5 Favorites Redux #76: Oscars: Female Actors

Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.

In my penultimate 5 Favorites Redux article before the Oscars, I give the women their fair due and, honestly, I felt genuinely more impressed with the female side of the ledger than the male. After the break, my 5 favorites in lead and support.

Supporting Actress

Like Best Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress came to the game late in 1936, but strangely, fewer of the noted character actors of period won in the Best Supporting Actress category. And while some wins were particularly egregious, there were also some incredibly good wins, hence the better balance between winners and losers on the list compared with last week’s look at male actors.

Before we dig into the final five, here are the winners I considered: Hattie McDaniel – Gone With the Wind (1939), Celeste Holm – Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Jo Van Fleet – East of Eden (1955), Shelley Winters – The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Patty Duke – The Miracle Worker (1962), Estelle Parsons – Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Ruth Gordon – Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Maggie Smith – California Suite (1978), Maureen Stapleton – Reds (1981), Dianne Wiest – Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Cate Blanchett – The Aviator (2004), Jennifer Hudson – Dreamgirls (2006), Mo’Nique – Precious (2009), Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables (2012), Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave (2013), Allison Janney – I, Tonya (2017), Regina King – If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), and Laura Dern – Marriage Story (2019).

For the losers, here are my finalists: Celeste Holm – All About Eve (1950), Thelma Ritter All About Eve (1950), Elsa Lanchester – Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Carol Channing – Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), Linda Blair – The Exorcist (1973), Madeline Kahn – Blazing Saddles (1974), Lily Tomlin – Nashville (1975), Piper Laurie – Carrie (1976), Eileen Brennan – Private Benjamin (1980), Anne Ramsey – Throw Momma from the Train (1987), Julia Roberts – Steel Magnolias (1989), Jessica Tandy – Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Winona Ryder – The Age of Innocence (1993), Joan Allen – Nixon (1995), Barbara Hershey – The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Marianne Jean-Baptiste – Secrets & Lies (1996), Lynn Redgrave – Gods and Monsters (1998), Meryl Streep – Adaptation. (2002), Patricia Clarkson – Pieces of April (2003), Saoirse Ronan – Atonement (2007), Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit (2010), Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids (2011), Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle (2013), Emma Stone – Birdman (2014), Rooney Mara – Carol (2015), Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea (2016), Emma Stone The Favourite (2018), Rachel Weisz – The Favourite (2018), Scarlett Johansson – Jojo Rabbit (2019), and Florence Pugh – Little Women (2019).

Now, it’s time for my favorites:

Judith Anderson – Rebecca (1940)

Audiences are typically drawn to villains that exhibit a level of menace that feels natural. Over the top villains are great, but it’s the subtle performances that often cause us to stand up and take notice. One of those performances is Judith Anderson in Alfred Hitchcock’s Best Picture-winning masterpiece Rebecca. The film stars Joan Fontaine as the recently married Mrs. De Winter, married to a subdued Laurence Olivier as Maxim. Maxim’s first wife, the titular Rebecca, died leaving a household bereft. Anderson plays Mrs. Danvers, the late Rebecca’s doting housemaid who sees the new Mrs. De Winter as a usurper.

In grand fashion, Hitchcock slowly unveils the mystery behind Rebecca’s death while amping up the slow sense of palpable terror as the audience begins to dread the potential murder of the second Mrs. De Winter. Anderson’s stone-faced disgust keeps the film moving as we come to subtly understand Anderson’s appreciation for her late mistress. Throw in a large dollop of that great Old Hollywood subtext about the romantic feelings Danvers has for Rebecca and you have a film with numerous pleasant and compelling layers all thanks to the brilliant work for Judith Anderson. Had she gone up against someone other than the wonderful Jane Darewell in The Grapes of Wrath, she might even have won, but at this point in Oscar history, character actresses struggled for recognition, so she may not have.

Agnes Moorehead – The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Orson Welles was forced to tinker with his film The Magnificent Ambers by a studio who couldn’t market an unhappy ending. While the Welles’ cut is presumably lost, it gives cineastes a chance to ponder how much better the film could have been had his version eventually seen the light of day. Regardless of the studio politics that hampered the film’s quality of production, one element of quality that wasn’t dampened by these efforts is the performance of Agnes Moorehead.

The Ambersons are the wealthiest family in the city, headed by Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) and his two children, Isabel (Dolores Costello) and Jack (Ray Collins). After a courting mistake by young Eugene (Joseph Cotten), Isabel marries Wilbur (Don Dillaway) and gives birth to the prize of her life, George (played in adulthood by Tim Holt). Moorehead plays Wilbur’s sister and George’s aunt. The film follows Isabel’s love for her son and continued rejection of Eugene who still wants to marry her in spite of their history while George finds Eugene unacceptable. Moorehead’s part in the film isn’t big, but she infuses it with wit and passion, giving the audience one of the more complex performances in the film.

Angela Lansbury – The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

When I mentioned villainy in my write-up on Judith Anderson, another name came to mind as excelling her performance in Rebecca. Angela Lansbury, who rarely played the villain, a strong personality perhaps, but never evil. That would change in John Frankenheimer’s brilliant Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate. Janet Iselin is the wife to a prominent United States Senator whose own son may have become a brainwashed sleeper agent waiting for the signal to kill.

What makes Lansbury’s Mrs. Iselin so brilliant is the dispassionate way she deals with others. The imperious tone and stature she exhibits as an outward embodiment of her position of power gives her a both grand and frightening appearance. The film’s Cold War setting and terrifying tone set the course for similar films in subsequent years, but none of them would feature as dastardly and shocking a performance as the one Lansbury gives.

Julianne Moore – Boogie Nights (1997)

The fourth of the Oscar losers I selected for my favorite supporting female performances comes long after the aforementioned women delivered searing and subtle performances. Julianne Moore’s career was on the upswing when she took on the role of Amber Waves, a matriarch within the porn industry in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. The film explores the social and cultural impact of pornography in the 1970s and 1980s.

Moore’s drug-addled porn legend is a study in contrasts, exhibiting both maternal energy and independent bravado. It’s the kind of performance that lingers in the mind after it’s finished and being surrounded by a terrific ensemble only helps embellish the brilliance of Moore’s seminal performance. While the film tackles an industry that has often been maligned by the pious, Moore helps showcase the humanistic frailty and passion the industry invokes and gives the audience more than a passing understanding of both its significance and its continued relevance.

Whoopi Goldberg – Ghost (1990)

When you look back at Oscar history, one of its biggest blind spots is comedy. Comedy is difficult and while countless comedies have been made, few have won Oscars. One of the most hilarious is the performance given by Whoopi Goldberg in the otherwise dramatic Ghost. Patrick Swayze plays a young man murdered for what he might know who must warn his lover (Demi Moore) that she’s in danger as well. Being incorporeal, it’s only by possessing a psychic (Goldberg) that he’s finally able to warn her.

Nominated for Best Picture, Ghost was a tremendous box office success and while the romance at the heart of it is a key contributor to that popularity, Goldberg’s Oda Mae Brown is another core element. Trading on years of experience not just as a stand-up comic, but also as a film comedy actor, most notably in Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Goldberg not only gets at the heart of her character’s incredulity, but provides a grounding sense of warmth for the surroundings. It’s a role of surprising depth, but most of all it’s the funniest ever to take home an Oscar.

Actress

The same that can be said about Supporting Actress is true on the Best Actress side, though I found it much harder to narrow down to five, starting with the lists below and then eliminating down to around ten and the cuts were painful, but the list below is what I ended up on. Any other day, I might have made a different set of eliminations, but here’s what it looks like. And like Best Supporting Actress, this group saw a more even grouping of winners versus nominees.

Favorite winners include Claudette Colbert – It Happened One Night (1934), Vivien Leigh – Gone With the Wind (1939), Greer Garson – Mrs. Miniver (1942), Ingrid Bergman – Gaslight (1944), Vivien Leigh – A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Anne Bancroft – The Miracle Worker (Julie Andrews – Mary Poppins (1964), Elizabeth Taylor – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Louise Fletcher – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Diane Keaton – Annie Hall (1977), Sissy Spacek – Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), Meryl Streep – Sophie’s Choice (1982), Shirley MacLaine – Terms of Endearment (1983), Jodie Foster – The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Holly Hunter – The Piano (1993), Halle Berry – Monster’s Ball (2001), Charlize Theron – Monster (2003), Helen Mirren – The Queen (2006), Marion Cotillard – La Vie en Rose (2007), Natalie Portman – Black Swan (2010), Brie Larson – Room (2015), and Olivia Colman – The Favourite (2018).

Meanwhile, the Oscar losers: Anne Baxter – All About Eve (1950), Bette Davis – All About Eve (1950), Shelley Winters – A Place in the Sun (1951), Judy Garland – A Star Is Born (1954), Rosalind Russell – Auntie Mame (1958), Elizabeth Taylor – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Julie Andrews – The Sound of Music (1965), Jane Fonda – They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Sissy Spacek – Carrie (1976), Ingrid Bergman – Autumn Sonata (1978), Mary Tyler Moore – Ordinary People (1980), Julie Andrews – Victor/Victoria (1982), Debra Winger – Terms of Endearment (1984), Whoopi Goldberg – The Color Purple (1985), Sigourney Weaver – Aliens (1986), Geena Davis – Thelma & Louise (1991), Susan Sarandon – Thelma & Louise (1991), Catherine Deneuve – Indochine (1992), Jodie Foster – Nell (1994), Elisabeth Shue – Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Brenda Blethyn – Secrets & Lies (1996), Judi Dench – Mrs. Brown (1997), Cate Blanchett – Elizabeth (1998), Kate Winslet – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Meryl Streep – The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Ellen Page – Juno (2007), Angelina Jolie – Changeling (2008), Meryl Streep – Doubt (2008), Michelle Williams – Blue Valentine (2010), Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl (2014), Cate Blanchett – Carol (2015), Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn (2015), Natalie Portman – Jackie (2016), Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water (2017), Margot Robbie – I, Tonya (2017), Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird (2017), Melissa McCarthy – Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), Scarlett Johansson – Marriage Story (2019), and Saoirse Ronan – Little Women (2019).

And finally, my five favorites:

Janet Gaynor – Sunrise (1927/28)

The first ever winner of an Oscar for acting, Janet Gaynor was cited for three films, 7th Heaven, Street Angel, and most notably this film, Sunrise. F.W. Murnau’s passionate drama about a poor farm girl whose husband (George O’Brien) has fallen under the spell of an sophisticated city girl (Margaret Livingston) who encourages him to murder his wife and come with her to the city. It’s only after he relents from his plan that the film digs into the beauty of their relationship and while O’Brien’s character has duplicitous initial goals, its the homespun nature of Gaynor’s wife that brings an emotional catharsis to the proceedings.

A film that I saw for the first time in college, Sunrise remains a bright spot for me in film history. While it wasn’t the first silent film I ever saw, that distinction goes to Metropolis, Sunrise remains the best. Without dialogue, outside of the occasional intertitle, silent films fall heavily on the actors to convey the complex emotions of their characters to an audience who must live vicariously through them. In essence, it’s a supremely difficult task, one that Gaynor carries out with aplomb. And while a certain amount of broad performance is necessary to convey wordless emotion, Gaynor manages to straddle the line between subtlety and expressiveness, which is perhaps even more impressive than some greatest sound performances that came out in the almost 100 years since.

Jessica Tandy – Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

It might seem like I’m making too distant a jump between Gaynor and the second actress on my list and while I certainly considered people like Elizabeth Taylor in Virginia Woolf and others in between, there’s just something about these next four performances that stand out in my memory. In 1989, my love for the Oscars began in earnest as a lovely little drama about a Jewish woman (Jessica Tandy) and her Black driver (Morgan Freeman) develop a lasting friendship over the course of their years together.

Jessica Tandy’s performance in the film is quintessential viewing. The imperious widow of the beginning of the film, quick of wit and barbed of tongue, slowly gives way to the weak and remorseful woman at the end of it. Tandy’s subtle transition through the film is tremendous work, aided immeasurably by Freeman’s soft companionable support and a surprisingly agile dramatic performance from former Saturday Night Live comedian Dan Aykroyd. It’s a lovely film from director Bruce Beresford that captured the Oscar for Best Picture and ignited my passion in the awards. Tandy’s wonderful performance therefore holds a significant place in my heart.

Kathy Bates – Misery (1990)

So too does Kathy Bates’ deranged performance as Annie Wilkes, the biggest fan who rescues her favorite author (James Caan) from an icy demise and attempts to rehabilitate him before realizing that he’s about to kill off her favorite character. As Bates’ unhinged performance accelerates through the course of the film, we are pulled into Caan’s terror and pain and it’s a testament to her skill as an actor that it all comes off as both bigger than life and down-to-earth at the same time.

Stephen King’s celebrated novel is given a fitting adaptation by William Goldman, aided immeasurably by Rob Reiner’s strong direction and the fine work of Caan alongside the unparalleled quality of Bates’ performance. This film came out in my second year as an Oscar watcher/amateur prognosticator and, had I known then what I know now, I don’t think I would have predicted her victory. Like Driving Miss Daisy‘s Best Picture win, there were so many factors working against Bates heading into the Oscars, namely the absolute distaste with which the Academy often treats horror films in major categories, I would have been a fool to have bet so heavily on her win, but I’m glad I did. Not only does it remain one of my all-time favorite horror performances, it is also one of the best overall.

Ellen Burstyn – Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Talking about an all-time great performance, Ellen Burstyn’s unbelievable work in Darren Aronofsky’s drug addiction drama is a rousing success. Although she had the misfortune of going up against Julia Roberts in a role that many thought should deliver her a long-overdue Oscar, Burstyn’s work in Requiem for a Dream is easily better than anything Roberts has ever done and is certainly one of the most disappointing losses at any Oscar ceremony since I started watching.

Requiem follows four individuals whose lives take drastic negative turns as a result of drug abuse. Burstyn’s homebound mother receives word she’s been selected to appear on her favorite game show and attempts to lose weight by taking amphetamines. Her rapid weight loss and the newfound adoration of her friends lead her to increase her usage sending her into a spiraling downward slope of paranoia and psychosis. The film circles Burstyn and her son (Jared Leto), his friend (Marlon Wayans), and Leto’s girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) as all of them spin out of control. All four deliver their best performances to date and Burstyn’s outrageous failure to secure a second Oscar for this performance is certainly egregious.

Julianne Moore – Far from Heaven (2002)

Now we come to the next biggest Oscar slight in modern history with Julianne Moore’s stellar performance in Todd Haynes’ Sirkian melodrama Far from Heaven. As a miserable housewife, Moore takes audiences on a journey of discovery as she becomes increasingly distant from her husband (Dennis Quaid) and begins a forbidden affair with her Black gardener (Dennis Haysbert). Patricia Clarkson has a wonderful supporting turn as her friend, a role reminiscent of Agnes Moorehead’s in All That Heaven Allows, which this film pays homage to.

The cast is perfect in this gorgeous drama that explores racism, homosexuality, and numerous other taboos that were tackled with less succinctness in the films of Douglas Sirk. It’s a fascinating slice of life drama about suburban malaise and Moore’s transcendental performance is subtly crushing as the audience hopes beyond hope that she can not only find happiness, but retain it. It’s a fate we hope for all of our characters, but Moore makes that emotional connection with the viewer effortless. Her loss to her The Hours co-star Nicole Kidman in Best Actress was certainly disappointing. However, it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed the ignore-ignore-reward dynamic the Academy has perfected over the years, waiting until a good, but not great, performance to honor an overdue actor only to deprive someone else whom they will have to make it up to in the not-so-distant future. Kidman, Roberts, and even Moore were recipients of such pass-the-buck honors, which has led to some rather unfortunate selections. Thankfully, Moore may well have the last laugh as Far from Heaven is better remembered today than is The Hours.

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