the great big academy awards project: BEST LEAD ACTRESS in the 1960s
It’s been healthy time apart once again for the Great Big Academy Awards project and me. But I’m back with a vengeance. The 1960s in Best Actress have arrived. And I’ve come, seen and conquered in the meantime. So what did this decade have to offer a dedicated viewer? Foreign nominees were super-evident, particularly of the Italian and French persuasion. For every tour-de-force They Shoot Horses there was a Morgan! to really keep you on your toes. If you’re looking for a decade to jerk you around in terms of quality and consistency, you’ve met your match. Let’s talk Best Actress in the ’60s.
The Winner: Elizabeth Taylor (BUtterfield 8)
State of the Category: It’s become something of a tradition in the turn of the decade year for it to be a healthy mix of ladies you’re used to seeing in the decade prior mixed in with the bright new stars. This year is no exception. Kicking things off, Greer Garson does her best mimicry as the beloved First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello. And while she far outshines her co-stars by and large, she’s subjected to acting through some pretty substantial flippers that severely hindered her ability to bring gravitas to her line readings. Next up is Deborah Kerr, who I admittedly was skeptical of in this hard-worn Australian farmer role she picked up in The Sundowners, having become accustomed to her often prim and proper performances earlier in her filmography. I was pleasantly surprised that she pulled off the accent work and the scrappy character quite well, despite the overlong feel of the well-intentioned epic. It’s hard to deny the iconic nature of Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment, and viewing the performance for the first time did not disappoint. In a star-making and heartbreaking turn she devastates the ample men around her to totally steal the show. While what Melina Mercouri is doing in Never on Sunday is occasionally amusing, the overall ick factor that comes with the “happy hooker” trope is especially heightened as her gleeful prostitute character is swept up and “rescued” by a john that becomes the marrying kind. She has charisma for days, but the performance is rather one-note. Finally, Elizabeth Taylor landed her first Oscar as (can’t have just one) a call girl—though this one is a bit more tragic. That tragedy is played to the rafters, though, and the overwrought melodrama in her Gloria Wandrous (doesn’t that name just reek of schmaltz?) is hard to stomach, though the writing is no help to her, as her character waffles wildly from desperate lamb to hardened broad too easily.
Greer Garson (Sunrise at Campobello) – B-
Deborah Kerr (The Sundowners) – B+
Shirley MacLaine (The Apartment) – A
Melina Mercouri (Never on Sunday) – C+
Elizabeth Taylor (BUtterfield 8) – D
My Choice: Shirley MacLaine
State of the Category: A lineup doesn’t get much more genre-diverse than this. A bright romantic comedy with dark undertones, a gritty but quiet indie, an Italian tragedy, a Southern-fried morality tale and a doomed romance. Let’s start with the one everyone still talks about. Audrey Hepburn lands arguably her most iconic role in Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Looking past the troubling casting choices (*cough* Mickey Rooney), Hepburn is simply perfection as the wannabe socialite with a past who longs for something more. She’s heartbreaking when she needs to be and enviable when she needs to be. Impeccable. Piper Laurie brings an energy not often seen in a “supportive girlfriend” role. In The Hustler she has her own mind and her own end game—she’s there to reflect our male protagonist’s goals, but she’s also superior to him in enough ways to make it a relatively captivating two-hander. Sophia Loren throws herself into Two Women, and she’s quite effective as the devastated single mother dealing with the ravages of assault. But, no thanks to the script, the performance becomes one-note very quickly, and it’s hard to imagine how this was the role that pulled off the Oscar win, outside of forcing the most tears from the audience. Geraldine Page unfortunately continues to be a bit lost on me. Her pent-up minister’s daughter in Summer and Smoke comes off as sort of comically loopy at times when we’re meant to identify with her plight. It’s a classic spinster role in that she’s simply there to make the other characters feel better about their lives. Finally, Splendor in the Grass proved to have a lot of merits. Warren Beatty is incredibly watchable in his leading performance. And Barbara Loden is killer in her supporting performance. But despite a fascinating script and stellar direction, Natalie Wood is the weak link. Once her Deanie starts to descend into something resembling madness, histrionics take over completely and it’s an inscrutable sight.
Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) – A
Piper Laurie (The Hustler) – B+
Sophia Loren (Two Women) – B
Geraldine Page (Summer and Smoke) – C-
Natalie Wood (Splendor in the Grass) – C+
My Choice: Audrey Hepburn
The Winner: Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker)
State of the Category: There’s a lot to work with in 1962—a delicate balance between heavy-handed drama and loopy quasi-comedy. Kicking things off, winner Anne Bancroft is delivering typically strong work in The Miracle Worker. While to modern eyes the movie as a whole reads as a cable TV movie, Bancroft is the clear victor among the performances, offering the only nuance and emotional heft somewhere in the middle of the ACTING!-to-acting. spectrum. (Speaking of ACTING!) Bette Davis is undeniably watchable in the newly of-interest What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Sure, the ham factor is on 11, but Davis knows exactly what movie she’s in, completely does away with vanity and goes whole hog on her demented, house-ridden has-been. Katharine Hepburn is unsurprisingly towering as the lead in Long Day’s Journey into Night. But as is the plight of many play-to-screen adaptations, the duration felt stagnant and wildly overlong without enough payoff. Hepburn’s powerful matriarch can only sustain so long before it loses its magic by hour three. We’ve finally arrived at the Geraldine Page I’ve most appreciated. Her kooky fading movie star plays well against Paul Newman’s hunky drifter, and she legitimately holds her own in the interplay without sacrificing her Norma Desmond-lite presence with her co-stars. Finally, Lee Remick’s nod for Days of Wine and Roses might have been swept up in the excitement over the honesty the film had about alcoholism. And while the message was perhaps admirable, it’s very evident that it was an adaptation of a popular TV movie. Jack Lemmon carries most of the weight of the melodrama, and Remick misses most opportunities to truly shine, outside of the well-played ending.
Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker) – B+
Bette Davis (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) – B+
Katharine Hepburn (Long Day’s Journey into Night) – B-
Geraldine Page (Sweet Bird of Youth) – B+
Lee Remick (Days of Wine and Roses) – B-
My Choice: Bette Davis
The Winner: Patricia Neal (Hud)
State of the Category: The 1960s continued to offer some tonally diverse nominees through to 1963. While getting to see the range of Leslie Caron beyond simply her airy Gigi has been a treat, The L-Shaped Room didn’t quite offer enough to stick to. Her performance as an emotional, single-and-pregnant tenant is root-worthy to be sure, but the emotional depth could have gone a lot further, particularly in the later, tough-decision-making scenes. Shirley MacLaine is the typical delight she always is in Irma la Douce, but the troubled plot (hello again, happy hooker) and oddly comical tone about some bleak themes made it a tougher (and a little overlong) watch than I expected. Patricia Neal is radiant as housekeeper Alma in the quiet but effective Hud. Though she’s borderline supporting in terms of screen time, she’s riddled with character and performance details that were clearly her doing—it made me wonder what wonders she would work in a Cassavetes picture. Next up is Rachel Roberts, whose supportive girlfriend in This Sporting Life at least had perhaps more depth than the typical “wife on the phone” relegations of these sorts of dramas. But she doesn’t have nearly the meat to work with that Richard Harris does, who knocks it out of the park with a vanity-free performance. Finally, Natalie Wood delivers an uneven romantic drama lead in Love with the Proper Stranger—I unfortunately am starting to suspect I enjoy Wood more as a “movie star” than as an “actress,” as her heavier loads tend to thud for me. I have a tough time buying her as the street-wise city girl.
Leslie Caron (The L-Shaped Room) – B
Shirley MacLaine (Irma la Douce) – B-
Patricia Neal (Hud) – A-
Rachel Roberts (This Sporting Life) – B
Natalie Wood (Love with the Proper Stranger) – C-
My Choice: Patricia Neal
The Winner: Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins)
State of the Category: Mid-way through the decade we’re finally starting to get to some truly stupendous competition to compare against. For starters, the iconic performance of Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins still totally holds up. It’s light and fluffy, but it’s also mesmerizing musical perfection. Her Mary is lovely and wholly believable despite her magical roots. Anne Bancroft continues to prove that she may be the dramatic heavy-lifter of the ’60s Best Actress nominees (see Jessica Lange in the 80s or Susan Sarandon in the 90s), but she might be even worthier. While The Pumpkin Eater doesn’t always fire on all cylinders, Bancroft brings the right neuroses to the mix for her unlucky-in-love protagonist. She delivers fantastic chemistry with her co-lead Peter Finch and makes a dreary subject—the dissolution of a marriage—watchable. Remember how all cinematic hookers need in order to feel fulfilled in life is for a john to propose? Well, it’s played for laughs once again in Marriage Italian Style, and it is unsurprisingly unsuccessful. Loren has charm to the hilt as the vivacious Filumena, but the troublesome narrative holds her back. Though it’s fantastic that the effervescent Debbie Reynolds got her sole acting nod with Oscar, it’s unfortunate it wasn’t for her number of other, more-worthy performances. Unsinkable Molly Brown is a by-the-numbers bio-musical—and while Reynolds is very watchable in this genre, she’s totally lost the central subject’s character motivations (and let’s not even touch the accent). When she’s singing and dancing, she has great moments. But the performance felt like a miss. Finally, we have Kim Stanley, playing a swindling and highly unlikable “psychic” wrapped up in a criminal scam in Seance on a Wet Afternoon. The movie is stellar and feels like it belongs in a later decade, thanks to its palpable tension, highly watchable but unlikable characters and layered central performances from Stanley and Richard Attenborough. She’s devilishly committed to the nasty part, and it’s a pleasure to watch.
Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins) – A
Anne Bancroft (The Pumpkin Eater) – B+
Sophia Loren (Marriage Italian Style) – C
Debbie Reynolds (Unsinkable Molly Brown) – C-
Kim Stanley (Seance on a Wet Afternoon) – A
My Choice: Kim Stanley
The Winner: Julie Christie (Darling)
State of the Category: Talk about a lineup with varied levels of genre-friendliness and long-term career. Let’s kick things off with Julie Andrews’ astronomical follow-up to Poppins, Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music. She’s splendidly plucky, but vulnerable at the most opportune moments. Her vocals are unmatched, and she delivers chemistry with every actor (and every setpiece). This one’s iconic for a reason. Julie Christie is attractive and self-assured in Darling, but her smug character grows tiresome very fast. I was left wondering what made the somewhat one-note performance (and the movie as a whole for that matter) so magnetic to gain so much Oscar traction. Samantha Eggar is serviceable as the subject of a creep’s obsession in The Collector (that rare horror/thriller nomination), but the victim role is solidly victim and we don’t get enough redemptive or triumphant moments for the character to care enough about her fate. Elizabeth Hartman brings effective innocence and likability to her role as a blind woman dealt an unenviable home life in A Patch of Blue. While it’s not a tour de force by any means, she’s able to pull some unexpected notes out of a melodramatic premise. Finally, Simone Signoret is placed up against a cavalcade of notable stars in the ensemble drama Ship of Fools. But she rightfully came out the Oscar nomination victor, bringing unapologetic realism to her drug-addled countess. She easily gains “Best in Show” honors, which is saying something when Vivien Leigh is in your cast..
Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music) – A
Julie Christie (Darling) – C+
Samantha Eggar (The Collector) – C-
Elizabeth Hartman (A Patch of Blue) – B+
Simone Signoret (Ship of Fools) – A-
My Choice: Julie Andrews
The Winner: Elizabeth Taylor (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
State of the Category: Unlike some previously covered decades, the 60s are proving that the imports, particularly from the UK, aren’t always the strongest choices. And this year in particular was laced with an 80% European influence to varied returns. Starting off, Anouk Aimee brings a high degree of charm and loveliness to A Man and a Woman, which admittedly has a lot of positives in its direction and editing. But she’s not quite special or memorable enough in the scheme of the movie to quite catch my fancy. Ida Kaminska is decidedly restricted in her performance as a language-barriered Jewish storeowner in The Shop on Main Street, but it’s not to her detriment. She’s completely soaked into the role to a level where I forgot it was an actress playing a part, despite the limitations of the character on paper. Lynn Redgrave nabs a fantastic showcase role in Georgy Girl as the lovable but unlucky-in-love title character. And although some of her later scene work with Alan Bates is a little pat for my taste, the first two-thirds of the film she’s delightfully refreshing when compared against many of the decade’s expected performances. Her sister fares far worse in Morgan! A Suitable Case for Treatment. Despite the film’s bizarrely convoluted premise, the fact of the matter is that Vanessa Redgrave is wasted in a throwaway part with confusing motivations. If you’re to take anything positive from the movie, it’s almost certainly the loony title performance from David Warner. Finally, you have the undeniably iconic Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, expertly played by Elizabeth Taylor in an against-type showcase. She’s loud, at times detestable and a deliciously complex central figure to an impeccably written film.
Anouk Aimee (A Man and a Woman) – B
Ida Kaminska (The Shop on Main Street) – B+
Lynn Redgrave (Georgy Girl) – B+
Vanessa Redgrave (Morgan! A Suitable Case for Treatment) – D+
Elizabeth Taylor (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) – A
My Choice: Elizabeth Taylor
The Winner: Katharine Hepburn (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?)
State of the Category: If you were looking for a lineup representative of some of the most memorable films of the 1960s, here you have it. Anne Bancroft kicks things off with the undeniably captivating Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. Her believability as a desirable “older woman” (despite her relative youth) with much more behind the “bored housewife” facade should be taught. Comical, challenging and delightful. Faye Dunaway is villainous, sexy and worthy of antihero status in Bonnie & Clyde. She manages to go toe-to-toe with an uber-charming Warren Beatty and come out the victor. Her Bonnie is complicated without forgetting that she’s still incredibly young and naive at heart. Edith Evans provides a tough watch in The Whisperers. Her troubled, eccentric central character is upsettingly lived-in and difficult, and the series of events depicted provide her an apt platform for showcasing her well-practiced talents. While Wait Until Dark doesn’t have the emotional or escapist heft of some of Hepburn’s other outings, Audrey gets to play around in a surprisingly unnerving (the tension holds up) thriller, playing a blind woman being (it would seem) duped by a gaggle of thieves. The true star, though, is the pacing. Finally, Katharine Hepburn is borderline best in show in the unfortunately severely dated Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, but the schmaltzy direction gives her very little to work with. And the oodles of chemistry with Spencer Tracy evident in Adam’s Rib is almost nonexistent.
Anne Bancroft (The Graduate) – A
Faye Dunaway (Bonnie & Clyde) – A-
Edith Evans (The Whisperers) – A-
Audrey Hepburn (Wait Until Dark) – B
Katharine Hepburn (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) – B-
My Choice: Anne Bancroft
The Winner: Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) / Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl)
State of the Category: It’s the tie that continues to be a top-notch piece of Oscar trivia. But forced to pick just one of them, where will I fall? Let’s dive in. Katharine Hepburn owns the screen by sheer brute force in The Lion in Winter. Her Eleanor of Aquitane is dripping with ham to the rafters and I loved every second of it. She’s showy and aggressive and an absolute treasure to watch. Patricia Neal’s subdued and lived-in performance style didn’t work quite as well this time around. Her doting mother in The Subject Was Roses doesn’t have the character development of Hud‘s Alma and thus gets a little lost in the male-centric drama at the center. While Isadora is a stronger performance for Vanessa Redgrave than perhaps some of her other notices (i.e., Morgan! or The Bostonians) it’s still decidedly uneven and perhaps just not my cup of tea. Her depiction of the famed dancer is at times bizarre, but at least some of the character choices seem sensible for the subject of the film. Barbra Streisand is a force in Funny Girl, owning every frame with incredible comic timing, killer pipes and impossibly relatable characterization. Fanny Brice is somehow both an everywoman and a #lifegoals all at once. Rachel, Rachel finally gives Joanne Woodward something hefty to work with. Her unstable but quiet performance against an unnervingly subdued backdrop makes the film immersive—and though Estelle Parsons (god love her) wrenches you out of that feeling with her loud best friend character, it doesn’t wholly detract from Woodward.
Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) – A
Patricia Neal (The Subject Was Roses) – B-
Vanessa Redgrave (Isadora) – C+
Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl) – A
Joanne Woodward (Rachel, Rachel) – B+
My Choice: Barbra Streisand
The Winner: Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)
State of the Category: The decade is wrapping up in classic fashion. Mixing the nominees between old-fashioned-feeling choices and very next-decade-feeling choices. Starting off is the former—Genevieve Bujold is the title character in Anne of the Thousand Days. It’s a fairly expected storyline that doesn’t take a lot of risks, which is a detriment to the performance. Bujold is believable as the doomed Anne Boleyn, but there isn’t a lot of range on display for such a complicated character. Jane Fonda is difficult and hardened in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and the film is the better for it. Her cynical depression-era dance marathon contestant is varied and unabashedly dark in the midst of a faux-bright setting. Liza Minnelli is unfortunately insufferable in The Sterile Cuckoo. Her clingy central character is played for laughs and “awws” but she’s too pesky to be quaint. The brilliant combination of swagger and lack of confidence in Cabaret is not matched here. (And dear god that song—was the track just on repeat?) Jean Simmons’ nod for The Happy Ending is perplexing. The film is a bit vapid despite its noblest of efforts in depicting a housewife breaking free of her home-making shackles. Simmons isn’t passionate enough in the role to inspire the same in the audience—a necessity for the film to have been successful. Finally, Maggie Smith’s role of a lifetime in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie never disappoints on repeat views. She’s poised and enviable but also conflicting and conflicted. Jean is the apple of the viewer’s eye while still eliciting a lack of envy by film’s end.
Genevieve Bujold (Anne of the Thousand Days) – B-
Jane Fonda (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) – A
Liza Minnelli (The Sterile Cuckoo) – D+
Jean Simmons (The Happy Ending) – D+
Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) – A
My Choice: Maggie Smith
Best Performance: Elizabeth Taylor (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
Best Nominated Film: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Worst Performance/Film: Elizabeth Taylor (BUtterfield 8)
Closest Race: (no surprise) 1968
Best Year: 1967
Worst Year: 1963
But what about you? What are your thoughts on the ladies of the 1960s?