  For those of you new to this project, it’s my humble attempt at watching every Academy Award-nominated film on the books, going decade by decade, category by category. After more than a year since completing the 1990s Best Actress nominees (and previously the Aughts Best Actress), I almost thought this one would never happen – but here it is for your perusal, discussion, disagreement, and general merriment (I hope).  So, if you will, take a gander at my take on the 1980s Best Lead Actress nominees…

1980
The Winner: Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter)

State of the Category: Starting the decade of synthesized scores and Midwestern farmer dramas off, 1980 was blessed with following five Lead Actress nominees.  The wonderful and unheralded ’70s great Ellen Burstyn starts things off, playing a spiritual healer in Resurrection, which unfortunately plays much like a Lifetime movie these days.  Burstyn brings a lot of great delicacy and flaws to what could be a saintly role, but it’s tough to transcend the somewhat mediocre material.   She has some great moments though.  Goldie Hawn delivers a quite funny nod to much of her future 1980s work as a spoiled brat who’s tricked into the army in Private Benjamin.  Sure, it’s very light fare, but Hawn is in her element, and she’s got terribly good timing.  Speaking of Lifetime movies, Ordinary People suffers that same fate, it seems.  Though Mary Tyler Moore does her best to deliver some Oscar scenes to the mix, she’s outshone by the young Timothy Hutton for the most part.  The trouble with Gloria is that it’s brought down by some truly bizarre supporting turns.  John Adames, who plays her young companion, gives what has to be one of the worst and most grating child performances I’ve ever seen.  Poor Gena Rowlands – who I greatly admire – can’t do much with what turns out to be a misfire in the end.  And then there’s winner Sissy Spacek, who plays Loretta Lynn with such glee, giving us the opposite of Carrie White, she ushered in a successful four-nod decade for herself.  The performance is charming, real, and totally Spacek.

Report Card
Ellen Burstyn (Resurrection) – B
Goldie Hawn (Private Benjamin) – B
Mary Tyler Moore (Ordinary People) – B
Gena Rowlands (Gloria) – B-
Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter) – A-
My Choice: Sissy Spacek

1981
The Winner: Katharine Hepburn (On Golden Pond)

State of the Category: Though 1980 proved a somewhat average year, at least 1981 gave us a variety-driven category.  Starting off with the sentimental favorite, Katharine Hepburn breathes true life into what could be a phoned-in performance in On Golden Pond.  Sure, she won primarily as an honorary award, but she already had three so maybe it was more than that.  I for one thought she had great chemistry with Henry Fonda and shed the years of big-shouldered strength for a vulnerable display.  Though I found Warren Beatty’s performance somewhat bothersome, Diane Keaton played strength and desperation so carefully in Reds.  She and Maureen Stapleton take the film for me, and Keaton is surprisingly anti-Annie Hall in her role.  The sorta-reviled Only When I Laugh has one key element that works relatively well – Marsha Mason.  Sure, the rest of the movie is kind of a wash, but Mason is given a front-and-center powerhouse role as an alcoholic has-been actress, and she excels despite strange performances from the rest of the cast.  I’m not sure I understood the allure of Atlantic City.  Susan Sarandon is demure and nice to look at (as per usual), but I’ve seen what she can do, and this film doesn’t seem to be stretching her.  Burt Lancaster is the stand-out, and she is relegated to sort of the pretty backdrop.  And in the department of transcending material, Meryl Streep takes the cake in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  The movie is drab and overlong, but Streep is a vision.  I can’t get behind the film, but Streep is period greatness.

Report Card
Katharine Hepburn (On Golden Pond) – A-
Diane Keaton (Reds) – A-
Marsha Mason (Only When I Laugh) – B
Susan Sarandon (Atlantic City) – B-
Meryl Streep (The French Lieutenant’s Woman) – B+
My Choice: Diane Keaton

1982
The Winner: Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice)

State of the Category: Things are starting to pick up by 1982 in Lead Actress.  Julie Andrews is cheeky and delightful as a pretend cross-dresser (this stuff writes itself) in the underrated musical gem Victor/Victoria.  If you haven’t seen this movie yet, do.  It’s a roar, and Andrews is out of her cutesy element.  Some may call it severe overacting, I call it a tour de force – Jessica Lange plays an actress dipping into insanity in Frances.  It’s a disturbing flick, but Lange completely owns the screen throughout.  It dips into histrionics at times, but overall she’s stellar.  Sissy Spacek delivers a very subtle performance as the wife of a captive writer in a war-torn South American country in Missing.  Though Jack Lemmon tends to steal the scenes from her, she plays subdued with such grace.  How do I even start on Sophie’s Choice?  It really is all it’s cracked up to be.  Meryl Streep is phenomenal in every sense of the word, and this truly is one of the tip-top highlights of an incredible career.  And though An Officer and a Gentleman is such a popcorn flick for Oscar tastes, Debra Winger is a bygone great who unfortunately hardly works anymore.  The movie plays a little silly when it comes to Richard Gere, but Winger is a realistic, adorable addition to the hip romance.

Report Card
Julie Andrews (Victor/Victoria) – A-
Jessica Lange (Frances) – B+
Sissy Spacek (Missing) – B
Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice) – A
Debra Winger (An Officer and a Gentleman) – B
My Choice: Meryl Streep

1983
The Winner: Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment)

State of the Category: This is very likely my favorite lineup of the decade.  What a wonderful variety of performances!  Starting off with Jane Alexander, who completely surprised me with the depth and strength playing a mom dealing with the end of the world in Testament.  Besides the fact that I love movies that play into disaster/supernatural without actually showing it on screen, Alexander is incredible, and the movie avoids too much sentimentality.  Then we have the Terms of Endearment ladies.  Shirley MacLaine is doing her best to eliminate any feeling that this is Lifetime Original Movie.  Aurora is at times hilarious and at others damaged, and it’s totally working for the gifted actress.  And Debra Winger, playing her somewhat rebellious daughter, plays the strength and flaws of Emma with an amount of care that only Winger can muster.  Not to be outdone, Meryl Streep plays the anti-hero title character of Silkwood with pure guts.  She nails the working-class gal, along with a script that doesn’t waste time canonizing her.  The weak spot here may be Julie Walters, who’s, like the usual, charming as ever in Educating Rita, but it’s such a poor man’s Pygmalion, it’s hard to see what kind of newness is being brought to the sub-genre other than ’80s big hair.

Report Card
Jane Alexander (Testament) – A
Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment) – A-
Meryl Streep (Silkwood) – A
Julie Walters (Educating Rita) – B-
Debra Winger (Terms of Endearment) – A-
My Choice: Meryl Streep

1984
The Winner: Sally Field (Places in the Heart)

State of the Category: Ah, the year of the distraught farmer gals.  In such a strange turn of events, three of the five nominees here fit that very bill.  It’s assuredly one of the weaker lineups of the decade.  I do enjoy Judy Davis as a general rule, but she’s definitely hard to love in A Passage to India, in which she wrongfully accuses an Indian man of attempting to violate her.  She’s so sullen and severe throughout, it’s hard to see too much depth in the performance, despite her best efforts.  Sally Field’s pluckiness may bother some, but I find her performance in Places in the Heart, in which she plays a widowed farm wife who struggles to make ends meet, better than average.  If the film didn’t spend so much time on the strange side-story love triangles, Field would have more opportunity to shine.  Jessica Lange is very subtle (the opposite of Frances) in Country, in which she also plays a farm wife trying to make ends meet.  Lange is a quiet strength, but the remainder of the cast sort of brings down the prestige a bit.  The Bostonians is a drawn-out mess of a movie.  Vanessa Redgrave plays a pathetic spinster who obsesses over a young suffragette (no clue what was so great about Verena, played atrociously by Madeleine Potter).  Redgrave is one-note and can’t move past the sad, annoying role she’s saddled with.  Sissy Spacek is the quiet backbone of The River, playing a farm wife struggling to make ends meet (hmm…).  Mel Gibson (the husband) gets a little over-the-top, so the film is lucky to have Spacek to bring it back down to earth.  Still, not a whole lot here, as a general rule.

Report Card
Judy Davis (A Passage to India) – B
Sally Field (Places in the Heart) – B
Jessica Lange (Country) – B
Vanessa Redgrave (The Bostonians) – C-
Sissy Spacek (The River) – B
My Choice: Sally Field

1985

The Winner: Geraldine Page (The Trip to Bountiful)

State of the Category: What this lineup may lack in true powerhouse performances it more than makes up for in variety.  Let’s start with Anne Bancroft, who’s had her fair share of standout roles, playing a nun at the center of a church scandal in Agnes of God.  While I found the movie to play out like an entertaining little popcorn thriller, the performances were somewhat sidelined by the story itself.  And Jane Fonda wasn’t particularly inspiring as Bancroft’s co-lead.  Phoned-in all around.  But then there’s Whoopi Goldberg, who was the new kid on the block in The Color Purple.  Not only is she riveting in scene after scene, but she proves why she merits being such a big star – she’s actually a quite gifted actress as well. Jessica Lange does her best Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams, continuing her steak of ’80s nominations, in a decent, if not great, take.  Though she doesn’t live up to Spacek’s Lynn (who sang all her own songs), her impression is rather spot-on without being too imitation.  We all know Lange can act her way out of a bag, and this is a pleasant example of that.  Geraldine Page gives her twilight performance in the virtual honorary Oscar-winning role in The Trip to Bountiful.  It’s a very quiet movie, to be sure, and what the film lacks in excitement it more than makes up for in showcasing Page’s talents.  The staging is a tad theatrical at times, but Page is a solid anchor for the mellow film about an old woman returning to her hometown one last time.  The epic Out of Africa may have its flaws in both story and accents (sorry Robert Redford), but Meryl Streep as usual improves the material.  The music and setting is pretty splendid, and Streep fits right in as Isak Denisen – and the Danish accent is incredible.

Report Card
Anne Bancroft (Agnes of God) – B
Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple) – A
Jessica Lange (Sweet Dreams) – B+
Geraldine Page (The Trip to Bountiful) – B
Meryl Streep (Out of Africa) – B+
My Choice: Whoopi Goldberg

1986
The Winner: Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God)

State of the Category: Sheesh, we’ll start this year off with a doozy.  Easily the worst choice by the Academy listed in this post, Jane Fonda, bless her, plays a boozy entertainer who wakes up with a hangover and a dead body in her bed.  Sounds like a fun concept for a thriller, but unfortunately it’s impossible tell what genre this movie is actually trying to embody.  Between the upbeat music, the ominous noir moments, the uncomfortable comedic moments and Fonda’s spastic performance, The Morning After is a mess.  Marlee Matlin, as the youngest winner this category’s seen, is amiable as the stubborn deaf girl at the center of Children of a Lesser God.  She plays excellently against William Hurt, but it’s clear she’s not an experienced actress.  Sissy Spacek rounds out her four-some of ’80s nods with Crimes of the Heart, in which a trio of sisters react to Spacek’s character’s decision to shoot her abusive husband.  The ladies (including Jessica Lange and Diane Keaton) play nicely off of each other, but to me there’s no clear stand-out among the three of them.  Spacek is endearing, at the very least.  Kathleen Turner gets her one stab at Oscar as the heroine in the whimsical fantasy film Peggy Sue Got Married.  It’s such a fun concept, and Turner is a talented actress who never got her due.  Though I don’t think this is the role of her career (sorry – I love me some Joan Wilder), Peggy Sue is a root-for-me character with a great backstory.  And Sigourney Weaver rounds out the crew in this anomaly of a nomination – the heroine of a sci-fi sequel.  Ripley is both badass and terrified aboard the E.T.-ridden shuttle in Aliens, and Weaver is so good at playing the imperfect hero.  The movie is a stunner, which certainly helps her case.

Report Card
Jane Fonda (The Morning After) – D-
Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God) – B
Sissy Spacek (Crimes of the Heart) – B
Kathleen Turner (Peggy Sue Got Married) – B+
Sigourney Weaver (Aliens) – A-
My Choice: Sigourney Weaver

1987
The Winner: Cher (Moonstruck)

State of the Category: Surprisingly, this one ended up being a pretty strong year for the Best Actress category.  We’ll start off with Cher, who never ceases to surprise in a quite strong performance in Moonstruck.  I assumed that the win was a stunt, but her Loretta is well-studied and so intriguing.  Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction has certainly become a punch-line since ’87, but Close is creepy, eerie, and great in the movie.  Sure, her crazy antics are over-the-top and her co-stars are adding to the hamminess, but Close is devious and terribly fun.  Holly Hunter may be small and spunky, but she’s terrific as a TV news writer in Broadcast News.  The writing is spectacular, and Hunter’s delivery is gold.  She and William Hurt have great chemistry (hmm… a trend perhaps?), and she instills great depth into a character that already kind of wrote itself.  Though Sally Kirkland may’ve descended into madness since the ’80s, her Anna is at least interesting.  Though the film is a little rocky for me, Kirkland is quite good as the eastern European wannabe Western actress.  And Meryl Streep returns once again, this time as a disillusioned homeless woman who used to have pipes in Ironweed.  Though the film is kind of a drag, Streep brings some life to the character, which is such a tragic role across the board.

Report Card
Cher (Moonstruck) – A-
Glenn Close (Fatal Attraction) – B+
Holly Hunter (Broadcast News) – A
Sally Kirkland (Anna) – B+
Meryl Streep (Ironweed) – B+
My Choice: Holly Hunter

1988

The Winner: Jodie Foster (The Accused)

State of the Category: To start off the year that was 1988, we’ve got another devilish performance from the illustrious Glenn Close.  In Dangerous Liaisons, Close is conniving and far superior to most of what else is going on here.  I get that the cast has decided to not even attempt European accents, but John Malkovich is hardly effortless and… Keanu Reeves?  Really?  Anyway, Close is easily the best part.  I’m a fan of Jodie Foster’s in general, but The Accused has not aged well.  Playing a rape victim fighting off accusations of making it all up, Foster is typically tough, but the material doesn’t serve itself to her talents.  Now, I get that Working Girl was riding a wave of goodwill, but Melanie Griffith is hardly the “best.”  Joan Cusack, Sigourney Weaver and Harrison Ford are great fun in the workplace romantic comedy, but Griffith’s breathy, squeaky Tess is nothing beyond simply cute.  Some see that haircut and those eyebrows and think of a performance of Meryl Streep’s that edged on cartoony, but I happen to love A Cry in the Dark.  Playing Lindy Chamberlain, whose baby daughter was snatched up by a dingo, Streep nails the accent and portrays the slightly evil nature of the public’s persona of Lindy to a tee.  Finally, Sigourney Weaver is heartbreaking as the devoted Dian Fossey, whose love of the animals in Gorillas in the Mist led to a life dedicated to the jungle.  She’s so natural in the setting, and the movie is written wonderfully.

Report Card
Glenn Close (Dangerous Liaisons) – B+
Jodie Foster (The Accused) – B-
Melanie Griffith (Working Girl) – C-
Meryl Streep (A Cry in the Dark) – B+
Sigourney Weaver (Gorillas in the Mist) – A-
My Choice: Sigourney Weaver

1989
The Winner: Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy)

State of the Category: Closing out the decade, 1989 brought us some head-scratchers and at least one breath of fresh air.  Though Camille Claudel was terribly overlong, it’s bright shining star Isabelle Adjani was a great centerpiece.  Embodying a woman at many different ages remarkably and seemingly identifying with the character a great deal, Adjani is definitely a nice piece of scenery.  Pauline Collins tries so hard to be adorable in Shirley Valentine, she forgets that she’s being filmed.  I’m heartily confused as to how this performance ended up in the final cut, since the movie is goofy, unsubstantial, and perplexing.  Collins is slightly fun, but her plethora of lines delivered to camera was a weird choice.  Jessica Lange rounds out her own four-some of nominees this decade with Music Box, a courtroom drama that lags throughout until the last half-hour.  Lange is traditionally the best part of the movie, but it’s such a knee-jerk choice to nominate her for just about everything.  Michelle Pfeiffer is all kinds of seductive in The Fabulous Baker Boys, a surprisingly insightful musical drama.  Pfeiffer’s Susie Diamond is complicated, beautiful, and has some awesome singing skills.  Finally, Jessica Tandy is added to the list of career Oscars in the 1980s for Driving Miss Daisy.  While Tandy owns the film quite well, it’s simplistic take on the south in a volatile time period borders on too easy.  The actress assuredly has her moments of Oscary scenes though.

Report Card
Isabelle Adjani (Camille Claudel) – B+
Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine) – C-
Jessica Lange (Music Box) – B-
Michelle Pfeiffer (The Fabulous Baker Boys) – A-
Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) – B
My Choice: Michelle Pfeiffer

Decade Honors/Dishonors
Best Performance: Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice)
Best Nominated Film: The Color Purple
Worst Performance/Film: The Morning After
Closest Race: 1981
Best Year: 1983
Worst Year: 1984

Your turn – what are your thoughts on Best Actress of the 1980s?
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2 responses to “the great big academy awards project: BEST LEAD ACTRESS in the 1980s”

  1. Jose says :

    Impressive project Luke!I think I'd have chosen Meryl every single time she was nominated this decade hehehe.I'm torn between Holly and Cher in 87 but feel you make a great case for your pick.

  2. Runs Like A Gay says :

    Great post – must have taken some effort to watch all of these.Agree with most of your comments, and I wholeheartedly support Holly Hunter.I would like to point out that Shirley Valentine is an adaptation of a one woman play by Willy Russell, which Collins also played in the West End. As the play's conceit is a monologue performed directly to audience, something theatre goers would have much more experience of, you can see why it was copied in the film. I suspect Collins' nomination was in part due to her Laurence Olivier award for it which powered her narrative.

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