the great big academy awards project: BEST LEAD ACTRESS in the 1970s
Hey, remember me? Yes, I’ve been gone a good long while but I’m still here devouring as many Oscar-nominated performances as I can. And at long last I’ve completed the much-anticipated (at least in my own head) Best Lead Actress of the 1970s breakdown. I’ve watched all 50 of the nominated performances and am prepared to grade them and award my own personal victors. I’ve learned a lot this decade – that romantic comedies were a staple in this category (and at times an exhausting one), that it turns out I’m a fan of Glenda Jackson’s and that the jury is still out on whether I can get on board with Ingmar Bergman or not. (Fear not, Bergmaniacs… this is just my first exposure of probably many more to come.) But enough introduction (I’m merely grandstanding because of the infrequency of these posts, really) – let’s dive in, shall we?
The Winner: Glenda Jackson (Women in Love)
State of the Category: Kicking off the decade with some uncharacteristic (considering the tendencies of these 10 years) choices, we’ve got one of the weaker lineups. After being a major Testament apologist thanks to a stellar central performance from Jane Alexander in 1983’s lineup, I was disappointed to find I couldn’t truly get on board with her turn in The Great White Hope. Playing the part of the scandal-prone Caucasian girlfriend to James Earl Jones’ African-American boxer, the role was underwritten enough that character motivation was a bit foggy. She was mostly relegated to sobbing in the background in what was a showcase for Jones. Glenda Jackson’s first nod of the decade in Women in Love, however was devilish and delightful – one half of a pair of sisters pursuing two local gentlemen, it seemed on its face a standard, basic setup. But the quartet of actors are phenomenal, and Jackson has the notable feat of being best in show – she’s charming and witty and I could listen to her accent for days. Next up is the classic tearjerker Love Story – Ali McGraw’s portrayal of a plucky college student dealing with the ins and outs of love and loss is amiable at times, but clunky dialogue and tonal shifts can’t be rescued by a lovely score. Speaking of tonal shifts… Ryan’s Daughter was a bit lengthy for its thin plot. Thankfully Sarah Miles’ portrayal transcended a bit of the overwrought filmmaking. Her portrayal of a small-town Irish woman dealing with the backlash of neighborly gossip is at times lovely and lamentable but always watchable, unlike those of her co-stars. And finally, truly the most aggravating film of the 49 recognized this decade, Diary of a Mad Housewife was excruciating from start to finish. Carrie Snodgress, playing an eternally belittled and tormented “wifey” type, does what she can with the miserable material, but her arc is nonexistent and she plays it too aloof to truly feel very much for her plight, despite the masculine posturing from her co-stars being shockingly disgusting.
Jane Alexander (The Great White Hope) – B
Glenda Jackson (Women in Love) – A
Ali McGraw (Love Story) – B-
Sarah Miles (Ryan’s Daughter) – B+
Carrie Snodgress (Diary of a Mad Housewife) – C
My Choice: Glenda Jackson
State of the Category: Graced with a virtual who’s who of the 1970s in terms of actressing, I had high hopes for this year’s lineup that only partially delivered. Julie Christie’s daring portrayal of an opium-addicted old-west madam in McCabe and Mrs. Miller is highly watchable (big surprise there) and totally holds her own against co-star Warren Beatty. She portrays her outward confidence and internal vulnerability stunningly and with subtlety. My recollection of my first viewing of Klute was not a positive one, so I assumed that feeling would stick on review. And although it wasn’t a total redemption moment for Jane Fonda’s performance as a call girl caught up in a dangerous criminal investigation, her hard-edged terseness and manipulative sexuality played better in reality than in memory. Taking on the role of a woman involved in a love triangle with a young bisexual man and his gay doctor boyfriend, Glenda Jackson’s performance in Sunday Bloody Sunday has a great deal of depth – she expertly plays her character as secure enough to deal with her lover’s extracurriculars all while her growing fondness for him makes her question her own needs and desires. Speaking of a great Glenda Jackson performance, Mary Queen of Scots delivers a commanding, icy turn as Queen Elizabeth… too bad Vanessa Redgrave was nominated for the film instead. For really expecting to connect with Vanessa Redgrave throughout this undertaking, I’ve found myself primarily disappointed in the performances nominated for Best Actress. Her Queen Mary is disjointed in her selective boldness – she’s written and played sympathetically and as our heroine, yet you have no desire to root for her. That seems like a problem. Finally we sneak in one more historical drama – in Nicholas and Alexandra Janet Suzman takes on the role of the Russian empress and mother of Princess Anastasia. Though the lengthy film drags a bit in the middle, Suzman is easily the standout. And bringing an interesting dynamic to her relationship with Rasputin, Suzman is sometimes great, but mostly good in a stoic if unique performance.
Julie Christie (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) – B+
Jane Fonda (Klute) – B
Glenda Jackson (Sunday Bloody Sunday) – A-
Vanessa Redgrave (Mary Queen of Scots) – C+
Janet Suzman (Nicholas & Alexandra) – B
My Choice: Glenda Jackson
The Winner: Liza Minnelli (Cabaret)
State of the Category: All right, now things are starting to get good. Let’s kick things off with Oscar’s choice. In Cabaret, Liza Minnelli is charming, winning, heartbreaking and, well, that voice. All in all, she manages to brings us one of the all-time great musical performances. And she doesn’t rest on the pipes, either. Her deeply felt spoken scenes clue us in to Sally’s less-than-sunny times with sneaky effectiveness. This one legitimately lives up the hype. Next up is Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. And I’ve got to say – I wasn’t expecting this from her. Ross is darkly sexy in her singing scenes and doesn’t fall too hard into histrionics for the standard singer-biopic “mental breakdown” scenes. The film gets a bit indulgent with the extra padding on subplots, but the central performance stays impressive almost throughout. Maggie Smith is great at comedy – we’ve all come to realize that even more so in her career resurgence. In Travels with My Aunt she’s charming and witty in her Maggie Smith way as an eccentric aunt and criminal smuggler, but the film is too inconsequential to truly let her resonate beyond a flight of fancy. Cicely Tyson brings high drama in Sounder, as one half of a sharecropping couple in the 1930s south. Her strong-willed but broken-down mother is a tower of strength with vulnerability practically exploding from Tyson’s expressive eyes. A deeply felt turn. Finally, The Emigrants, the story of a family of Swedish farmers moving to America in the mid-1800s, brings us our first nomination for Liv Ullmann, who’s oddball tics and performance choices stay interesting but perplexing throughout the duration. Max von Sydow outshines her fairly overwhelmingly as her husband.
Liza Minnelli (Cabaret) – A
Diana Ross (Lady Sings the Blues) – B+
Maggie Smith (Travels with My Aunt) – B
Cicely Tyson (Sounder) – A
Liv Ullmann (The Emigrants) – C+
My Choice: Liza Minnelli
The Winner: Glenda Jackson (A Touch of Class)
State of the Category: I’m still unsure at this writing who my winner is, so I’m about to likely talk myself into it. Join me on this journey, won’t you? First off is Ellen Burstyn in arguably her most iconic role in The Exorcist. Her Chris MacNeil, mother of Satan and whatnot, is much more strong-willed than I’d remembered from previous viewings of this movie. I kind of fell in love with her salty personality playing a relatively well-known actress dealing with the supernatural, a trope and framing device I’ve never seen in other horror films. Next up is Glenda Jackson’s second Oscar-winning role, A Touch of Class, in which she tackles a divorcee engaging in a hasty fling with an accountant. The comedy at times is light on laughs – despite its loopy score telling you otherwise, but Jackson is totally game and her no-B.S. magazine editor is attractive and intimidating at once. After not getting on board with her role in Only When I Laugh, I hoped things would play out differently for Marsha Mason in the 70s. Not so with Cinderella Liberty, playing a “hooker with a heart of gold” whom a sailor falls for and becomes fill-in father for her son. The movie itself is okay, but what made me hesitant on Mason’s performance was that not once did I buy that she was a hard-edged, streetwise prostitute. She seems much more at home playing plucky, neurotic, Manhattan-based romantic leads than in this grittier role. The Way We Were is a stunning representative in the romantic comedy sub-genre, and Barbra Streisand is lovely in it. While her early-years take on Katie, relentless activist, can be a bit goofy, her interplay with Robert Redford is brilliant and highly watchable. She’s a born entertainer. Finally, Joanne Woodward does her best to elevate Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, a melodrama about a wife and mother coming to terms with her life choices, but a “meh” story and lack of development drag down her amiable, if ineffective, performance.
Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist) – A-
Glenda Jackson (A Touch of Class) – A-
Marsha Mason (Cinderella Liberty) – C
Barbra Streisand (The Way We Were) – A-
Joanne Woodward (Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams) – C+
My Choice: Ellen Burstyn
The Winner: Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore)
State of the Category: Now this is a lineup. In easily one of the stronger fivesomes of this decade, we’ll start off with the winner. Ellen Burstyn plays struggling lounge singer/waitress/single mom Alice with typical emotive heft, despite the sometimes flimsy nature of the script. She’s very watchable despite some lackluster co-stars (don’t worry – not you, you delightful spitfire Diane Ladd…), though I have to say I was ultimately underwhelmed considering the cachet this performance has historically. Diahann Carroll takes on the title role in Claudine, about a single mother struggling to get by who’s romanced by a smarmy garbage collector. The film is positioned as a comedy, but it’s Carroll’s more dramatic moments that are highlights for me. The central relationship is not one you’re predisposed to root for, necessarily, so its framing as a romantic comedy is a struggle occasionally, but Carroll is lovely. Everything about Chinatown is amazing, and Faye Dunaway is no exception. Her rich ice queen Evelyn is eerie, alluring and intensely felt. The iconic slap scene is one of the great dramatic physical performances ever for a reason. Hello there, Valerie Perrine – who knew you’d be such a highlight? As Lenny Bruce’s stripper-turned-wife Honey alongside Dustin Hoffman in Lenny Perrine is magnificent. The depth of her tumultuous Honey Bruce is a true treasure to watch, with nary a “stripper with a heart of gold” or “doting wife” trope in sight. Finally, let’s all get exhausted together watching Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. While I’m not really on board with Peter Falk’s oddly aggressive co-starring performance, Rowlands’s central turn as a woman experiencing a psychotic break is harrowing, chock full of tics, mannerisms and oddities that would typically seem overacted but are totally on target in this classic indie.
Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) – B+
Diahann Carroll (Claudine) – B
Faye Dunaway (Chinatown) – A
Valerie Perrine (Lenny) – A
Gena Rowlands (A Woman Under the Influence) – A-
My Choice: Valerie Perrine
The Winner: Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
State of the Category: Hmm, well this is an odd one. In probably the strangest lineups I can recall throughout the project, we start off with Isabelle Adjani in her first nod, playing Victor Hugo’s obsessive and schizophrenic daughter in The Story of Adele H. The subject matter is endlessly fascinating, which helps Adjani’s case, and her portrayal isn’t half-bad. She holds back when she should and doesn’t let “I’m craaAAaazYYY!!!” tropes get in the way of an actual performance. For such a young performer, she kind of killed it. Tommy is one head-scratcher of a movie, despite its at least entertaining musical numbers. And Ann-Margret definitely takes the cake for best in show. There are definitely some moments in which you find yourself asking “really?!” with some of the strange, over-the-top production decisions, but Ann-Margret is gutsy and the No. 1 reason to watch the film. Despite the short screen time, Louise Fletcher totally nails the brutality and icy intimidation of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And yes, she’s as good as you remember. She pulls off diabolical and subtle and infuriating all in one quiet shell. She’s an ultimate filmic villain. Glenda Jackson nails it once again in the Ibsen adaptation of Hedda, about a societal higher-up dealing with the dregs of a boring marriage and uninteresting friends. Her Hedda Gabler is witty and wildly entertaining while also calculating and manipulative to the core. Lastly we have Carol Kane in the quiet indie Hester Street, playing the tradition-prone wife of a westernized Jewish immigrant at the turn of the 20th Century. She’s a quiet force, really, as the soft-spoken Gitl, maintaining a poise and caution that realistically ebbs and flows as she acquaints herself with a foreign world. It’s not your typical Kane comedic performance, and I was pleasantly surprised with its relatable tone.
Isabelle Adjani (The Story of Adele H) – B+
Ann-Margret (Tommy) – B
Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) – A
Glenda Jackson (Hedda) – A
Carol Kane (Hester Street) – A-
My Choice: Louise Fletcher
The Winner: Faye Dunaway (Network)
State of the Category: Maybe I spoke too soon – this isn’t exactly your typical lineup either… Let’s start things off with Marie-Christine Barrault’s seriously low-key performance as an tragically ignored wife striking up an affair with a distant cousin in Cousin Cousine. The French film is played for laughs throughout, but it’s markedly unfunny, particularly when it comes to the sexist undertones and the kooky performances from the side characters. Barrault is best in show, but it’s really not saying much in the uneven flick. On the other end of the spectrum, Faye Dunaway’s calculating ratings-focused news producer in Network is striking and cool and, at times, frightening. Going toe to toe with the heavily invested performance of Peter Finch in the central role, Dunaway is fantastic in a contemporary to Rene Russo’s Nightcrawler role 40 years later. In Rocky, Talia Shire is… fine. Her role is super flimsy and the movie itself doesn’t seem to care much about her. It’s the epitome of the supportive girlfriend trope in sports movies, and unfortunately the actress who found great moments in The Godfather couldn’t make Adrian interesting enough to resonate. Sissy Spacek is heartbreakingly sweet and misunderstood in the classic Carrie. It’s hard to top this horror performance, from her child-like beginnings to her vengeful aftermath. You root for Carrie White all the way through her payback retribution. I’m still recovering from Face to Face. Liv Ullmann’s portrayal of a psychiatrist descending into madness is intensely exhausting. The performance is itself isn’t all bad, per se, but the screeching and sobbing are for the most part too difficult to stomach.
Marie-Christine Barrault (Cousin Cousine) – C-
Faye Dunaway (Network) – A
Talia Shire (Rocky) – C-
Sissy Spacek (Carrie) – A-
Liv Ullmann (Face to Face) – C
My Choice: Faye Dunaway
The Winner: Diane Keaton (Annie Hall)
State of the Category: All in all, not too bad in the choices department in 1977. Starting off with Ann Bancroft in The Turning Point, playing a prima ballerina of a certain age, the performance is committed and scene-stealing. Her physical commitment to the role is a tad unnerving, but she fends off the occasional sentimental plot device with presence. Jane Fonda nails the role of Lillian Hellman in Julia, bringing marked wit and poise along with sense of humor and wanton desire. She navigates the real-life character’s tempestuous affairs with expertise you’ve come to expect from Fonda. What more can be said about the comic brilliance of Diane Keaton in Annie Hall? She’s funny, intelligent, occasionally flighty and always 100% believable. There has rarely been a comedic performance that can match this perfection. Shirley MacLaine unfortunately falls victim to being overshadowed by her co-star in The Turning Point. Her portrayal of a former ballerina forced to exit the company after a pregnancy has a couple of strong moments, but the bulk of the heft is given to Bancroft. Finally, Marsha Mason gives her easily best performance as a struggling actress and single mom in The Goodbye Girl. She holds her own against Oscar-winning Richard Dreyfus and plays her character’s gumption and persistence like the pro stage actress she is.
Ann Bancroft (The Turning Point) – B+
Jane Fonda (Julia) – A-
Diane Keaton (Annie Hall) – A
Shirley MacLaine (The Turning Point) – B
Marsha Mason (The Goodbye Girl) – B+
My Choice: Diane Keaton
The Winner: Jane Fonda (Coming Home)
State of the Category: Finally an Ingmar picture I can get behind. Autumn Sonata follows the simple premise of a woman dealing with a visit from her larger-than-life concert pianist mother. Ingrid Bergman holds back and plays it small and subtle to her favor, using her eyes more often than a raised voice seen in other Ingmar efforts. The setup to Same Time, Next Year is at least interesting – a man and woman meet each other one weekend a year to carry on a decades-long affair, but the film is hampered by goofy scoring and ineffective aging and character development. Ellen Burstyn does her best with a flaky role, but the film plays more like a TV movie than a theatrical release. Jill Clayburgh has a fun, relatable, casual way about her in An Unmarried Woman, but unfortunately it falls victim to the sameness shared among many of the romantic comedies of the era. What sets her slightly apart is that the film asks you to root for her, and you actually do. It’s still a rather slight performance regardless. I was worried about Coming Home. The idea of Jane Fonda playing a supportive significant other to a wounded soldier seemed like it had the potential to pander. But in true Jane fashion she managed to bring a great deal of depth to a character that in other actresses’ hands may have played one-dimensional. Depicting grown children of divorce dealing with the aftermath, Interiors gives Geraldine Page something of a showcase. Unfortunately the role is borderline supporting, and her shrewish portrayal proves less memorable than those of the three women playing her daughters.
Ingrid Bergman (Autumn Sonata) – A
Ellen Burstyn (Same Time, Next Year) – B-
Jill Clayburgh (An Unmarried Woman) – B
Jane Fonda (Coming Home) – A-
Geraldine Page (Interiors) – B-
My Choice: Ingrid Bergman
The Winner: Sally Field (Norma Rae)
State of the Category: Jill Clayburgh lands nomination No. 2, this time for a slightly superior performance. In Starting Over she has a bit more edge, and, though the films have remarkably similar themes, this one seems like a star-making turn. Unfortunately her co-star, Burt Reynolds, is completely flat and really brings down the romantic chemistry factor. Sally Field gets a stunner of a role in Norma Rae – and I must say it lived up to the hype for me. It’s a Silkwood-esque moment where our heroine is nowhere near perfect and she isn’t instantly driven to put herself out there – it’s the realism that truly sells this. She’s not an obvious leader for a cause. (And that iconic scene sure does resonate.) Jane Fonda has a lot of movie-star quality in The China Syndrome. The film itself actually drags a bit – strange for a political thriller – but she buoys the operation despite a slightly underwritten character (the fluff-piece reporter who wants to go hard-hitting). Chapter Two is… fine. And that’s about all there is to it. Perhaps it can be blamed on the non-believable chemistry between stars James Caan and Marsha Mason. Mason is likable in the role, but she can’t sell the romance – as an audience member I don’t buy that these two truly feel that way. Finally, Bette Midler totally pulls a winner out of the hat for me. I didn’t know she had this in her. As a Janis Joplin-esque figure in The Rose, she goes all out – except not hammy nonsense that musical biopics tend toward. Her performance scenes are phenomenal and I buy into what makes her Mary Rose so magnetic to fans and lovers.
Jill Clayburgh (Starting Over) – B+
Sally Field (Norma Rae) – A
Jane Fonda (The China Syndrome) – B
Marsha Mason (Chapter Two) – C
Bette Midler (The Rose) – A
My Choice: Sally Field
Best Performance: Faye Dunaway (Network)
Best Nominated Film: Chinatown
Worst Performance/Film: Marie-Christine Barrault (Cousin Cousine)
Closest Race: 1979
Best Year: 1974
Worst Year: 1976
But what about you? What are your thoughts on the ladies of the 1970s?