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?
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?
The Winner: Geraldine Page (The Trip to Bountiful)
The Winner: Jodie Foster (The Accused)
I know, you’ve heard it all before. I’ve convinced you that I’d stick to my guns and continue my journey through all the Oscar-nominated films of all time (category by category, decade by decade). And, considering it’s been over a year since my Best Actress of 1990s post, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d since given up on me. But alas! I only have two performances left two watch, they’re both resting thusly in Netflix envelopes in my bag, and I’m well on my way to posting the ’80s ladies as early as tonight! So feel free to stay very tuned, because there will be much 1980s Oscar fodder to discuss in a very short while. Now to go watch Reds and Missing ASAP!
I sincerely will try to hold myself this one, but we shall see what comes! I’ve been teasing the next installment of The Great Big Academy Awards Project for several months now, but I’m attempting to at last buckle down and really get going on the 80s ladies. So look for the Best Actress nominees of the 1980s rundown to come in August. I’ve only got a dozen or so entrants left to view! Meanwhile, name the winner pictured above for that special prize of bragging rights!